One Piece: Alabasta arc (fight 4 of 6)

Now that’s more like it.

Believe it or not, he's only at 2/3rds capacity.

Believe it or not, he’s only at 2/3rds capacity.

4) Zoro vs Mr. 1

The Fighters:

  • Roanoa Zoro. Luffy’s first and most dangerous crew member (after Luffy himself, anyway), Zoro is a taciturn warrior whose dream is to become the world’s greatest swordsman– and of course traveling with Luffy has given him no shortage of opportunities to practice. Yes, his name is Zoro, like the Spanish hero. Voiced by Kazuya Nakai.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Zoro has exaggerated strength and agility, but he fights almost exclusively using his three katanas. A practitioner of what he calls “Santoryouu” (“Three-Sword”) style swordsmanship, the amount of blades he is using at any given time will vary depending on the situation, but optimally he uses all three at once: one in each hand and the third in his mouth. Such is the glory of One Piece that an idea so absurd can actually work on-screen. All three of Zoro’s swords are considered to be “special” in some way, but the most valuable and powerful is white-handled Wado Ichimonji sword, an heirloom from his dead friend and the one he favors most (and frequently puts in his mouth).
  • Mr. 1 (real name Daz Bones), one of the most powerful Baroque Works agents. Not as actively cruel as many of his compatriots, he’s still a ruthless killer. Voiced by Tetsu Inada.
    • Powers/weapons/abilities: Daz Bones consumed a Devil’s Fruit which makes him able to turn any part of himself into blades at will, and effectively makes his body into organic-looking steel; think of him as sort of a cross between the T-1000 and Colossus. Naturally, this makes him very hard to hurt.

  

The Setup: We actually see the beginning of this confrontation during a brief cutaway from Sanji’s fight. The #1 team is pursuing Nami and Zoro arrives just in time to save her. The two face off, leaving Nami and Miss Doublefinger to tangle elsewhere.

Zoro soon recognizes the nature of Bones’ power. Mr. 1, meanwhile, deduces that Zoro is the swordsman who defeated 100 of Baroque Works’ lower-ranking members recently, and also killed the previous Mr. 7 several years ago, when the agent tried to recruit him. Cool as ever, Zoro smiles and asks, “You wanna try to recruit me, too?”

Thus begins the perfect matchup: an aspiring swordsman against someone who’s effectively a living sword.

The Fight: The combat here is unusual even when neither opponent is pulling off fancy moves– it’s just so strange to see swordplay deflected by limbs.

After some initial clashing and more trash talk, Zoro dons his trademark bandanna and bites down on sword #3. He uses his Bull Horn attack charge immediately…

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… but the strikes doesn’t even faze Mr. 1, who simply closes his eyes and hunkers down. Zoro lands on the other side of him, and realizes that what he’s seen about the villain’s Devil Fruit power is true: his body (or at least his skin) truly is steel. He muses out loud about how if he can’t cut steel, then he can’t cut Mr. 1. Smiling cockily, he actively relishes the challenge: he’ll just have to figure out how to cut steel. He even pities Mr. 1 for being the poor bastard Zoro’s new skill will be tested on. Daz Bones is dubious, as no swordsman has ever been able to cut him before. Zoro’s reply: “You’ve never met me before.”

Zoro’s pretty freaking cool, you guys.

Though they have somewhat similar powers (most Baroque Works teams are built around a theme), pound-for-pound, Mr. 1 is far more deadly and interesting than Miss Doublefinger. Zoro is sometimes able to keep him on his toes, but often it’s about all he can do just to keep up. After all, how do you keep up the offensive against someone whose skin is so impenetrable he barely even needs to defend himself?

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Zoro manages it intermittently through aggression, creativity and the relentlessness of his attacks. A perhaps sounder method might have involved wearing down Bones with blunt force rather than cutting or stabbing (the one time Mr. 1 visibly registers pain is when he’s kicked in the gut), but that’s not Zoro’s specialty and more importantly, it’s not his way– if he can’t do the job with his swords, he won’t do it at all.

The swordsman tries a combination of special moves at first– a “Demon Slash” maneuver which knocks Bones down, and a “Tiger Hunt” attack from above while he’s still falling– but despite Zoro’s visible exertion, Mr. 1 is only knocked back by the force of the attacks, and arises without a scratch. He counters with a series of moves Zoro barely avoids, and when he’s pressed against a wall, Mr. 1 hits him with an air-cutting technique. Zoro resists the force of the attack itself, but the power of the slashes damage the buildings behind him so greatly, they all collapse and Mr. 1 shoves him into the path of the debris.

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“You should see the other guy.”

Seemingly trapped under a building, Zoro thinks to himself how this is the worst predicament he’s been in so far (it would be for me, too), and has an obligatory flashback to an element of his childhood, training with his sensei. Conveniently, little Zoro had once asked his teacher how it would be possible for a man to cut steel, and the elder responded by slashing at a thin piece of paper and not cutting it, despite hitting it dead on. He explains that true mastery entails being able to cut what you choose to and not harm what you don’t; a sword that simply cuts everything it touches is inferior. Whoa.

Still not quite getting the lesson, adult Zoro is nonetheless energized to keep fighting. He pulls himself from the rubble, picks up the house he’d been trapped under, and THROWS it at Mr. 1.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

How terrible. I know a lady whose sister died the same way.

