Ninja Scroll is nasty. It’s a nigh-nihilistic slice of violence, atrocity, and exploitation. It isn’t just an action anime about ninja and samurai using cool powers to fight and kill each other. It’s a putrid, obscene look at how humans have little regard for their own kind, and that even the best of us are just selfish pricks who become heroes out of happenstance rather than altruistic beliefs. Ninja Scroll believes in something, but it’s a belief in the worst aspects of humanity and how there’s little you can do about it other than try to be one step above the scum that seeks to revel in and profit from pillaging, murder, and destruction.
It’s also a shockingly beautiful thing to behold.
It’s a pretty straight forward story. Lone ronin samurai type is wandering around in between murder jobs. Through sheer chance he happens across the plot of an evil group of super ninjas working for The Dark Shogun to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. They have a plan that involves wiping out an entire village in order to steal the gold from the town’s mine and use it to fund a revolution using European firepower. The main dude, Jubei, is a decent sort in the sense that he doesn’t try to rape anyone and usually tries to stay out-of-the-way of things until his hand is forced. That makes him downright saintly compared to everyone else in this thing, save for his kunoichi compatriot Kagero. Her ninja clan was all but wiped out by these Devils of Kimon super evil ninja, and she wants to get that good old revenge on them, regardless of the personal costs. They do just that, fighting and killing along the way. Kagero dies, and since they’ve grown to like each other, Jubei gets the added incentive to avenger her as well as kill the dudes also trying to kill him. There’s also a bit about how their leader, Gemma, betrayed Jubei back in the day, so there’s that too.
It’s standard chanbara movie stuff, and had it been just that, it’d be a serviceable example of that genre. Cool gimmicks and cool fights– late night or Sunday afternoon TV fluff. These sorts of things are violent in terms of events– people being cut down and stabbed with swords, death being the only solution, and all that. But Ninja Scroll takes all that several steps further, and that’s what makes is truly special.
It’s exploitation through and through, but its violence and debauchery is never devoid of consequence. Kagero is raped twice in the movie by two different Devils. The movie lingers a bit on the rock dude’s assault, but it’s presented in a manner that’s by no means erotic. The guy plays with her like she’s a piece of meat, and the repulsive nature of the assault that’s emphasized. I’m sure there are disgusting guys out there who find that enjoyable to watch, but by no means does it ever feel like it’s meant to be taken that way. especially since it’s that act of raping Kagero that leads to Tessai’s death. He has to lower his impenetrable rock shield in order to “feel” anything, and he unknowingly poisons himself due to Kagero’s poison tasting-induced toxic biology. It’s that poisoning that weakens him and allows Jubei to kill him during their fight– effectively punishing him for stepping out-of-bounds and committing such an atrocity. Something similar, if not as explicit, happens when the shadow Devil, Shijima, assaults Kagero in order to mind control her. The way the action scene plays out doesn’t make it as clear, but given how such contact made the rock guy easier to defeat, the relative ease with which Jubei deals with the shadow guy can be attributed to his transgression as well.
That’s one example of Ninja Scroll’s decidedly moral take on violence. It revels in the act of aggression, but punishes those who go beyond the simple act of killing. The lightning Devil, Yurimaru, gets his comeuppance for being a bastard towards the explosives Devil, Zakuro. It isn’t that he rejects her so much as he’s a horrible, manipulative person about it, trying to steal away credit where credit is due. And Gemma receives a very fitting death, as his betrayal of his masters and stealing away their gold for himself results in his “golden hell” burial at sea, encased in gold, forever dying and being reincarnated on the ocean floor.
Those who die, and who deserve it, don’t merely die by the sword in honorable combat. They’re punished.
At the same time, the movie’s hero, Jubei, is hardly presented as a true hero. He’s connected to Gemma through shared history, and the two have a score to settle, but Jubei’s participation in the movie’s events are far from willing, and his role is about as active as his willingness. It’s coincidence that brings him into contact with the Devils, and his initial encounter with Tessai ends in Jubei’s victory through Tessai’s transgression against Kagero. Jubei’s next encounter with a Devil requires further assistance from Dakuan, a government agent who coerces Jubei into action by claiming to have poisoned him– the reward for his assistance being an antidote.
Jubei has all the trappings of your typical lead character– a strong man of action, gruff in demeanor but with a decent heart that’s willing to aid those in need, armed with skill and unexpected tricks– and while all of those traits are given their due, Jubei never really rises above that hapless victim of circumstance. While present for almost every “kill” against the Devils, the only confrontation that’s won solely through his own guile and skill is with the living hornet nest, Mushizo, and that victory has more to do with Jubei’s intelligence than it does with his martial prowess. It’s hard to call Jubei a truly “vulnerable” lead, but he has cracks and weaknesses that are usually glazed over at best when it comes to this sort of rugged, individualistic, roguish type of action hero. He’s a lot like John McClane in Die Hard– we see him succeed in his quest, but we also see him suffer and flounder along the way.
If anything, Kagero comes closer to being the traditional action hero of the duo. She falls victim to the disgusting objectivity of some of the Devils, but she utilizes her strengths in a far more proactive way than Jubei over the course of the movie. She’s the lone survivor of the initial attack by the Devils, and her actions and talents lead to more “kills” than Jubei’s. Her death at the hands of Gemma is framed as a motivation for Jubei, and while it can be taken as another damsel dying to further the man’s storyline, I like to look at is as the death of a fellow comrade rather than simply using a woman’s life to better a man’s. That could be a bit of a stretch, but I really do think Kagero is elevated enough through the course of the movie to not be some throwaway motivation– her death has real meaning to the overall vibe of the movie, as even the strongest among the heroes can fall under any circumstances.
This is the nastiest of nasty, violent exploitation fare, after all. I love it.