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The Fine Print
All text is © copyright VIZ, LLC. No reproduction without written permission. All images are © copyright their respective copyright holders as noted. No reproduction without written permission. Ninja Scroll: The Television Series © 2003 Yoshiaki Kawajiri / Mad House / Jubei Ryunohogyokugumi © 2003 Urban Vision Entertainment
Based on a series of novels by Futaro Yamada (Ninja Resurrection), the original Ninja Scroll (original Japanese title: Jubei Ninpûchô, or "Ninja Wind Chronicles") was a theatrical feature first released in Japan in 1993. Created, written, and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (The Animatrix, Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku), with character designs and animation direction by Yutaka Minowa (Vampire D: Bloodlust), Ninja Scroll was released in the U.S. in 1995, and quickly became a fan favorite in the States (it's now sold over 800,000 copies). The film's appearance on MTV during the channel's brief love affair with animation introduced millions of unsuspecting viewers to the exciting world of anime, especially its ability to depict mature themes and eye-popping violence. (Animerica staffer Reginald Rhoades describes the experience of seeing Ninja Scroll on MTV as "every fantasy you ever had about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid coming to bloody life."). The film's unique blend of horror, action, martial arts, sex, political intrigue, and one of anime's greatest nihilistic love stories still continues to thrill audiences to this day.
Now, ten years later, the saga has been granted a new lease on life, this time on an international scale. A Hollywood-produced Ninja Scroll live-action movie is currently in production, and scheduled for release in 2004. New anime is also underway--Ninja Scroll 2, another Kawajiri-directed theatrical feature, has a release target of 2005. The first new Ninja Scroll to debut, however, was the 2003 TV series, Jubei Ninpûchô: Ryô-hôgyoku-hen ("Jubei's Wind Chronicles: Dragon Jewel Chapter"), which began airing on Wowow network in Japan earlier this year and is being released on DVD in the U.S. by Urban Vision under the simple title Ninja Scroll: The Televison Series.
The long-awaited sequel to the internationally popular romance-actioner, "Dragon Jewel Chapter" was created and supervised by series creator Yoshiaki Kawajiri. But this time, the production has been entrusted to the team of director Tatsuo Sato (Martian Successor Nadesico), character designer Takahiro Yoshimatsu (Slayers, Trigun), and veteran scenarist Toshiki Inoue (Kamen Rider, Galaxy Angel), with music by Kitaro and Peter McEvilley. Studio Madhouse provides its usual high standard of animation quality that has earned it a reputation as an anime industry leader.
This new 13-episode series is not a direct continuation of the 1993 theatrical feature, but rather an original story which borrows its fascinating world and concepts. The TV series's only real recurring characters are main character Jubei himself and Dakuan, the lovable old rascal with a monk's staff from the original film, athough he serves more as extra-added comedy relief than a shrewd fixer of events here.
Jubei: History and Mystery
In both its incarnations, the story of Ninja Scroll centers on the famous historical samurai Yagyu Jubei ("Yagyu" is his family name; in the U.S., the name is usually rendered as "Jubei Yagyu"), a popular Japanese hero whose legend has been celebrated in about every medium in existence, from literature to plays to film to anime. Often shown wearing an eyepatch, Jubei makes a striking impression. But what is it about Jubei that's proved so darned fascinating to creators throughout Japanese history?
Like most legends, Jubei's has grown considerably since he died. The actual facts are intriguing enough: The eldest son of an official of the Tokugawa shogunate, Jubei was effectively disinherited around age 20. Disappearing from the capital for 12 years, Jubei returned to succeed his father at the age of 40, and his mysteriously sudden death three years later has led some to suspect foul play.
But the main reason why Jubei became a popular hero was speculation as to his activities during the missing 12 years. A famous swordsman for whom half his life was a complete mystery? How could such a story not prove irresistable?
Of the endless supply of theories as to how Jubei spent those 12 years, the most popular ones have given us images of a Jubei who walked the Earth like a knight errant on a secret journey, testing his martial skills by performing good deeds and fighting mighty battles. Some theories, of course, are more plausible than others (it's unlikely, for instance, that the historical figure ever fought superpowered demons), but one aspect is consistent to all--Jubei travels incognito. His identity-concealing straw hat is a standard device, and in both incarnations of Ninja Scroll, Jubei travels under an assumed name. This secrecy is understandable, since his father's duties included supervising all the nation's daimyo.