Undaunted, Bones uses an even stronger air-cutting technique and slashes the house to bits before it hits him. Zoro charges through the debris and renews his attack, pulling a few nifty moves but again failing to make a dent with his brute strength. Stoic as ever, he simply tells Mr. 1 “you’re beginning to piss me off.”

The feeling is apparently mutual, because the assassin finally decides to break out the big guns, so to speak, and reveals he can make more than just simple blades. For instance, he can turn his forearms into buzzsaws:

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Well, that’s just cheating.

The spinning blades nearly break Zoro’s own katanas, and when he tries to evade without them, it isn’t enough. Mr. 1 lightly slashes Zoro’s chest with one glancing blow, and hits him with another directly to the torso.

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That’s… gonna leave a mark.

Incredibly, Zoro survives, but the hit slams him back into a pillar and he drops all three of his swords. Unarmed and bleeding badly, he tries to stand and face Daz Bones again. The villain is mildly curious about Zoro’s resolve to keep fighting, but Zoro says he wouldn’t understand. Mr. 1 agrees and hits the swordsman with a devastating attack that slices Zoro’s chest even further, and travels through the air to the pillar behind him, bringing the whole thing down.

It seems like it’s over, but again Zoro has miraculously survived. He thinks to himself about Luffy’s last order for them all to meet back up at Vivi’s palace, and wonders if any of his crew have even survived. He sees that he’s standing in the one rubble-free portion of the collapsed pillar, and realizes that he didn’t dodge the falling debris– he instinctively moved to where he knew they wouldn’t fall. Just as he can instinctively sense the location of his Wado Ichimonji, under a nearby piece of stone.

Retrieving it, Zoro ponders that now, on the edge of death, he has reached a state of heightened awareness, where he can sense “the breath of all things”: rocks, ground, air, even steel. (Amusingly, his inner monologue drowns out the dumbfounded verbal reaction from Mr. 1.) He thinks that this awareness might be the key to cutting only what he chooses, and tests it by first swinging harmlessly at the fronds of a palm tree, then casually slicing a chunk of stone pillar in half.

Ready for one last effort, Zoro levels his blade at Daz Bones, then sheathes it to prepare for a quick-drawing slash. Mr. 1 lunges in with another attack, but the camera cuts away to a cliched shot of birds flying. When we come back….

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Zoro calmly re-sheathes his katana, smiling confidently over the victory he already knew was his. Mr. 1 begins collapsing in a pool of blood, and asks Zoro if his next challenge will be to try cutting diamond, but the hero says that would be wasteful– he is a pirate, after all. Smiling ruefully and cursing softly, Daz Bones accepts his defeat like a man.

The victor takes a well-earned rest and removes his bandanna, having become a man who can cut steel.

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This is a much better return to form, and a lot more fun to boot. In addition to the aforementioned novelty of animating a fight of sword against sword-like flesh, there was also a narrative challenge: how do you make the fight interesting if Zoro can’t hurt his opponent until the very end?

They somehow managed it, and without succumbing to the silly running around & theatrics of Nami’s similar predicament. In-between all the times he nearly gets killed, Zoro manages to take the fight to his foe fairly effectively, even if he never truly gets him on the ropes. In the end, he wins not through physical strength but from accumulated wisdom, even if it’s achieved via a cliched flashback and tactically questionable advice. The staging works well too: in addition to all the wild, named move-sets, the two have their fair share of complicated up-close maneuvers and rapid-fire back & forths. (A dirty little secret about the latter is that anime shows often save time by looping the same handful of frames over & over, so quickly that you probably don’t notice unless you’re, say, freeze-framing the action to get cool screen grabs for your blog.)

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This, for example. You’d think Mr. 1 would have figured out the attack pattern after it repeated the third or fourth time.

Probably the biggest flaw is the extent of Zoro’s injuries– the second blow from Bones’ buzzsaw arms ought to have been enough to kill him outright, let alone how he survived a point-blank “Spar Break” attack directly after. Again, it defies believability even under the circumstances, and relentlessly punishing the hero just before his last-second victory is a bit tired.

All in all, a worthy end to all the warm-up matches, before we approach the main course.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a man!

Who's, er, riding a bird.

Who’s, er, riding a bird.

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Scott Pilgrim vs The World (fight 4 of 4)

For once I’m at a loss to make a video game analogy that the movie itself hasn’t already beat me to.

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+6 Blogger Pre-emption

4) Gideon Graves

The Fighters:

  • Scott Pilgrim, obviously. Much more pissed off and determined than before. Played by Michael Cera.
    • Armed with: Eventually, he gets to use two swords, The Power of Love and The Power of Self-Respect. They’re both in the form of flaming katanas, the latter being more powerful.
  • Ramona Flowers again takes part in the proceedings. Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
    • Armed with: Nothing much, but she briefly makes use of a standing lamp to defend herself.
  • Knives Chau, the teenage “Scottaholic” who’s been messed up since Scott ditched her for Ramona. She incorrectly blames Ramona for this. Played by Ellen Wong with manic enthusiasm.
    • Armed with: Befitting her name, a pair of short but wide knife-like blades.
  • Gideon Gordon Graves, aka G-Man. The Seventh Evil Ex and leader/founder of the League. A wealthy businessman who has his own record label and several nightclubs, Gideon is manipulative, arrogant and cunning. The comic book incarnation is more overtly evil & villainous, but here he’s portrayed more passive-aggressive, a kind of transparently phony kindness that’s both creepy and amusing. Played by Jason Schwartzmann.
    • Armed with: Two swords, one of which is concealed in the cane he carries with him. The other he seems to conjure basically out of thin air, with a glowing blue blade that makes it resemble a lightsaber.
  • Also there’s some henchmen, who are pretty nondescript.

