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Ninja Scroll

posted by Mel. on 3/12/01

It wasn't always like this.

Once upon an obscure time ago, ten raggedy years into my contemptable past, there was no animae section at the local Suncoast Video. Akira was hardcore underground, you couldn't get Nausicaa on DVD and the American animation industry was just starting to soak up the sophisticated influences of their Eastern counterparts. Little by little, the art direction of our localized product became more streamlined and innovative. The stories grew teeth. And while Disney Studios and their ersatz knockoffs in the form of theatrical mush like the King of Egypt still herald in the moviegoing horde, the subtle revolution is gaining steam.

Thanks in large part to fanboys who aren't afraid to take chances and flex their geek biceps, animated cinema is getting better. Much better. What started as a push from ex-Filmation staple Paul Dini and his constituents at Warner Brothers has flourished on the flipside of kid-based fluff, resonating through brilliant work such as the Iron Giant and to a lesser degree, WB's feature-length takes on their old Fox afternoon powerhouse series. Studio executives remain hamfisted and lamebrained when it comes to selling a more mature cartoon to the poultry public, but even their bumbling can't keep a good thing down. The small cracks of dissident by people who are sick of seeing the same comic relief and slapstick injected into new stories are gaining stress every year, and when that dam bursts, there ain't no doubt that the nerds are going to inherit the earth.

The trends and times may be changing, but an epoch is still years away. Disney will never run out of newborn demographics to peddle reissues of their classic film fare to, roping in the kiddies with movies that were actually worthy of being called revelatory. The Mouse House has ensured its longevity with a diet of careful marketing, and while their movies have lacked passion and conviction with exceptions few and far between over the last ten years, they aren't in danger of redlining any time soon. Even Dreamworks' compounding failures won't stop them from trying to make New Coke out of Disney's weary formula, and the megacorporation's fat coffers will keep the drawing boards hot. The common Joe may clamor for movies that don't shit on his intelligence, but until he makes a stand against motion picture piecemeal, he's going to have to settle for the bones the studios see fit to jam down his throat on a seasonal basis.

Luckily for the rest of us, things don't seem so myopic. Japan has been leading the world in storytelling technology through the moving drawing for the last twenty years, industriously experimenting with their techniques and putting together masterpiece animation films that push the limits of content and style. Japanimation isn't always pretty, but it sure as hell is the future; any doubts can be dispelled by simply bearing witness to the ease with which Pokemon and its less successful clones have inundated themselves into young society. Parents rattle the sabres of consensus against the social message that Pikachu gifts upon our young Americans, but consider what the hell we were pressing into photo albums when we were knee-high to a peanut:

Garbage Pail Kids.

Pokemon may not represent the trappings of advanced chemical theory, but it demands more thought and interaction than peeling off a sticker of a kid eating their own snot. Ash and company are the lowest common denominator of the vast world of anime--a vehicle to sell billions in merchandise, like Hasbro's Action Theater before it--but it's irrelevent. Pokemon has made manga style indispensible to the American buyer's market, has shoved a foot in the door, and has ensured that our kids and kid brat siblings will evolve themselves into teenage and young adult animals with an inherant knowledge of what we couldn't have when we were their age; the seedier side of the animation firewall.

Ninja Scroll isn't the panacea of the japanimation art form. It isn't revolutionary, its story isn't particularly epic and it doesn't have a comfortable nook in the highest echelons of the medium with films like Fist of the North Star, Golgo Thirteen, Princess Mononoke and Miyazaki's other brilliant offerings. What it does offer is the manga equivilent of crack: scattergun pacing that comes out of the barrel of the first action sequence like a strobe light, pulsing off stylish and beautiful violence perpetrated by a gamut of brilliant execution, neat plot twists and wicked character conceptions.

What Ninja Scroll is is pretty much a crash course in the basic traditions of manga Mandarin drama. All the classic archtypes of the genre are intact, from the invincible wandering anti-hero to the dirty old bastard and back again, while the sect of demonic enemies that flesh out the veins of beautiful violence that pump through the script are every bit as interesting as the heroes. The plot may be stripped down to its basic parts, but it doesn't mean that it exists on the same level as American dumb action cinema--elements of melodrama, tragedy, rivalry and struggles for power of a political nature weave through the play of the tale in minimal doses, but it's enough to flesh out the flow of the film's pace.

The film's protagonist is Jubei Kibagami, a ragged ronin and sword for hire whose travels eventually wind up thrusting him into the middle of a plot to overthrow the feudal government. Jubei is the quintessential anime badass; he cleaves his way through ninja hordes without breaking a sweat, is never without a cynical word at his beck and call, and has a delightful suicidal streak that perpetuates his recklessness. Like many japanimation icons, Jubei just don't give a fuck about anything other than his blade and his gold, though we all know that he'll show what lies beneath by the time the credits roll.

Jubei's road to nowhere eventually finds purpose as he crosses paths with the sole survivor of the Koga ninja clan, a svelte assassin with poison running through her bloodstream and a considerable beef against mankind. The woman is Kagero, and she's about to be raped by the attacker that dismembered her peer warriors, a hellacious and horrid brute named Tessai. Ten feet tall with a rugged granite hide, Tessai is one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a supernatural clan of demons with designs on total control of the Japanese government. The two ninja without a cause make their escape after Jubei stabs Tessai in the creeper's peeper with a throwing knife, almost certainly ensuring through the anime rules of engagement that the two will meet up to settle their business before the end of the first reel.

The intrigue unfolds from this point, as Kagero and Jubei are relentlessly pursued by the agents of Kimon while falling in and out of contact with dirty old cretin and government spy Dakuan. Jubei's past is gradually brought out of the dark as a series of flashbacks resolve how he fell from grace into dishonor, and exactly why it is that he couldn't care less about the nuances of his own destiny. Tensions build and friendships crumble as the story cannonballs forth, eventually coming to a confrontation that pits Jubei in a mortal confrontation with the leader of the Kimon with the fate of the nation that disowned him in the balance. Sure, the outcome may never truly be in doubt, but the kinetic way the story frosts on layer after layer far outranks the weight of the simple subplots; like a lot of anime adventure cinema, the end product is a gestalt one.

From a visual standpoint, the film is astonishing. Everything has a liquid quality to it; the characters come to life with vivid design and personalities, sequences are well-crafted and the cinematography is flawless, and the carnage--the real meat and jist of any decent feudal flick--is pure adrenaline magic. The body count is a heady one and there's no shortage of dismembered limbs being flung about with splashes of hot blood, so discretion is advised. If you like your violence noir with a hold on the graphic viscera, then stick to DragonballZ and Ranma. Otherwise, you'll be in fanboy heaven: Jubei hacks and slashes through all comers, the walking dead explode, and there's more than one phenomenal swordfight to drool through.

Even if you're not a hardcore animation buff, this movie should get some watch time at least once. It's on the shoulders of the same reasons that I recommend all of Tim Burton's movies, even the commercially leperous ones: your inner dork needs a purely tactile fix every now and then. So what if you don't like samurai whistling their katana through one another's limbs? It looks damn incredible.

Don't think. Just ignore your pretenses, inject this sucker straight through the eyeballs and enjoy.

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