Jubei's infamous eyepatch--oddly enough, not used in Ninja Scroll, but a frequent device in other stories--comes from an apocryphal story of his boyhood training, when his father was said to have put out his eye during a practice fight. Although this is recounted in many fictional works, surviving portraits of Jubei invariably show him with both eyes, so the eyepatch appears to be a complete invention of legend-makers. (The eyepatch makes an appearance in the comedic anime Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl, in which Jubei reappears as a female version of the famous warrior.)
From Noir to Western
The story of Ninja Scroll is set during Japan's Edo period, under the Tokugawa Shogunate. In both movie and TV series incarnations, Jubei is a wandering warrior who takes jobs for money, like a medieval private eye. The TV series, however, expands on many of the concepts of the original film, and adds a whole other level of inter-clan ninja warfare.
The original movie's villainous "Eight Devils of Kimon" are only a starting point for the TV series. Here, the weird-and-monstrous Kimon are rivals to another clan of superpowered warriors--the Hiruko, a collection of ninja whose dark powers might be best described as downright freaky. The Hiruko seek a dragon stone that has been handed down for generations. Combined with the power of a particular "Light Maiden," this dragon stone will bestow special powers upon the Hiruko. Knowing this, there are others who work to thwart them. Here our story begins.
To prevent the Hiruko from achieving the stone, the Kimon pursue it as well, along with the Light Maiden, a young woman named Shigure who dwells in an isolated village. If that wasn't complicated enough, the Kimon are involved in shady dealings with those whose aim is a restoration of the Toyotomi government, but their true objective is unknown. Amid these thickening mysteries, a grand struggle begins between the Hiruko and the Kimon over the stone.
Plunged into this conflict is Jubei Kibagami (a false name, to hide his identity), a resourceful "hired ninja" who can slice up his opponents with his "hurricane iai" technique. After chopping down a Kimon ninja who disturbs his sleep, Jubei refuses to get involved in this struggle, but fate's machinations bring him together with the stone and the Maiden. He comes to the isolated village where Shigure lives, just in time to witness the village's destruction by a Kimon attack, and a dying Hiruko entrusts him with the precious stone.
Now, together with the aged ninja Dakuan and young ninja named Tsubute who subsequently help Shigure, Jubei begins a journey as Shigure's protector....
Where the original Ninja Scroll played like noir thriller set in feudal Japan (Kagero being its classic--and literal--femme fatale), the TV series plays more like a Western, with Jubei as a sword-toting version of Clint Eastwood in the infamous "Man With No Name" films. On the official website for the series, director Sato confirms the series's tone, promising strange ninja, bizarre action, and epic battles in a "Spaghetti Western-style jidai-geki." (This combination of American-style Westerns and samurai drama is of course not a new one--Akira Kurosawa's acclaimed film The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven when remade for Hollywood, and the very Japanese samurai-vs.-bandits story was reset in the Wild West of Mexico.) Right from the widescreen opening credits, whose music evokes an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, Ninja Scroll feels like Sergio Leone gone anime.
Jubei has also undergone some changes. Rather than a hard-boiled freelance swordsman (conned into assisting Dakuan by an Escape from New York-style death threat), the TV series's Jubei bears both a visual and attitudinal resemblance to the laid-back bounty hunter Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, complaining mostly about a lack of sleep.
The pacing of this series is intense--the action rarely lets up, and the plot is sufficiently complicated as to present no real barrier to understanding what's going on. It makes just as much sense in the middle as it does from the beginnning. Viewers can jump in at any time and not feel lost or bored. Right from the start, Jubei faces enemies that are totally bizarre, absolutely unique, studded with weapons, and occasionally naked--monsters that turn into death cycles or sexy acrobatic cat women. The fight scenes are all wonderfully animated and full of sheer insanity. The sheer beauty of feudal Japan also comes across--towering forests lit by the full moon, dark grassy meadows illuminated by swarms of glowing fireflies, ancient temples, bamboo thickets, and clouds of cherry blossoms gently wafting in the breeze. It's a perfect, if strangely idyllic, setting for the story's martial arts bloodshed.
Note: Some names and terminology may change in Urban Vision' final release version.