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The Setup: After a fight with Scott, Ramona ditches him and goes off to be with Gideon, who rubs it in by signing Sex Bob-omb to his label (Scott refuses to come along, and with no objection whatsoever from the rest of the band he’s instantly replaced). Our hero spends a while being lonely and rejected, but a follow-up call from Gideon– oozing obseqious insincerity– spurs Scott to go fight for the woman he’s in lesbians love with.

A series of improbably correct passwords gets him into Graves’ new nightclub (the Chaos Theater, a reference to the amazing game Earthbound), where he quickly finds his enemy, perched at the top of a stage, captive princess and all, like, well… a boss.

"You have no chance to survive make your time"

“YOU HAVE NO CHANCE TO SURVIVE MAKE YOUR TIME”

Sex Bob-omb is playing, feeling conflicted at Scott’s presence but still reluctantly obeying their new boss. Pilgrim tells off the villain and goes to charge the stage, but gets repeatedly stopped by Gideon, who pretends to act confused at Scott’s hostility. When Scott explains he’s in love with Ramona and fighting for her, he gains the Power of Love sword, which emerges from his chest and increases his level.

Of course it’s never that easy, as Graves demonstrates when he snaps his fingers and summons several henchmen. At G-Man’s request, Sex Bob-omb plays some accompanying music.

The Fight: Pilgrims and the henchmen waste little time throwing down, but he makes short work of them– really, Lucas Lee’s stunt men were more of a headache. Though that’s to be expected, because Scott is not only armed with an amazing weapon, but he’s also got some serious narrative momentum on his side.

The sequence, though light, is shot with Wright’s usual dazzling style, switching effortlessly between multiple camera angles (including one excellent, extended tracking shot) as Scott cuts them down one by one, leaving a man-shaped pile of coins each time.

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With no one standing in the way, Scott & Gideon leap at each other to exchange mid-air sword blows a la Ninja Gaiden, but surprisingly (or not so surprisingly if you played Ninja Gaiden) it’s villain who gets the best of it, his cane sword smashing the Power of Love into pieces. Before the villain can finish Pilgrim off, he’s interrupted by Knives Chau’s arrival. Descending from the ceiling, Knives kicks the sword from Gideon’s hand, but immediately turns her rage against… Ramona.

"You broke the heart that broke mine!" she actually says without somehow making you hate her

“You broke the heart that broke mine!” she actually says, somehow without making you hate her

Knives starts dueling with Ramona, to Ramona’s confusion and Gideon’s amusement. Meanwhile, Graves gets back to the business of attacking Scott, this time more physically since both of them are unarmed. The villain is pretty good hand-to-hand but not great, the two of them seeming more or less even. The ladies’ brawl is a bit more frantic, with Ramona gruntingly denying Knives’ accusations in-between avoiding her attacks.

Filming simultaneous fights is always tricky but Wright handles it well, alternating between showing the battles unfolding both separately and concurrently.

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On the lower level, Scott is eventually able to get the upper hand, or perhaps foot– he wraps his legs around Gideon’s neck and scissor-flips him down the stairs. Then he goes to sort out the cat fight up above, and in doing so has to face the painful truth that what he did to both these women was actually pretty crappy. Even as he retreats back into his old persona and tries to duck responsibility, Scott is suddenly stabbed from behind by Graves.

No visual symbolism there.

No visual symbolism there.

It looks like Game Over, with Scott seeming to drift into the afterlife as he says goodbye to Ramona (and also learns that Gideon was controlling her via computer chip in her neck) in a limbo-esque subspace desert.

But then we’re reminded: Scott has an extra life, having collected the strange icon after his battle with Exes 5&6. In the book, the 1UP was employed in a more arcade-traditional way: Scott simply got back up to fight some more. But here, Wright employs it more ingeniously, like starting the whole level from scratch or picking up from the last save point. In a rapid montage, we see Scott run off to the Chaos Theater, only this time he accesses the club more smoothly, makes amends with his band, and wastes less time on Gideon’s small talk.

Most importantly, rather than declaring he’s fighting “for love,” Scott answers that he’s fighting for himself– for his own dignity rather than any tangible reward. This is apparently worth way more experience points than before, because it gives him the Power of Self-Respect sword, and a Level-Up that’s even stronger than the first time through.

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See? Check the stats.

Scott makes even shorter work of the henchmen this time, a veritable purple blur. He faces down Graves again and this time it’s Scott who wins the Ninja Gaiden-off, breaking through the villain’s sword and cutting him on the arm.

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Graves collapses for a while, giving Scott time to call out Knives and try to dissuade her from attacking Ramona. She drops down in a frenzy anyway, but Scott cuts her rampage off early by coming clean and apologizing, to her and Ramona both. Through some unexplained means, this shuts down Ramona’s control-chip.

But Scott and the Evilest Ex still have unfinished business and, in true genre fashion, the previous incarnation wasn’t even his final form.

