by HELEN GEIB
Writer-director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s anime feature Ninja Scroll draws on Japanese folk tales, popular culture, and history in its story of a noble ronin reluctantly drawn into a fight against a vicious criminal organization. The history enters through the setting of feudal-era Japan and socio-political backdrop of bitter clan rivalries and rigid behavioral codes. Folk tales and popular culture supply the hero Jubei, the gallery of grotesques who are his antagonists, and his sole ally, a ninja woman named Kagero.
The plot is essentially a series of brutal death matches between rivals. Jubei is usually, but not always, one of the participants. The immediate prize of each contest is continued survival; the ultimate goal a stolen gold shipment and its vast power-purchasing potential. There are at least four groups vying for the gold, although treachery, duplicity, and internal rivalries complicate the count. The cast of players might best be represented visually mapped as sometimes concentric, sometimes overlapping circles.
While that description may suggest the film is confusing or overly complicated, skilled storytelling and the focus on Jubei’s part in events keeps it from being so. Jubei is both the film’s central character and its moral center. The character name “Jubei” is a homage to the famous, much-romanticized folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi, a real samurai about whom little is known, but much has been written in popular fiction. His namesake is an archetypal samurai folk hero, an honorable iconoclast and independent thinker who prizes comradeship over feudal loyalty and offers respect to the weak.
Jubei’s itinerant circumstances, sword-fighting prowess, and honorable nature are concisely introduced in the film’s opening sequence, a confrontation with a small-time criminal gang angered by the ronin’s defense of a poor clan. The sequence also introduces the recurrent motif of human violence as part of the natural world order. The setting for the fight is established by a inter-cut series of shots showing an empty bridge, reeds and cranes in the river below, and a metal spear held in readiness under the bridge. The birds taking flight presages the spearman’s surprise attack. Although the first response is to read the images as an ironic comment on human nature through the juxtaposition of incongruous elements, the rhythm of the editing and coherent visual design suggest an alternative reading: that the seemingly disparate elements of the landscape form an integrated whole.
Subsequent battles confirm the sense that human society, characterized by aggression and violent death, is inextricable with nature. The showiest representation of this idea is in the bodies of Jubei’s criminal foes, abhorrent mutations as much animal or mineral as human: stone-like flesh; sheddable snake-like outer husk; hump where the skin encloses a beehive; mole-like tunneling. Even the antagonists who appear normal on the surface exercise unnatural control over the elements or have a heightened connection with their surroundings.
Kagero is also deformed. Human manipulation has made her immune to all poisons in order to create a perfect taste-tester for the feudal lord. The side consequence is that her skin is deadly to the touch, a fact graphically demonstrated by the death from poisoning of a would-be rapist (Kagero is twice the victim of sexual assault). The symbolism – male fear of female sexuality – is obvious, but Kagero is depicted as victim of male selfishness, not femme fatale. Her relationship with Jubei has a war-like aspect; victimization and ostracism have made her understandably distrustful. How she responds to his offer of genuine comradeship is the film’s key dramatic storyline.
Human figures are exaggerated in line and curve, but, the most extreme of the grotesques aside, recognizably Japanese in appearance. Buildings and natural features of the landscape are naturalistic. Blues, reds, and dull greens dominate the color palette. Accomplished throughout, the animation is particularly impressive in the nighttime scenes, where striking shadow effects are created with blues and blacks, and in a raging inferno in reds and oranges.