Ninja Scroll was always on the list of best anime titles back in the 90’s. I can see why – it has ultra-violent action, gore, nudity, and a fairly decent plot if you don’t mind the more fantastic elements. Unfortunately, NS hasn’t aged gracefully. While its story is still interesting, its look and feel are hopelessly dated. Anime sure has come a long way since then.
The plot involves a quest for hidden gold, a government investigator, and a rogue ninja out for revenge. So far so good. There’s also a demon ninja band (no not the kind with guitars, although that would be cool) and all kinds of backstabbing and treachery. The story as a whole barely holds together but the action moves quickly and there’s hardly any time to contemplate the giant holes in the plot. Writer/director Koshiaki Kawajiri did his best to entertain with this feature and at the end of the day, it is extremely entertaining, but it also illustrates just how far Japanese animation has come.
First off, a lot of the visuals are cheap. There’s a stunning amount of asset reuse here. When horsemen ride over a hill in silhouette, all of them are exactly the same drawing. When ninjas leap through the trees, we see the same animation loop over and over. At the time, this reuse was taken for granted in a genre where limited budgets forced such moves, but nowadays you hardly ever see that stuff in a TV series, let alone in a feature.
Another big problem comes in the form of NS’s aspect ratio. It’s in 1.33:1, a fact that not only dates it but also dooms it to remain in the past. I’ve seen several message board comments decrying the lack of a NS blu ray release. Well, I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. 1.33:1 features aren’t typical HD fodder and even when they do make the transition they’ve usually been rematted to 16:9. They’ve even done that to Seinfeld in order to keep episodes that were originally 4:3 making money in syndication. Unlike Seinfeld, NS would suffer greatly from being chopped and cut into the wider format. Too much of the good stuff would end up offscreen.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t call out the fact that there is some very good stuff here. I loved NS back in the day, just as I loved the other imports of that age, but unlike most of the others, NS seemed a little bit naughty. Not as much as Kawajiri’s Shinjuku Demon City (now called Wicked City) which featured a man-eating vagina with teeth, but seeing a snake emerge from a female demon’s nether regions was quite a surprise back in the day. In a way, mainstream anime has toned itself down in recent years, and the weird and wild titles like NS have been relegated to the weirder and wilder world of hentai or ecchi ero-anime. That’s a shame because a little spice never hurt but when that spice is a full-on jalapeno onslaught of tentacle sex, it’s a lot less appealing. Some might argue that hentai and fan service titles are in the mainstream now, and they’d have a point, but no crazy sex OAV will ever reach the numbers that go to see a Miyazaki feature, or even Ninja Scroll.
At the end of the day NS is a very entertaining little movie that’s sadly dated. I’d suggest you watch it now before the anime market outgrows it and leaves it behind. Recommended.