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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Sep 30, 2021

An Ultra-Violent Attack on Japanese Conformity!

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Cast/Voices: Kôichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono, Daisuke Gôri, Toshihiko Seki

Related Films: Wicked City, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Sword of the Stranger

Studio: JVC/Toho/Movic

Year: 1993

Verdict: 5/6


Once upon a time, there were eight supernatural warriors. So powerful where they, that their doings caught the eye of the Shogun of the Dark. Under his House of Toyotomi, the eight were ordered to overthrow the Tokugawa government and take control of Japan. The supernatural octet became known as the «Eight Devils of Kimon».

One time, their immortal leader tried to double-cross his comrade, but lost his head to his opponent’s blade. It only fueled his lust for power and revenge. If the vagrant ninja named Jubei ever crossed his path again, the devils’ fury would unleash like the crushing of a thousand waves.

Introducing Ninja Scroll

Next to Akira and Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll might be the most influential anime film in history, to American and European audiences that is. In Japan, the film never had the same impact, but its allure to outsiders made it a phenomenon, nonetheless.

Few animes showcase ninja mythology as ferocious as Ninja Scroll. Its mysterious characters, action-packed narrative, and cheeky dialogue was quickly acclaimed, but its infamy grew from the blood-dripping, skull-crushing tirade of brutality.

Another factor that contributed to its international success was the universally appealing story based on power struggles. Director Kawajiri once said that the concept would work in many settings, he just happened to set it in feudal Japan.

«If it were to be set in America, the CIA would be the equivalent to the Tokugawa spy organization … and the organization which Kagero belongs to … would be something

like the sheriff’s department. The enemy would be something like the KGB.»

- Yoshiaki Kawajiri Interview | Ninja Scroll 10th Anniversary DVD -

Ninja Scroll’s appeal to non-Japanese viewers might stem from its aligning with western romanticizing of ninja mythology. This might also explain the lack of interest in Japan, as the Japanese image of the ninja tends to be more grounded in reality.

Another explanation for the lack of interest in Japan, is that Ninja Scroll flung throwing stars in the face of the conformist ways that Japanese society is built on. But we’ll get back to that in the analysis chapter.

The lore might be blown out of proportions, but there is more to Ninja Scroll than meets the eye. Even tough embellished, the historical accuracy isn’t too far off. The names, clans, locations, and settings are reality-based, which adds an interesting layer of depth to the ultra-violence.

But Ninja Scroll is not about depth, it’s about illuminating the mysticism of the ninja, and this is where it shines. The drawings, dialogue, and action set a new standard for what adult anime could be. It was sleek and imaginative, with fight choreography that made martial art-fantasies come true.

Cold-Blooded Facts About Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll was written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, one of the four co-founders of Madhouse Inc. It was released abroad in 1995 (1993 in Japan), and it quickly became one of the most popular animes outside of Japan. Six months after its North American release, it had sold more than 70.000 copies (Source).

Kawajiri made his breakthrough in 1987 with a horror anime film called Wicked City. The success of Wicked City let him fulfill a lifelong dream, to make a film about Ninjas. Kawajiri had been fascinated by Ninja lore since childhood. Therefore, he wanted to make an anime that would intrigue ninja-fans, even though the earning potential might be limited.

As soon as it was released, Ninja Scroll was labeled an anime classic abroad. Today, it’s noted as one of the most influential animes in history. Among the filmmakers that took inspiration from Ninja Scroll are The Wachowskis when they made the fight sequences for The Matrix.

Skull-Crushing Before Substance | The Ninja Scroll Story

As many critics have pointed out, the story in Ninja Scroll is rather simple. But there is something about the balance in the storytelling that aligns well with the atmosphere. In fact, the interweaving of plot, fantasy-action, and historical anecdotes is quite elegant.

According to Kawajiri, the ninja artistry is the highlight of the film. He wanted to bring the art of the shadow warriors to life with an easy understandable story, even for non-Japanese viewers with no prior knowledge of Japanese history.

«You don’t have to know about Japanese history to enjoy it. Besides, the young

Japanese anime audience isn’t all that familiar with Japanese history either.»

- Yoshiaki Kawajiri Interview | Ninja Scroll 10th Anniversary DVD -

By orders of the Shogun of the Dark, the Eight Devils of Kimon were to seize a shipload of gold. The treasure would be used to further the cause of the Dark Lord, but the Devils’ headman had other plans.

Meanwhile, Jubei found himself face to face with the hardest demon of them all. His name was Tessai, and his stone-body was immune to cuts, slashes, or even bullets. Seemingly unbeatable, if not for an unsuspected weakness.

Before long, Jubei was introduced to the Eight Devils, one after the other. One had the power of serpentine seduction, another could clone himself. In the forest, a blind swordsman with keen ears was waiting.

«The only sound you'll hear... is the sound of your own voice, screaming.»