Silly Canucks don't even know how to spell

Silly Canucks don’t even know how to spell

In his upgrades form, Gideon fights with a kind of lazy but graceful power, often holding his sword in just one hand with the other poised oh-so-aristocratically behind his back. He is able to work a good number on Scott at first, but things look up when Knives decides to enter the fray (looks like a simple “I’m sorry” can do wonders for a girl). Their first assault against him is enough to make him swallow his gum, which he reacts to with disproportionate outrage.

The next stage of the fight is more overtly video-gamey than ever, with characters flashing red as they take “damage” and even flickering a bit.

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The Pilgrim/Chau team does quite well at first but soon Graves is able to knock Knives off the platform, and soon after he hits Scott’s sword hard enough to break it, too. With the hero stunned, Ramona walks over to Gideon, who still thinks she’s under his sway. She surprises him with a knee to the groin (attack his weak point for massive damage!), which earns her a block that sends her down the stairs. Fortunately that’s just long enough for Knives to recover and disarm the villain.

The attack on Ramona gets Scott incensed as well, and Graves is looking at a tough combo.

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It goes higher than two, trust me

Without his glowing sword Gideon is no match for the team, and they pepper him with a furious onslaught of blows in a brief, exciting and stylized montage. Knives delivers a devastating attack at the end that whittles his (visible) life bar down to the very last, leaving him to utter a final bitter monologue while he flickers on the edge of death.

Scott has little patience for it, and delivers the final blow himself.

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Easily the best fight in the film. Not much in terms of laughs, relatively speaking, but it makes up for it with some sneakily-affecting character work. The gimmick of Scott’s extra life extends the fight in a way that feels both natural and not tiresomely repetitive. Though the staging is all combined to one very tight location, the fluctuating number of fighters and varying weapons still makes it quite dynamic indeed. Indeed, this is Scott Pilgrim’s finest hour.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: YOU ARE NEXT!

Ninja Scroll (devil 5 of 5)

Say whatever else you will about Genma, dude has chin for DAYS.

He registers a 3.5 on the Bruce Campbell scale, or 0.4 Z’Dars.

[A quick note: His name is definitely “Genma” not “Gemma” no matter what the subtitles on your copy say or what you think you hear. That’s the way it’s written in all the movie’s material, and the nature of the Japanese standalone “N” precludes the two sounds being interchangeable or an understandable Japanese attempt at mimicking a Western word, such as “Bejiita” for “Vegeta.” Don’t feel bad for how Manga Entertainment lied to you for decades, I just found it out myself.

Even though “Gemma” is still widely accepted amongst fans, I’ll stick with “Genma” here, as much for nerdy accuracy as for how I don’t need this site turning up in image search results for horny boys looking up a certain pair of buoyant British actresses who are also named “Gemma.” Although I spoiled that by said “Gemma” a bunch of times anyway. DAMMIT]

5) Genma Himuro

(voiced by Daisuke Gori)

The leader of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Although not quite the size of Tessai, still a monstrously huge & muscled man, with speed and quick-thinking to back it up. A cunning, ruthless and patient strategist. Most importantly, though, is his mastery of the resurrection spell: Genma has such control over his whole body that he can recover from any injury, even death.

Though the machinations of the plot would have required a showdown between the two anyway, for both Jubei and Genma this fight is personal. They knew each other back in the day, when Genma was a high-ranking vassal of the clan Jubei served as a ninja for. Jubei hates Genma for how the villain manipulated Jubei’s friends into killing each other over the stash of gold that would later serve as this movie’s Maguffin; Genma, meanwhile, is still ticked about the time Jubei cut his head off.

He got better.

He got better.

Armed with: Almost nothing. A good portion of his left arm is covered in metal plating, but for the most part Genma chooses to rely on his advanced personal strength and immortality to do the job.

Fights with:

  • Jubei, who is SO freaking pissed off.
jubeiyell

No, man, it’s spelled… ugh, never mind

The Fight: As the film approaches its climax the vendettas between hero & villain grow more personal. While Dakuan restrains him in concealment, Jubei watches as Genma fatally wounds Kagero, having impersonated her liege lord the whole story. This makes Jubei go completely apeshit; he breaks free from the monk’s grip and charges out sword-blazin’. He eliminates a small army of disposable, faceless ninja goons, one swipe at a time, while Genma gets away. Unfortunately that action mostly happens off-screen or in quick cuts & flashes, but it’s still one helluva cinematic beast mode.

After tearful goodbyes with Kagero, Jubei sneaks aboard Genma’s departing ship. With the help of Dakuan and (unwillingly) Zakuro’s gunpowder-filled body, Jubei creates a large explosion in the ship’s main hold, destroying or sinking all the gold Genma was going to use to finance his conquest of Japan.

The scene where Genma hears the explosion and calmly waits is pretty amazing. He sits stock still, only his eyes moving, as he takes it all in, and calmly tells an underling to order an evacuation. He barely moves but the artwork and voice acting convey someone absolutely enraged, knowing that his years of careful planning have all been undone. He descends into the fiery cargo hold to find Jubei waiting patiently.

The hero cuts quite the striking pose there, particularly as some blaring horns kick in along with the steady drumbeat. The two talk for a bit and then charge at each other. Jubei’s blade, unfortunately, proves a poor match for the villain’s speed and power, with every blow either being dodged or stopped cold by Genma’s plated arm.

Genma returns every strike of Jubei’s with a devastating counter, but, never missing a beat, Jubei just continuously picks himself back up and charges Genma again. He’s so relentless it’s almost funny. Jubei will not be denied– he gonna GET that ass.

