Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Ninja Scroll

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

“You should check out Ninja Scroll, it’s awesome.” I don’t recall what led up to that recommendation, whether I had talked about my recent dabbling in Japanese culture or whether it came out of the blue, but it stuck with me. A little over twenty years ago, I had a sudden burst of fascination with all things Japanese, triggered by reading Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume. I recall being hit by the sense of a whole new world opening up for me, one that I had known of in a superficial way but which enriched my sense of history and provided a way forward to develop and deepen the aesthetic of my own work. At the same time, Japanese manga and anime were becoming hugely popular, and friends only a couple of years younger than me seemed to connect to it deeply and intuitively, while friends my own age couldn’t get past the big eyes, shrill voices, and memories of cheap imported cartoons like Speed Racer. In my late twenties, I was already aware of a generation gap.

Even then, with much less material available in the West than there is now, it seemed overwhelming: where to even start? Like a lot of those younger viewers, I recall Cartoon Network’s Toonami block being a big deal: I know I watched Cowboy Bebop around that time, and I started picking up translated manga volumes, nearly at random: not everything I read stuck with me, but I encountered Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (aka Lum) for the first time, as well as reading American treatments of Japanese subjects like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I usually preface discussions of manga and anime with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert, but by now I’ve seen enough to know where my preferences lie and to have a sense of how much I don’t know.*

As it happened, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Ninja Scroll until last year, and, well, that was probably too late to be truly blown away by it. It does, in retrospect, make sense as a recommendation from that particular friend: he wasn’t a “weeb,” but he was still someone who dove deep into his chosen areas of fandom, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with a big RPG collection and a classics major whose gateway had been the numerous myths and legends of the Greek and Roman worlds. I remember that he took his blood and thunder straight: he didn’t care much for the winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that undercuts the seriousness of so much modern genre fare. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I bet the Marvel Cinematic Universe drives him nuts.

Ninja Scroll is, if nothing else, serious: one might go so far as to call it grim, even gritty. Like the samurai manga that so influenced Frank Miller in the 1980s, the medieval fantasy world of Ninja Scroll is a dangerous one, with little room for sentiment. The 1993 animated film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, centers on Jubei Kibagami, a wandering mercenary ninja in Tokugawa-era Japan. Although Jubei minds his own business and (breaking with the usual practice) charges his employers only what they can afford, he becomes involved with a major conflict when he rescues Kagero, a kunoichi (lady ninja) of the Koga school, from a monstrous, rock-skinned attacker. The rest of the Koga ninja were wiped out after falling into a trap, and Kagero, after escaping, must report the attack to her clan patron and then, if possible, avenge her fallen comrades.

Jubei would be happy to move on from that one chivalrous act, but by interfering he has become a target of the rock man, Tessai, who is one of the Eight Demons of Kimon, a band of ninja whose mastery of supernatural forces has rendered them grotesque and inhuman. The manipulation of an impish old monk (and Tokugawa spy), Dakuan, seals Jubei’s involvement: the Demons are working for a shadowy “Dark Shogun” whose goal is the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (and to guarantee Jubei’s cooperation, Dakuan poisons him and offers the promise of an antidote as bait). Much of Ninja Scroll’s running time is made up of episodes in which individual Demons attack Jubei, Dakuan, or Kagero to prove themselves. Their attacks are coordinated by Yurimaru, a dandy who uses strings to eavesdrop, communicate, and control people from a distance, as well as killing directly by garotte or electrocution. Yurimaru is merely the first of the Demons among equals, reporting to Lord Genma, the real instigator of the plot and, it turns out, a figure from Jubei’s past. As in many martial arts movies and video games, it plays out like a series of boss fights before Jubei can reach the Final Confrontation.

Perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I enjoyed rewatching Ninja Scroll more than I did the first time I saw it. There is a great sense of atmosphere, whether in a dark forest or a fogbound marsh: a late scene in which Jubei fights to free a mind-controlled Kagero is strikingly rendered in shades of red against the setting sun. The beauty of nature—a spider’s web, lightning flashes, or glittering stars reflected on the surface of the ocean—is often contrasted with equally loving depictions of spilled blood, raining from the trees or trickling down the eaves of a roof, or spit out in gouts by the brutalized and near-dead.  As over-the-top as some of it is, however, the hard-hitting violence is part of the genre’s appeal, and there is a definite “cool factor” to the various Demons and their powers: a snake woman whose tattoos come to life; a ninja who emerges from shadows and sinks back into them, attacking with a prehensile claw; a man in control of a swarm of wasps whose hive is his own body; and more. These enemies are as specialized and cleverly themed as comic book supervillains, and they’d be right at home in fighting games like Mortal Kombat (and I’m sure there was an overlap in fans of the two properties).

But the cynicism and nihilism of the characters and their world are also of their time, and were probably what I found off-putting the first time around. At worst, the bleakness and depravity of the setting comes off as trite, edgy for edginess’s sake. I’ve written before about the exploitative character of many kunoichi films, and Ninja Scroll continues that pattern, with the lady ninja being groped, assaulted and violated in ways that go from graphic to explicit. (I’m willing to accept that foreign standards are different when it comes to depictions of sexuality, but assuming that this wasn’t transgressive or shocking in its home country is equally patronizing: this is the kind of stuff that gave “otaku” a negative connotation in Japan.)

“When you fight monsters, you must become one yourself or you can’t win,” Dakuan warns Jubei. In the scene, Dakuan is referring to the hard, unsentimental choices the ninja must make, but it resonates with what we already know of Kagero, externally beautiful but deadly to embrace. Because of the lady ninja’s duties as a food taster for her patron, the poisons she’s been exposed to have built up in her body; yes, she’s immune to poison, a useful trait, but she is also toxic to any man she sleeps with, forced to live alone or slay her lovers. She is, in Dakuan’s words, “a perfect woman for this hellish world.” It’s hard to say if this is as meant as a commentary on womankind in general—the few (non-Demon) women who appear in the story seem to be present to show how limited Kagero’s choices for her life really are—but the conclusion to Jubei and Kagero’s will-they-won’t-they follows a well-worn pattern: she dies after saving his life, tragic and beautiful, and he moves on, carrying her memory, a more pure spiritual union than any mere physical coupling could accomplish. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering when Ninja Scroll was made, following the AIDS epidemic and the sex = death ethos of so much 1980s horror, or perhaps it’s simply a case of pet themes and obsessions emerging in an artist’s work (Kawajiri’s 1987 debut, the bizarre Wicked City, was even more explicit in connecting intercourse with body horror).

The poison of forbidden flesh is also implicit in the Demons’ voracious appetites: for power, for status, for money, all of which have undercurrents of libertine self-gratification. The Demons’ cruelty is sensual: “I hope you have an excruciatingly painful death,” Yurimaru tells Jubei when he has him in his power, as if about to savor a delicious meal. Yurimaru isn’t physically a monster like the other Demons, but his explicit homosexuality marks him as one. Even the other Demons mock him to his face for it: at least Lord Genma is bisexual. For his part, Genma is a parody of the macho he-man, hugely muscular with a massive, projecting chin. Kawajiri saves his most brutal fight scene for the confrontation between Jubei and Genma aboard a burning ship: the history between them, with Genma having betrayed Jubei and Jubei killing Genma (he got better), is an intimacy that Kagero can’t hope to compete with.

Ultimately I didn’t have to go all the way to Japan for an explanation of the dynamic between Jubei and Kagero: in The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer uses the divide between Clark Kent and Superman, and their respective relationships to Lois Lane, to illuminate a common dynamic, one that applies equally to Japan’s wandering swordsmen and ninjas like Jubei Kibagami: “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.”

* Yeah, yeah, anime is a medium, not a genre, and there are movies and series that cover every subject imaginable, from the most mundane to the completely fantastical. But around the turn of the century, when I was just getting into it, the imports available in the US tended to be the latter, and getting into anime meant becoming familiar with a number of distinct narrative conventions, tropes, character types, and, yes, genres.

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