- Jubei Kibagami -

In short, the story is about three factions who are all fighting to take/keep control of Japan. Both The Shogun of the Dark and the chief of The Eight Devils have their eye on the throne, while the ruling Tokugawa Clan want to keep it.

Amid this power struggle, we meet the lowly warrior Jubei, whose arch enemy happens to be the leader of The Eight Devils. Jubei therefore ends up fighting for Tokugawa. In between all of this, there are some personal stories of love and revenge, but for the most part, breakneck action is the backbone of Ninja Scroll.

Ninja Scroll’s Strength and Weaknesses

Prioritizing atmosphere and visuals before substance is arguably the reason why Ninja Scroll became an instant cult hit in the first place. After all, the main attraction is the creative character design, the playful brutality, and the astonishing fight choreography.

It is not the power struggle or the love story that will keep you glued to the screen; it is the question of who or what will attack next. What demonic devilry can possibly top the fresh hell that just passed before our eyes? To be honest, nothing tops the first half hour of the film, but the level of amazement never drops beyond jaw-dropping, even so.

Alex Fitch over at Electric Sheep Magazine argues that focus on individual compositions and episodic buildup was a wise choice from Kawajiri, since animation was his specialty. Much like Jubei, Kawajiri took advantage of his strength and overcame his shortcomings.

As exciting as the action is, however, the balance between fast paced ninja warfare and personal struggles is an important element. The romance between Jubei and Kagero adds some much-needed humanity to the protagonist.

If there is one thing that holds Ninja Scroll back, it is the underdeveloped side characters. Small displays of emotional turmoil help us connect with Jubei, but Kagero and Dakuan are kept at arm’s length throughout. Some might argue that the hidden back-stories and emotions add to the atmosphere of mystery, but it also limits the depth.

In other words, Ninja Scroll leaves a lot up to our imagination, which might be an acquired taste. Luckily, it counters the lack of depth with never-ending excitement. The Devils are relentless. Their victims can never catch their breath. Just like the audience, they are constantly kept on their toes, wondering what monstrous madness will come next.

Producing an Anime for the Ages

As mentioned, Kawajiri started out as an animator. After high school he got hired by Osamu Tezuka’s anime studio called Mushi Production. After four years at Mushi, Kawajiri moved on and formed Madhouse. There, he made a name for himself, making anime classics such as Memories, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and Metropolis.

In the 80s, Kawajiri was promoted to film director. His definitive breakthrough came with the horror-anime film Wicked City (1987). Thereafter, he was given free reigns to make whatever he wanted, which eventually led to the production of Ninja Scroll. Kawajiri’s main ambition was to make a ninja film that would excite and entertain its audience.

The freedom to make the film as he pleased was a blessing in disguise, though, since his ambitions demanded very intricate artwork. Ninja Scroll was made in a time before digital animation, and many of Kawajiri’s ideas posed significant challenges for the animators.

«The fight on the burning ship … and the scenes involving countless snakes and

bees were physically very demanding. I drew quite a few of those bees myself.»

- Yoshiaki Kawajiri Interview | Ninja Scroll 10th Anniversary DVD -

According to Kawajiri, the biggest production challenge was to weave the growing emotions between Jubei and Kagero into such a brutal story. This aspect of the film turned out minute, which somehow matches the minimal lines of the animation. The drawing of the fast-paced action is not overtly detailed, but instead enhanced by clever use of color.

The fights are often crosscut with ultrafast sword slinging and explosive gushing of blood. The violence is somewhat toned down by the use of shadows, while strong red, blue, or yellow coloring ad a distinct atmosphere to many scenes. The use of color aids the storytelling nicely and gives Ninja Scroll an original touch.

Today, the hand drawn artistry of the animators evokes nostalgia and provides that classic feel that many old school anime fans crave. But Kawajiri was not against using digital technology. To him, digital animation was just another tool. It wouldn’t change the fact that anime storytelling demands creative ideas and passion to succeed.

Between the Throwing Stars | Ninja Scroll Analysis

Bill Benzon (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) argues that the use of color in Ninja Scroll ties into an overarching theme of purity and pollution. He defends this argument by pointing at several examples of such dichotomies throughout the film.

His first example brings up two sex scenes early in the story. One is a violation, the other is apparently done with consent. The rape is drawn in cold shades of blue, the legitimate sex is drawn in warm shades of brown.

Furthermore, Benzon argues that the contrast between purity and pollution runs in Kagero’s veins, since her blood has become toxic from taste-checking foods for poison. Her venom is the antidote to Jubei’s poisoning, but his purity makes him refuse to take advantage of her.

Also, the fight to seize the boatload of gold is ultimately a matter of purity and pollution, since the Shogun of the Dark plans to use the gold to buy Spanish weapons. In other words, Jubei is fighting to prevent foreign pollution of Japan.

An interesting interpretation of the aforementioned violation is presented by Kylan Mitchell (University of Western Ontario). He argues that such rape scenes in Japanese films criticize the modern female ideal in Japan. According to Mitchell, this ideal is ultimately repressing, which is why scenes of violation can be interpreted as an embrace of «free sexuality».