When Genma seems tired of this game he traps Jubei’s sword arm in his own massive paws, and gives him the mother of all Indian burns– apparently up until it breaks. Then he pins the hero up against a support beam and hits him with a devastating series of blows. Undeterred, Jubei distracts his foe with some trash talking as he reels his sword back in and, with his uninjured hand, lops Genma’s own right arm off.

Aside from the initial shock, Genma reacts with admirable stoicism, and goes right back to beating the stuffing out of Jubei. He re-attaches his own arm and leans menacingly over the hero, who surprises him again with the rather direct route: he seizes Genma’s collar and head-butts him to death. Like, over & over. Just rams his forehead into Genma’s face until it looks like a pile of smashed ass. As with his undeterred behavior earlier in the fight, it’s at once impressive and morbidly funny. Skill and power disparities be damned at this point– Jubei is just a single-minded engine of vengeful rage. As he says to Genma, he’ll kill him as many times as it takes.

He ends up getting held to that word, because he has to kill Genma a few more times immediately: first with a sword to the gut and some wooden shrapnel to the chest….

… then when that doesn’t stick, ripping his sword out from Genma vertically.

Just as Genma starts to re-form and it seems like Jubei just can’t catch a break, the consequence of all those tons of gold being exposed to heat from the fire comes due, and a small flood of molten gold comes rushing in. Jubei high-tails it up a ladder, whereas Genma gets a thick coating of the liquid metal. He flails about a bit and grabs at Jubei’s leg, but the hero ultimately escapes while Genma sinks to the bottom of the sea, trapped forever in a frozen gold prison. If only he’d listened to his father’s lessons.

jww

This one’s pretty close to flawless. Unlike every other fight in the film, it doesn’t suffer from being too short. The build-up to it is excellent, it has some great change-ups, a killer setting, awesome music, cool moves by the hero and an amazing villain. They really did save the best for last.

Grade: A

Well, that’s it for Ninja Scroll. It somehow did mostly manage to survive the ravages of time and maturity. Thanks to Yoshiaki Kawajiri and all others involved for the memories.

Coming Attractions: How sweet, fresh meat.

Welcome to MY blue Photoshop filter!

Ninja Scroll (devil 4 of 5)

Creeper ninja is creepy.

“Who, me?”

4) Shijima

(voiced by Akimasa Omori)

Shijima is arguably the most ninja-like of all the film’s many ninjas: he employs stealth, deception and diversion over outright combat. Also, whereas most of the other devils only have one real “big” power or gimmick (Zakuro stuffs corpses with explosives, Tessai can turn to rock, etc) Shijima has four: he can create illusory copies of himself, he can control people’s minds, he has a sweet chain-claw, and he can fade into & transport himself via darkened areas– allowing him to quite literally strike from the shadows. Though he pops up more than many of the movie’s other villains, he has a such diverse skill set and is interesting enough he could have stood to play a much bigger part.

Armed with: The Claw!

No, not this one.

Not quite….

There you go.

It’s a huge, sharp claw on one hand that he can fire off on a chain at will. And, as I suppose is standard issue for ninjas, a supply of small darts.

The Fights: Shijima has one very brief encounter early in the film, where he attempts to kill Dakuan as the monk is separated from Jubei on a trek through foggy darkness. Through a clever trick, Dakuan just barely managed to avoid the villain’s claw bursting out of the shadows. Not much to it, but a nice way to establish the character early on and tease at his potential.

The second time our protagonists encounter Shijima, they’re all standing in a clearing as they suss out the villains’ overall plot and figure out what to do. Shijima makes his presence known with several furtive movements at their peripheral vision, then goes all-out by surrounding the trio with dozens of his illusion copies.

He throws a few darts at Kagero (which she dodges) to attempt to keep her from sending off her carrier pigeon message for help, and that move turns out to be what Jubei needed to determine which Shijima is the real one. The hero lunges in and cuts the devil’s leg right off. Taking it like a champ, Shijima hops away wordlessly with Jubei in pursuit.

While Jubei hunts down what turns out to be a fake trail, Shijima uses the shadows to double back and kidnap Kagero– it’s implied he got the drop on her because she was stunned after Dakuan dropped some particularly shocking news on her. When the two men return, they find that Shijima has carved a note into a nearby tree telling them to come and get her, if they dare. Dakuan figures it for a trap (duh) but Jubei heads in regardless.

Shijima had, it turns out, taken the unconscious Kagero to an abandoned temple nearby. Between the dilapidated condition of the building and the setting sun, the place makes both a cool backdrop for a fight as well as a tactically advantageous (i.e., shadow-filled) ground for Shijima. Before Jubei arrives, the creepy little devil does something quite lascivious to Kagero, which is implied to be what allows him to mind-control her. So when our hero shows up and finds Kagero, she awakes with a glassy-eyed stare and immediately attacks him.

Kagero was never a match for Jubei, really, but his efforts at defending himself are hindered by the escalating effects of the poison he’s infected with (long story) as well as Shijima hassling him from the sidelines. But mostly Shijima’s contribution here is to use his claw to grab Jubei’s sword, attempting to drag it with him into the shadows. Jubei has to wrestle for control over it, which causes him to get stabbed in the hand by Kagero.

