#456: Ninja Scroll: The Series
Followup to cult favorite really tests the limits of doing followups to cult favorites
Initial release: April-July 2003 (One season, 13 episodes)
“Why a series?” I’d wondered, when I found out that the cult anime hit Ninja Scroll had a whole sequel series while putting together a batch of stuff to review. It’s a question that Madhouse probably should have asked themselves before producing this anime.
Ninja Scroll, the movie, is one of those singular experiences you could only really have in the 1990s when anime, especially subbed anime, was hard to come by. I think on some level it might actually have been more popular in the west than in Japan, if only for the sheer amount of cultural cachet it had (to the point where a western comic book series was produced!) And it’s true, a large part of that had to do with its sharp combination of superb animation, over-the-top violence, and uncompromising sexuality, coming out during a major transition period in the history of animation in the west as audiences were gradually coming around to the idea that animation didn’t have to be for kids.
Ninja Scroll, the series, is none of that. Produced a decade after the original film, it’s 13 episodes of random shit happening, bringing back Jubei from the original film but turning him into a borderline Mary Sue. His characterization is all but turned on its head; while the show makes attempts at showing the more mercenary side of his personality, it tends towards making him explicitly heroic while stripping him of all the characterization and background angst that made him such a compelling character in the film. Worse, while in the film he was just an exceptionally skilled swordsman, here he seems possessing of actual supernatural power, the very first episode demonstrating his new “wind slash” skill to slice his enemy in half from a distance — a talent he seems to use almost exclusively as opposed to actual sword fights.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a young woman named Shigure, the only survivor of a massacre of her isolated ninja village, and her role as the “Light Maiden,” a status that has both the returning villainous Kimon clan as well as the new Hiruko clan trying to capture her for their own ends; also involved in this is a mysterious stone in the shape of a serpent wrapped around an orb, which Jubei is hired to deliver to Shigure.
For this, we get thirteen episodes of Jubei and a collection of random characters facing off against bizarre monsters from both clans; each new episode brings a new monster of the week, with little in the way of a cohesive narrative. Most of the episodes are absurd on their face, introducing new characters only to dispose of them quickly, and even the final two episodes being essentially a two-parter doesn’t manage to make the series any more coherent. If I had to pick an episode that was actually worth watching, it would have to be episode 6, “Shelter from the Rain,” which actually does focus a bit on Jubei’s long history of killing people and how his past sometimes catches up with him, while setting the action in a creepy abandoned mansion against a body-swapping villain. It’s also one of the better-animated episodes in the bunch, which isn’t saying much given how poorly the series is animated overall, stripped of choreographed fights (and sometimes lacking fight scenes at all!) and relying heavily on long takes of little action.
While I didn’t watch it dubbed, I apparently didn’t miss much as it’s one of the worse dubs out there, with tremendous variation in audio quality (some of the voices sound as if they were recorded in a cardboard box) and plenty of bad accents, which only compounds on the lack of quality in this series.
Ninja Scroll: The Series is not a good anime. It’s not a good anything, really. I struggle to understand why this show was produced; while a lot of anime, especially geared towards older boys and young men, lives and dies on smooth action and cool combat regardless of writing quality, Ninja Scroll: The Series fails to achieve even that. You’re honestly better off reading Joseph Torres’ comic series instead.