February 16, 2003 -- I've been catching up on my Japanese animation films lately, preparing for an upcoming vote on the best animated feature films of all time, and I ran across a strong contender in "Ninja Scroll." It is an earlier work by master animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri ("Lensman" and "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust"), and while it isn't quite as good as his magnificent Vampire Hunter film, it is good enough to be near the top of my own list of top anime films, along with Princess Mononoke.
This one takes place about 500 years ago in Japan's distant feudal past when central authority is weak and various warlords compete for power. A wandering ronin with a fast sword is drawn into a duel with a demon and manages to escape with his life. The ronin, Jubei Kibagami, finds himself the target of attacks by more demons. He becomes the unwilling partner of a wiley imperial spy named Dakuan, and the lovely Kagero, the last surviving member of a ninja squad that fell victim to the demon.
The three embark on a perilous journey to discover the secret of a village that has been wiped out by mysterious forces and to uncover a plot to overthrow the government. A romance develops between Kagero and Jubei, but there is a deadly complication with that. In the course of their epic adventure, Jubei comes face to face with a deadly enemy from his past. Along the way, they battle more deadly demons who have allied themselves with a mysterious "Shogun of the Dark." The movie is filled with very graphic violence and there are two explicit sexual scenes as well, so this cartoon is definitely not for kids. There is good character development in Kagero and Jubei. Unlike some anime features, "Ninja Scroll" has a plot that makes sense to the western viewer and the story is more than strong enough to carry it from one action scene to the next.
The art work in the film is very good, with lots of detail in the faces. The animation, however, isn't as good as Kawajiri's later work, which probably benefits more from computer graphics. Older anime movies seem to suffer from fewer cels in a given length of film. The best American animation usually uses more cels per second than traditional anime. Movie film runs at 24 frames per second, in the U.S., 25 fps in Europe and 30 fps on television. Top American animated features run between 12 and 24 unique cels per second, while anime features use up to one-third fewer cels per second. What you get when you cut cels is the illusion of motion which is less fluid. Japanese animators have compensated for fewer cels per second by creating richer detail, particularly in backgrounds and by using movement sparingly, in bursts. Computer animation helps this process by replicating cels quickly and cheaply. In the old days, animators had to hand-paint each cel, a slow and expensive process. Computer animation has the potential for giving us the best of both worlds, more detail and more frames per second by using software to fill in the frames between cels with transitional, computer-generated artwork based on the painted cels. This kind of software was used for the first time in a recent experimental film called "Waking Life."
"Ninja Scroll" employs storytelling that is superior to most anime films. It has strong characters and great artwork. It ranks high among the classics of Japanese animation. This film rates a B+.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.