Jubei decides to let him have it, releasing the sword so that it stabs Shijima as it comes in. The creeper slowly tumbles out of the darkness, dead. Jubei passes out and Kagero comes to her senses.

Shijima’s a lot of fun, so it’s a shame that after two really promising build-ups he had so little participation in his own final battle; pitting the two heroes against each other is an interesting twist, but it’s too brief and Shijima’s own presence in that fight is minimal. However, as a whole he’s a welcome and dynamic addition to this movie’s crazy little world. Thanks, Shijima.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Boss fight!

GEMMA SMASH

Ninja Scroll (devil 3 of 5)

Dance of death.

3) Mujuro Utsutsu

(voiced by anime legend Norio Wakamoto)

A change of pace from his companions, Utsutsu is a devil with a genuine sense of honor & fair play, and though he speaks with an air of superiority it’s less bluster and more of a well-earned confidence. A supremely talented swordsman, Utsutsu’s real advantage is related to his blindness: his hearing is greatly magnified to compensate, allowing him to rapidly react by echo-location and listening to his opponents’ muscle movements. Basically he’s like the superhero Daredevil… and many, many other genre characters. Honestly, this gag is a little played-out, and probably was even in 1993. Do real life blind people find this trope offensive?

Armed with: A simple katana, which he can also use to “blind” opponents by shining light on their faces. The implication is that he’s merely reflecting sunlight off of it (difficult in a setting where the trees create a lot of shade) but the visual and its effect are so oversold it seems more like it’s glowing of its own accord.

Fights with:

  • Jubei, mostly.
  • Kagero, who again plays a small but vital role.

The Fight: Kagero, having been overcome with emotion, foolishly charged into a trap (you don’t have to be Mister Sensitive Feminist to deduce that this movie thinks VERY little of women), which caught her and reluctant partner Jubei in an explosion that sent them off the side of a cliff. Using Jubei’s cord-attached sword as an impromptu grappling hook, the two find themselves literally hanging on by a thread. They ascend one at a time, and find that not only was Mujuro Utsutsu waiting for them at the top, it was he who held Jubei’s sword after it dislodged from the rocks, acting as their anchor. Very sporting of him– shades of Princess Bride.

Utsutsu challenges the pair, which Jubei takes personally. In fact, all throughout the fight he behaves with uncharacteristic pride, repeatedly insisting to Kagero that he fight Utsutsu alone. This can’t be personal to him since he doesn’t seem to know the devil from earlier, so it’s possible that he sees a more direct challenge to his personal skill in Utsutsu’s straightforward swordsmanship, or perhaps he’s still upset with Kagero for her dumb play earlier– after the fight, he does dress her down about not taking her own life seriously.

Anyway, the two men charge off into the nearby bamboo forest, running alongside each other for a long time before Jubei ever makes his first move. What follows is the closest thing to an actual sword duel in the entirety of Ninja Scroll. And it’s mostly Mujuro’s game: he reacts with ease to all of Jubei’s strikes, and when he goes on the offensive it’s all the hero can do to keep up.

Jubei still attempts to think strategically, though. He brought the fight to the forest to, as Utsutsu immediately guesses, try to dampen the devil’s advantage– the preponderance of static obstacles would ostensibly challenge his ability to navigate. However, Mujuro’s skill is more powerful than that, and he dodges every tree with calm ease. He’s even unruffled when Jubei covertly slashes a few of the bamboo stalks in the hopes that the resulting noise would mask the hero’s own movements, but he is again unsuccessful; Utsutsu can hear him even amongst a veritable cacophony.

Mujuro then puts Jubei on the defensive and pursues him with a series of strikes that the hero only barely counters. One of the advantages of animation is employed here as we see Jubei being pushed what must be a dozen feet or more over the course of his multiple parries– a bit of choreography that would be impractical and/or silly-looking if attempted in live-action.

Waving off Kagero’s attempts to help, Jubei squares off against Utsutsu once more, even as the devil employs his trick of trying to weaken Jubei’s sight with the glare off his blade, turning the hero’s own eyes against him. Jubei gets knocked to the ground as they clash in mid-air, but Mujuro’s killing stroke is stopped short by a dagger Kagero had left planted in a bamboo trunk and escaped his “radar” vision. Jubei wastes no time killing the surprised villain with one lunge through the heart.

Again, even though there’s some slight supernatural enhancement, this is the straightest fight in the whole film; it is, ironically, unusual in its ordinariness. And certainly never boring. Short, as most every Ninja Scroll fight is, but more in the “whew, that was intense” sense rather than the “aw, that’s it?” one. Mujuro Utsutsu is very efficiently introduced, deployed and dispatched, during the course of which we get a thrilling little scene that allows for some very head-scratching relationship development of our two leads. Not truly great, but not bad at all.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Ninja, vanish!

Ninja Scroll (devil 2 of 5)

There’s a lot of buzz about this devil.

2) Mushizo

(voiced by Rezo Nomoto)

A hunched, hideous man with a schtick that’s unusual even amongst the Devils of Kimon. We don’t see much of Mushizo, but he’s notably cunning, treacherous, and agile.

Armed with: he wields a long, two-pronged spear that unfortunately gets little use. But his real weapon is the hive of killer wasps he carries on his back, the residents of which he has some degree of control over.

“I call this look ‘Blue Steel.'”

Fights with:

  • Jubei Kibagami, our katana-wielding protagonist.
  • Kagero, the lady ninja who plays the static yet pivotal role here of distracting the majority of the villain’s swarm.

