Takehito Koyasu/John Mariano
Yuzuru Fujimoto/Dwight Schultzs
Running Time: 94 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
This new DVD release comprises the first four episodes ('Tragedy in the Hidden Village', 'Departure', 'Forbidden Love', 'Broken Stone') of 'Ninja Scroll', a sixteen-part animated Japanese television series from 2003 which is an offshoot of the gory feature-length animé of the same name from 1995. The hero is Jubei Kibagami, a peripatetic ninja mercenary who specialises in slicing foes so precisely with his sword that they do not even realise they have been struck until their body splits neatly into two.
The episodes clock in at just over 23 minutes a-piece, giving the four, if watched end-to-end, the length of a feature film. While every episode features the introduction of two or more new ninja demons for Jubei to fight (and usually dispatch), the overall series is held together, avoiding aimlessness and repetition, by a gradually unfolding story arc of epic proportions, involving a young virgin called Shigure, a mysterious object known as the 'Dragon Stone', and two demon clans (Hiruko and Kimon) fighting to be first to get to both Shigure and the Stone – for reasons that as yet have only been hinted at.
While it is not uncommon for warriors to be economic in their speech and movements, the bushy-browed Jubei is positively narcoleptic, and he rarely seems more motivated to fight than when there has been an interruption to one of his regular naps, making him an unconventional hero who resists not just demons but also cliché. His opponents too, far from being a tired succession of indistinguishable goons, are instead imaginatively individuated. Whether it is Magai, a hybrid of human and bicycle who uses her umbrella to whip up cyclones, or Jyashi, the one-eyed swordsman who inserts the eyeballs of the dead into his empty socket to see their memories and mesmerises his foes with a spinning mechanical orb, or Kitsunebi, the rapist with crystal skin and a giant blue flame in his torso which he uses to command legions of moths, these villains are memorably bizarre – even if most of them fail to survive more than one or two episodes.
The wildly different skills and powers of his opponents mean that Jubei has to use his head as much as his sword, bringing a welcome variety to the combat. The extreme violence of the original movie has here been toned down, with visual stylisation replacing the buckets of blood – and the treatment of sex is marked by a charming coyness that might surprise those familiar with Japanese animated rapefests like 'Urotsukidoji – Legend of the Overfiend'.
With its broad colour palette, diverse characters, fast pace and trippy visuals (it is no coincidence that the first episode begins with a dash through wild mushrooms), 'Ninja Scroll: Volume 1' is a daft action fantasy that grips like the roots of a tree-demon – and plants enough mysteries to leave you waiting for the next volume.
It's Got: A sleepy hero, a pretty, capable heroine, a thief, a mysterious priest, and a motley crew of demonic assailants, all with their own look and style.
It Needs: A good long nap.
DVD Extras Choice of 5.1 English dub or 2.0 original Japanese with English subtitles; multi-angle comparisons of black-and-white storyboards with the finished colour sequences of four scenes; interview with the composers - clearly filmed on the cheap (at one point one of the crew can be seen passing in front of the camera), and in dire need both of editing and an introduction or caption to indicate who the interviewees actually are (in fact electronics maestro Kitaro and multi-instrumentalist Peter Peas McEvilley); Creating the Cover Art - quite literally seven and a half stultifying minutes of the camera fixed silently on a guy sketching a picture of Jubei in black-and-white - it is only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry; an art gallery of 20 stills, including character sketches and backgrounds; multiple promotional trailers for Ninja Scroll: Volume 1; ads for other MVM series. DVD Extras Rating: 3/10
Alternatives:Ninja Scroll (1995), Ninja Scroll: Volume 2, Ninja Scroll: Volume 3, Ninja Scroll: Volume 4
Imaginative kick-ass animé, like a fantasy videogame but without the keypad.