Ninja Scroll - Volume 1 Review
Returning to our screens (albeit those of the smaller variety) ten years on Kibagami Jubei is once again wandering the treacherous lands of Japan in a somewhat fantastical version of the Edo period. As is often the case with the lone samurai type Jubei possesses a formidable ability with the sword but feels put out whenever requested to make use of his skills. Known as a mercenary ninja for hire Jubei would rather be taking a nap than accept a job and is more likely to demonstrate his abilities when unduly woken from his slumber. Like all skilled warriors lacking in purpose he has an uncanny knack of putting himself in the wrong place at the right time, ensuring he is unwittingly drafted into a quest to save some young girl and bring his own life a sense of meaning in the process.
In this particular setup Jubei is looking for a place to rest when he comes upon a peaceful farming village in which a young lady by the name of Shigure resides. Obviously special to those training her we learn she has never left the village but following an attack by two fearsome monsters Shigure is left with no choice but to run as her home and everyone residing within are consumed by the attack. Also making his escape Jubei is first entrusted with a special jewel that he must deliver to the girl, but as he soon discovers it will prove to be something of a nuisance for the lazy ninja.
Over the course of these four episodes we learn that unbeknownst to her, Shigure is the Light Maiden and the jewel is a dragon stone. When brought together they are said to possess an incredible power so the two have been kept hidden away from the outside world until now, when two opposing clans hungry for power have set out to capture the Light Maiden, obtain the jewel and use them for their own purposes. What this means for Jubei is twice the trouble as he is hired to be her bodyguard by Dakuan, the old priest from the movie who is now accompanying Shigure (along with a scoundrel who also joins their party) as she travels to the only place she has ever heard of outside her own village, the residence of the Yagyu clan.
So, with the basic setup in place and a purpose for our heroes to work towards each episode consists of them travelling across the countryside terrain and facing attacks from numerous foes along the way. These enemies come in many guises, none of the typical human variety as this is a world mixing demonic creatures, primitive technology and magical ability so each of their attackers possess unique specialties and of course weaknesses that our heroes must exploit. Adding a little variety to the proceedings is the two opposing clans with a common goal, as they not only attack the heroes but often take the opportunity to engage in a little brawling between each other, and as was the case in the theatrical incarnation the demonic creatures can't help but engage in a little sexual activity (without consent of course) when they find a moment alone.
In terms of character design the enemies seen throughout are very imaginative and range from crossbreeds to giant mechanically enhanced figures, while the human characters are fairly solid with the main cast proving quite distinctive. With the same animation studio in charge of the TV series you would expect them to deliver faithful renditions of the familiar characters and they do, while the overall animation standard is generally very high, certainly superior to that of the now aging movie though sometimes the characters just don't look right from the more ambitious camera angles. Action sequences also vary with the majority going for the close-ups and ninja disappearing act style to save on budget while others show some true artistry and really deliver. All of them prove to be entertaining though mostly thanks to the quips Jubei comes out with and the quality of the music that accompanies them.
Using a mixture of instrumental rock guitar, rock ballads and techno beats the composers really hit the mark and deliver much of the energy needed to keep the story flowing while the traditional Japanese music combined with a rousing beat for the main theme proves to be a catchy affair that grabs your attention as it plays over the opening credit sequence. None of this can really save the series from being a minor extension of the movie theme, one lacking in any real depth as the "hero’s" indecisiveness over helping the "princess" never causes the viewer concern, as we know he'll be there in the end while the warring enemy factions only serve as an added action-only bonus distracting from the heroes plight, rather than offering any real back-story for us to dig our teeth into (at this stage you’d be hard-pushed to even remember the clan names).
Volume one of three contains the first four episodes of this thirteen episode series.
Making its way to UK DVD in record time this modern production looks quite superb with the pristine source and high bit rate allowing for maximum detail and strong colour reproduction with deep night time hues looking equally good next to the soft, brighter daytime colours. Film grain is present and fully intentional as this is a processed effect added to give the show a more film-like appearance. This does result in the only negative however as on the occasional night time sequence the combination of dark hues and grain can result in some minor compression artefacts.
The original Japanese language track is provided here in DD2.0 Stereo (as it was broadcast) and delivers a fine audio experience with some separation across the front speakers and crisp reproduction of both dialogue and music. An optional English Dub is also present, remixed into 5.1 Surround which beyond some added ambience does little to flex your home cinema setup, but on the whole it's a good effort. The actual dub performances seemed to be fairly good though some of the enemy characters had those annoying demented voices that are more in common with dubs produced back when the movie was released. Where the dub track does outperform the Japanese offering is in making it very clear as to which side the enemies Jubei meets are fighting for, something that on the original language track is hard to ascertain, not because the optional English subtitles are poor (far from it, they offer a very professional literal translation) but because the Japanese script does not see the characters proclaim which side they work for.
A nice selection of bonus features round out a quality disc as we find materials that delve into the animation and music side of the show. First up are 4 storyboard-to-animation multi-angle comparison sequences, each running for a couple of minutes they allow you to compare the storyboards and final animation while a character artwork gallery contains 20 screens of original pencil and colour art. Also present is a sped-up video sequence showing one of the shows artists designing the front cover artwork for this DVD release, which is quite impressive to view (especially if you have zero artistic talent like me). On the music side we have interviews with the composers who worked on the series, these are Kitaro (opening/closing themes) and Peter McEvilley (other music/songs), names I had to find elsewhere as they fail to inform us before the interviews start. This failing aside both are very interesting with the latter being of most interest to see how the collaboration worked (McEvilley worked on the show in America with just drawings and notes to guide him).
Rounding out the disc are English trailers for Ninja Scroll and other titles released through MVM.
I’ve waited until this point to say so, but I just don't like the movie! Being a huge advocate for Japanese animation this may shock some readers, but for me Ninja Scroll was a tired example of the 'Manga' genre created and imposed upon UK fans in the mid-nineties. This however isn't bad, the basic themes are similar as are the retuning characters personalities but this TV series reduces the demonic sexual undercurrents and replaces them with some welcome comedy and a more light-hearted overall approach. The fact it looks and sounds great help to maintain interest so providing you're not looking for anything deep or particularly overflowing with flare then you should find Ninja Scroll TV delivers.
6 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
6 out of 10