The wily monk Dakuan is also there with the heroes, but he contributes little. Similarly, Mushizo’s compatriots Mujuro Utsutsu and Zakuro stand by and watch, warned away from participating by Mushizo himself.

The Fight: The unlikely trio of protagonists have gathered in the tiny village where the villains have faked a plague. They barely have time to pay their respects to the innocent civilians when a few, and then a LOT, of wasps start swarming in. Like, thousands. As they start flooding in over the hill, the scene’s music (frequently re-used in trailers and ads for the film) kicks in: a steady, pulsing drumbeat with occasional dramatic blaring horns. It’s really cool.

They all try to run from this plague of murder bugs, but Kagero stands firm, and casts a spell to counter the swarm. The details are a little murky but it involves expelling an unknown number of cherry blossoms from her sleeve, which somehow poison and/or distract the wasps– some are shown dropping, but not at nearly the rate needed to hold off a group that size. Also, is this the only spell she knows? That’s kinda lame. Still, the image is kind of weirdly striking.

Kagero holding the line means it’s up to Jubei to take down the source. He spots Mushizo and chases him to the village’s water mill. The two banter for a bit until Mushizo surprises Jubei by launching  a few darts that only narrowly miss his face, then following up with a surprisingly deft lunge of his spear.

Jubei dodges and counters by slicing Mushizo across his hunched back, but the villain laughs and says that all he’s done is damage the hive, thus enraging its residents.

Jubei flees again and finds refuge in the nearby river, though he can’t stay there indefinitely; Mushizo and the wasps both wait patiently for him to emerge. Jubei quietly maneuvers himself underneath the branch where his foe perches waiting, and with awesome ninja skill he rockets out of the water, cutting off Mushizo’s foot along with the branch he was standing on.

The villain doesn’t miss a beat, lunging at him on the way down. Jubei catches the strike on his sword, and when Mushizo fires a poisoned dart from his mouth (!), the hero just barely stops it with his sword handle. Above the river the two other devils muse on if Mushizo was able to finish off Jubei on his own, but Mujuro’s assessment proves correct: the trip underwater is drowning the wasps so, in a panic, they’re trying to sting their way to safety. Mushizo’s own pets rip him apart from the inside.

As you can see there’s very little to this fight– to the point where I considered not even including it. But after already disqualifying three-eighths of the film’s villains, this segment’s nasty little Quasimodo deserved a bone. Besides, it’s creative and weird even by Ninja Scroll’s standards, and it shows our two co-protagonists cooperating in an unexpected way; the fight also briefly cuts back to Kagero halfway through, wincing under the pain of maintaining the spell, so we see her contributing more and also put a ticking clock on Jubei’s efforts to take down the Wasp Whisperer.  But still a shame that we didn’t get more of Mushizo, especially after his delightful speed and unpredictability with physical weapons.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: Jubei gets blindsided.

Kill Bill (fight 4 of 4)

Hellooooooo nurse.

Her nerves are twisted.

4) The Bride vs Elle Driver

The Fighters:

  • The Bride, blah blah. She’s just been through some pretty nasty stuff, but, as always, is ready to throw down. Played by Uma Thurman, who possibly does her best work here. Well, second-best, after the reunion at the end.
    • Armed with: Nothing, actually. She doesn’t even have shoes. But she finds some handy implements soon enough.
  • Elle Driver aka California Mountain Snake, a one-eyed former member of the DiVAS. She & Beatrix clearly never got along, partially because they were rivals for Bill’s affection. In the script there’s some business where they realize that they’re a lot alike and they never had to hate each other, so they find some peaceful respect before their duel (which is more traditional); in the film, although she talks a little about the professional “respect” she has for the Bride, her actions & attitude imply that talk is all it was. This Elle is 100% Bitch. Played by Daryl Hannah, who savors every last hammy line like it’s a bite of Christmas dinner.
    • Armed with: The Bride’s Hattori Hanzo sword, “purchased” from Budd. But she never really gets to use it.

elle_driver03

[The pair’s names also make for a fun bit of synchronicity: “Elle” and “Bea” (short for Beatrix) are homophones for the simple letters “L” and “B.” Before the end of the fight the two address each other as such, indicating a clear familiarity. A nice touch.]

The Setup: After settling Vernita’s hash, the Bride set her sights on Budd, the only male member of the DiVAS and Bill’s brother. Despising himself for the murderous life he’d led, Budd was living a self-imposed punishment of poverty and alcoholism out in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. But he scraped together enough self-preservation to ambush the Bride, finally leaving her trapped in a coffin, buried alive.

Assuming she’d suffocate, Budd offered to sell her Hanzo sword to Elle for a million dollars. Elle took him up on it (after demanding that Budd make her “suffer to her last breath”) but, disgusted by how a great warrior like Beatrix was taken out by a scrub like Budd, she loaded the money bag with a real live Black Mamba snake, killing him painfully.

But unbeknownst to either of them, the Bride had, thanks to the cruel tutelage of her kung fu master Pai Mei, the ability to deliver effective punches three inches from her target. After an awesome flashback to said tutelage, the Bride smashed her way free of the coffin and out of the cold dirt, then headed straight back to her target. She arrives just as Elle opens the door, and greets her with a flying double kick.

Opening doors is very hazardous in the world of Kill Bill, kind of like Vince Vega going to the bathroom in Pulp Fiction.