Moreover, Mitchell argues that the abundance of ultra-violent films and anime in Japan might be the result of Japanese detachment from tradition, as the values of modern Japan are modeled by and after America and Europe.

Self-sacrifice, Mitchell continues, is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Extreme fetishism and sadomasochism can therefore be seen as a prolongation of ritual suicide (seppuku), kamikaze fighters, a repetitive pattern of self-debilitating warfare, and a general affinity for pain.

Living in current day Japan, however, I see little signs of a general affinity for pain. In fact, there are few places where people indulge in pleasures like Japan. Not to mention the fact, that Japanese people seem to visit the doctor for the tiniest of ailments. At least, it seems so from my standpoint, as a Scandinavian residing in Tokyo.

Long working hours, housewife/office worker conventions, little individual freedom, and harsh hierarchies in all walks of life might indicate an affinity for pain. However, these things don’t appear to turn on Japanese people, at least not what I have seen.

Neither do Japanese people seem to wish for such conditions, just like Jubei didn’t appear to long for bloodshed. The Devils might want it, though, but they seem more like a metaphor for the obstacles that life seems to throw at us all, rather than something we chose to inflict on ourselves.

Then again, I did choose to write film reviews in poverty over a well-paid job in advertisement… Perhaps the path to freedom starts by accepting its price, which often is pain, in some form or other…

A final take on the meaning of Ninja Scroll, is the evident dichotomy between the group and the individual. Collectivism, or groupism, has strong roots in Japanese society. It is often viewed as a virtue, whilst individualism is seen as a sign of selfishness.

In Ninja Scroll, the groups are, for all intents and purposes, the images of evil. Jubei might fight for a group, but his individual moral compass clearly comes off as superior to that of the ruling groups and their demonic factions. As such, Ninja Scroll appears to throw more than a few punches at Japanese collectivism.

Ninja Inspirations & Influences

During planning and production, the animation team took inspiration from Japanese period dramas set in the 1700s. As such, Ninja Scroll references a handful of Japanese classics, such as Yojimbo (the clock tower), Zatoichi (Utsutsu the blind swordsman), and Lady Snowblood (Kagero’s headdress costume).

When the setting was established, Kawajiri allowed himself to work freely within its framework. And he didn’t shy away from looking to Hollywood for inspiration. The Sting and Mission Impossible, for instance, inspired the con-games and one-upmanship in Ninja Scroll.

At the time of its release, adult anime started to gain considerable traction in the US. Usually, these films had wildly explicit content, and Ninja Scroll was no exception. It was a production of its time, following in the footsteps of animes like Fist of the North Star, Wicked City and Urotsukidōji.

«I do want to surprise them (The Wachowskis) again.

I’m not prepared to become an obsolete old-timer just yet.»

- Yoshiaki Kawajiri Interview | Ninja Scroll 10th Anniversary DVD -

After its release, the sudden impact of Ninja Scroll influenced many filmmakers abroad. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, and Daredevil are all noted for taking inspiration from Ninja Scroll.

Even more noteworthy is the Wachowskis outspoken excitement about Ninja Scroll. Apparently, they recommended Ninja Scroll to the production team and actors when making the action scenes for The Matrix. Thereafter, Kawajiri expressed his gratitude by stating that he mostly took inspiration from the Wachowskis, not the other way around.

In 2009, however, the Wachowskis might have proven Kawajiri wrong when they produced the ultra-violent martial arts film Ninja Assassin. So far, it is probably the closest Hollywood ever came to making something like Ninja Scroll. It is no match for Kawajiri’s film, but as far as western ninja films go, it is probably the best you will find.

Final Verdict for Ninja Scroll

There is no denying the legacy of Ninja Scroll. As far as American- or European-made ninja films go, everything before Ninja Scroll was pretty pathetic. Some people might speak of American ninja classics, but those films only appeal to fanboys and b-film enthusiasts.

After Ninja Scroll, it still took a long while before any worthwhile ninja action would be made abroad. But Kawajiri still influenced filmmakers to make some of the best fight sequences to ever grace the silver screen. The echoes of Ninja Scroll chimed on through the ultra-violence and martial art excellence that was produced around the turn of the millennium.

Ninja Scroll was too violent to ever become mainstream, but its status as a cult classic is well-deserved. It isn’t the deepest of films, but sometimes all you want is to be entertained. Sometimes, all you need to relax is some skull-splitting, blood-gushing, face-bashing action, and no one does this better than Ninja Scroll in the realm of anime.


Anime News Network: Ninja Scroll

Electric Sheep Magazine: Ninja Scroll

Kino: The Western Undergraduate Journal of Film Studies:

Movie Morgue Wiki: Himuro Gemma

Ninja Scroll Wiki: Jubei Kibagami

Omniversal Encyclopedia: Eight Devils of Kimon

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