Blu-ray Review: The Awesome Exploitation Excess Of ‘Ninja Scroll’ (1993)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of “Ninja Scroll” in the U.S.. The Madhouse-produced feature was one of those titles that–for a certain segment of the population–was the first mainline injection of anime into their lives. Instead of something more artful or thoughtful like the works out of Studio Ghibli, the 1993 film was a shot of bloody, oversexed, fast-moving exploitation brilliance to a generation whose exposure to Japanese animation up to that point involved transforming robots.

Nearly 20 years on, Sentai Filmworks/Section23 Films has re-released “Ninja Scroll,” and for this fan, it still feels as essential as ever.

A little primer if you haven’t seen it for a while (or are interested in checking it out for the first time): when a seeming plague wipes out a village near a shipwreck, the ninjas from the Mochizuki clan set out to investigate, coming face-to-face with the supernaturally-powered Eight Devils of Kimon who orchestrated the death of the villagers in order to protect a hidden cache of gold. Notorious badass swordsman Jubei Kibagami gets dragged into the whole affair defending Kagero, one of the Mochizuki under attack from the stone-skinned killer, Tessai. Poisoned by a shogunate spy, Jubei joins Kagero on her quest to uncover the gold, defeat the remaining demon fighters, and cure himself.

If you can’t tell, the film is built on a series of crosses and double-crosses worked into a violent fantasy version of Japanese history, where ninjas flit from tree branch to tree branch with barely a sound and infernal lady assassins reanimate the corpses of the dead to blow up their prey. Even the Demons have their own in-fighting as a love triangle develops between their seemingly immortal leader Gemma, his lieutenant Yurimaru, and the jealous Zakuro.

It’s the film’s pulpy roots (an homage to the works of Japanese author Futaro Yamada) which make “Ninja Scroll” feel vital to this day. It’s not really moored in any particular issue–it’s just about sex, violence, and greed, and the horrible things that happen to the horrible people consumed by it. Likewise, Studio Madhouse’s hand-drawn animation remains vibrant (even if it does use a sort of muted color scheme that might not show up well on some larger screens).

Special features and presentation

Section23 brings “Ninja Scroll” to Blu with a 1080p transfer which looks a lot cleaner than what I recall of the old Manga 10th anniversary DVD, presented in its original 4×3 aspect ratio. While the image is a little soft (but never fuzzy or messy), I suspect this is the cleanest version of “Ninja Scroll” that we’re going to get.

Audio options are a 5.1 DTS HD English mix along with the Japanese track in 2.0 DTS HD.

The sole special feature is an English-subtitled commentary track with writer-director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. In the newly-recorded commentary, Kawajiri offers up some detailed recollections about the film’s production–who worked on what, attempting to drag in junior animators to handle the arduous task of drawing all of the wasps coming out of demon assassin Mushizo’s back (Kawajiri ultimately had to do it himself). The veteran animator has worked on everything from “Marvel Anime: X-Men” to CLAMP’s “X,” and he brings a wealth of information about the production process, and some of the challenges of animating then vs. now and how CG inroads might not be all that great for the industry. Maybe the most interesting thing about the track is his seeming embarrassment with the sex in the film, getting a little quiet during the assault of Kagero by the shadow demon Shijima, and deeming the scene with the Chamberlain as “unnecessary,” but a part of the film’s b-movie roots.

While the disc is light on any other features, it’s still the best presentation of “Ninja Scroll” to date and well worth picking up.

“Ninja Scroll” is available on Blu-ray from Section23 Films.