The Fight: In a word: oof.

Yo ho.

If the fight with Vernita was mean, this one is brutal. Same principle– two powerful women face off fiercely in a domestic environment– but everything’s turned up to 11. Louder, crazier, nastier, harder. Never is it more apparent that these two hate, hate, HATE each other– maybe almost as much as Roger Ebert hated North, if such a thing were possible. Every blow and strike is sold with wincingly painful realism.

And despite being short it’s packed with variety. For most of the time, Elle is armed with the Bride’s katana, but due to either her opponent’s interference or the tight confines of the trailer, she’s never able to fully draw it and thus gain significant advantage. It happens enough times to be a running joke. Until the very end, the most it gets used is when it’s partially drawn and they take turns trying to push it into each other’s necks.

B uses a TV antenna as weapon and later hits L in the head with a lampshade. L stomps on B’s bare foot with high heel. B throws can of Budd’s tobacco spit (I believe) into L’s face, which makes her say “gross” in a way that makes her sound more like an annoyed teenager than a pissed off assassin. At one point they kick each other down at the same time and there is a split-screen camera showing them simultaneously recover.

The fight finally becomes fully hand-to-hand when the Bride disarms Elle with a foot stool. Driver runs up and tries a flying kick (she’s airborne for an absurdly long time) but the Bride sidesteps it, seizes her leg, and throws her through a wall into the bathroom. The bride then grabs her rival’s head and plunges it into Budd’s filthy toilet. Now THAT’S gross.

There’s gotta be a “Splash” joke in here somewhere….

Creatively, Elle hits the flusher in order to catch a few breathes, and escapes the Bride’s grip by elbowing her in the crotch. A few follow-up blows stun Beatrix long enough for Elle to run back to the living room and grab the dropped katana. Fortunately the Bride, glancing into a closet, sees Budd’s own Hanzo sword (an old gift from Bill that he’d lied about pawning). She grabs it and rises to meet Elle on the opposite end of the trailer’s hallway.

Although the soundtrack has been silent until now, as they stand off and talk an odd, tribal music kicks in. It’s got ominous drums, horn riffs and ritualistic chanting (it’s an old Ennio Morricone tune)– completely over the top, fittingly.

The Bride asks Elle (“just between us girls” she says with faux-sweetness) what it was she said to Pai Mei that caused him to rip her eye out. Elle says it was that she called him a “miserable old fool,” and we see a brief flashback to the incident. But just as the audience processes the information that Elle trained under the same ancient kung fu master as the Bride (and was an inferior student), we’re hit with another whammy: Elle reveals that she murdered Pai Mei in retaliation, by poisoning his food. The Bride is visibly incensed– and so is the audience, because it wasn’t that long ago we saw the full-length flashback chapter showing Beatrix’s bond with the irascible old man. Then, they exchange what may well be the greatest dialogue in the history of motion pictures:

ELLE: “That’s right: I killed your master. And now I’m gonna kill you too… with your own sword, no less. Which, in the very immediate future, will become MY sword.”

BRIDE: “Bitch, you don’t have a future.”

Did I say in the history of motion pictures? Sorry, I meant in the history of THE SPOKEN WORD.

Levelling swords, they face off for what feels like an eternity (it’s a solid 30 seconds, I counted), as the music builds and builds and builds. You’d swear this isn’t a stand-off between two human women but between two tyrannosaurs. When the tension reaches a boiling point they charge in and lock blades, each pushing furiously at the other. After several alternating close-ups of both women’s faces, the Bride does something unexpected: she rips Elle’s other eye out.

Elle, now completely blind, goes bat guano crazy. She kicks and screams and cusses and falls to the ground, lashing out at everything in (her lack of) sight. The Bride watches, aloof & disgusted. She calmly drops Elle’s eyeball onto the carpet and, in a gruesome closeup, squishes it beneath her bare feet. No, THAT’S gross.

The Bride collects her sword and leaves Elle writhing in pain and fury. It’s an open question of whether or not she lives (a literal question mark, in the case of the end credits), but the camera is careful to show us the Black Mamba snake still lurking in the trailer. The miserable old fool sends his regards.

So much greatness here. While I miss the added dimension the script gave to Elle, there’s actually more than enough melancholy & regret in this story to go around, so it was a wise decision to make the character into a pure villain and have the audience straightforwardly cheering for her defeat. A few of the moves in the fight border on the silly (Elle’s extended jump kick springs to mind) but for the most part the choreography is very grounded and painful. The animosity at play here is truly palpable and the violence is uncompromising. Kill Bill volume 2 is notoriously scrimpy on action, but this scene is almost enough to make up for that bang/buck ratio.

[Note: I won’t be including the final showdown with Bill, as it’s simply far too short to properly grade, awesome or no. As stated earlier, the entire climactic sequence with Bill and B.B. works on an entirely different, and unexpected, level. Similarly you’ll notice I didn’t cover the training “fight” against Pai Mei from his flashback chapter; it’s also fairly short, not to mention one-sided and deliberately cheesy. So long, Kill Bill.]

Grade: A

Recommended Links: I can’t stop watching it.

I kept referring to that script this whole series like it was some kind of hard-to-find relic. Turns out it’s all online. Read it and ponder what might have been.

Coming Attractions: Mine nostrils do perceive the good sir Johnson’s prepared cuisine.

Verily, a jabroni you be.