Review Date: October 18, 2003
Released by: Urban Vision Entertainment
Release date: 9/2/2003
Region 1, NTSC
Full Frame 1.33:1
One of the most popular full-length feature films in the genre of Japanese animation is the violent martial arts epic Ninja Scroll (which has a special edition re-release coming soon!). That 1993 film told the tale of Jubei, a wandering ninja-for-hire, and his battle versus a series of demons and warriors, eventually leading to a climactic fight between Jubei and the head of the clan. The episodic nature of the film almost guaranteed that we'd someday get a Ninja Scroll series that followed the same format. That day is here now, courtesy of Urban Vision Entertainment. Let's see just how much animated blood Jubei can spill this time around.
Episode 1: Tragedy in the Hidden Village
Our mercenary hero's (voice of Rikiya Koyama) nap is interrupted by an all-out war between two rival ninja clans, the Hiruko and the Kimon. Unfortunately, neither side wears uniforms, so you have to pay close attention to who's on what side. Meanwhile, a monster from the Kimon side lays siege to a small village, and young Shigure (Houko Kuwashima) flees her town's destruction. She is unaware that she is the Light Maiden (although we don't really know just what a Light Maiden is, at least not yet).
Jubei destroys the Kimon monster in his battle, and Rouga (Joji Nakata) rewards him with the Dragon Stone. No, we don't know what that is either. He must find the Light Maiden and deliver it to her.
Episode 2: Departure
Shigure is devastated by the destruction of her town. She has always wanted to see the rest of the world outside of her small village, but not quite like this. As she aimlessly wanders, first she encounters Tsubete (Romi Park), a somewhat clumsy thief, and then Dakuan (Yuzuru Fujimoto), who viewers of the Ninja Scroll movie will remember as the old priest who hired Jubei to defeat an evil ninja lord.
The newly formed trio is attacked by the same monster that destroyed Shigure's village, while Jubei must once again fend off an attack from both ninja clans. And he doesn't even care much about the Dragon Stone in the first place.
Episode 3: Forbidden Love
Another Kimon representative, Jyashi, is on the scene, and this one is able to see how Jubei killed the last Kimon ninja from episode 2. He is immediately set upon by another monster from the Hiruko clan, but his sister Rengoku is there to save him.
Meanwhile, Jubei meets up with Shigure and her companions, but before he can deliver the Dragon Stone, the three battling ninjas arrive. Jyashi engages Jubei in battle, and even has a disco mirror ball eye that he uses to set up a fight in an alternative dimension. He just needs to remember not to try the same trick too many times.
Episode 4: Broken Stone
Tsubete steals the Dragon Stone from Shigure, but Jubei retrieves it immediately. He doesn't keep it for long either, as he's attacked by Azami, a plant monster. To escape Azami's grasp, Jubei cuts the Stone in two. And no, Azami doesn't even keep her half of the stone for long, as she is in turn attacked by Hakurou of the Kimon clan.
Jubei is busy with a snake monster as Hakurou uses his swarm of moths to take down Azami (yes, this is really what happens). And once again, Jubei must slay all the monsters and get the other half of the Stone back to Shigure.
Ninja Scroll is one of my favorite animated films, and I had serious doubts about how well an episodic series would compare to the movie. Well, as one can expect, there are several disappointments, but also some really enjoyable moments as well.
I guess my two biggest complaints are the character design, and the excessive number of demons to fight. The characters here are actually quite generic and with little originality. One thing about Japanese animation compared to American animation is that while the motion is not as fluid, the character and costume detail is amazing. If you look at American series like The Simpsons or Futurama, you'll notice that the characters are much more simple and have only 4 fingers (or, 3 fingers and a thumb if you want to be technical) to make things easier on the animators. Japanese characters, while often more static in motion, are drawn to the slightest detail.
Unfortunately, you just don't get quite that amount of detail with the series version of Ninja Scroll. In fact, many of the characters look like those on the cheaper animated programs here in the States. While this may seem like a trivial complaint, it's one of the reasons I watch a lot of Anime, so it's a pretty big issue to me. Characters with intricate design just have more personality, and can almost make you forget that they are mere drawings and not real people. I didn't get the same depth in this series that I've felt from many others, and I think the simpler designs are a big factor.
And I also found myself confused with the sheer quantity of enemies our protagonists face in each episode. Since they represent rival clans (but don't wear any indication of just which clan they're from), it's often very difficult to figure out just who Jubei is fighting and why. I wonder if the creators just had so many different ideas for the warrior ninjas, and with only 13 episodes, they had to throw them in 2 and 3 at a time. I'd have been a little happier with fewer enemies, and more detail spent on the fight scenes.
But there's a plus side to that complaint, as the demons, while perhaps too high in number, all have different characteristics and flaws that Jubei must exploit if he is to survive. That was the essence of the full-length film, and even if the artwork is less spectacular here, it makes for some good fight scenes. A great example is one of the ninjas who uses an interesting technique to nearly crush Jubei in episode 3. But he then makes the mistake of trying the same thing twice, and once Jubei knows his secret move, it will not work a second time.
The plot is fairly threadbare, but the movie's plot wasn't very deep either. It was really just a great martial arts film, even though it's animated (a friend of mine, a black belt in sword work, has remarked that characters in the Ninja Scroll film actually used proper technique, positioning, and fingering). While the series may not have the same level of detail, if you're looking for plenty of animated blood splashes and duels to the death, Ninja Scroll The Series will not disappoint.
I'll discuss the actual sound quality later, but I'd like to add a quick word on the subject of dubbing vs. subtitling here. The English dubbing here is truly awful, and makes the whole thing seem like, well, more of a cartoon. Jubei is portrayed much lighter on the English dub, and it's not in character at all. The stoic voice you hear on the Japanese language version is more fitting, and adds a realm of maturity. Anime "purists" always prefer the original language, but I think even those who aren't as dedicated will still find that the subtitled version is much more preferable. And fans of the genre may recognize Houko Kuwashima as the voice of the Light Maiden Shigure (I did!). She began her career voicing some pretty flighty characters like Captain Yurika Misamaru in Martian Successor Nadesico and dragon princess Filia in the third installment of Slayers. But now she's taking on some more serious roles such as the one here, or as the amnesiac assassin Kirika Yumura in Noir (which is a series I HIGHLY recommend), so it's interesting to hear a familiar voice in a much different type of character. Good voice talent like this is what makes a lot of shows even better.
As almost always, this show was created with the 4x3 screen in mind, and that's the presentation here. The transfer is also extremely clean and detailed, from the soft backgrounds (which often look like watercolors, but I could be wrong) to the very sharp edges on the main characters. The fast-paced action scenes also look very good. Of course, television was always the intended presentation anyway, so a good transfer is somewhat expected.
As with many Anime DVDs, the choice here is between English in Dolby Digital 5.1 (or 2.0) and Japanese in Dolby 2.0. Actually, it's no choice at all; go with the Japanese track. The original Japanese language is much more enjoyable, and surprisingly, the 5.1 track doesn't provide much more depth. The real draw on the sound mix is the music, which is a combination of traditional Japanese themes mixed with modern sounds. The hauntingly beautiful opening and closing themes sound really good here, and the mix is quite rich and deep despite being limited to two channels.
Urban Vision Entertainment has always been one of the better Anime DVD companies, at least in terms of extras. As many Japanese animation fans can attest, you often pay close to $30 for a disc that may have only three or four episodes, and the only supplemental feature will be a textless version of the opening theme.
Not so with UVE and Ninja Scroll. I was rather impressed with this disc, as not only is there a decent amount of extras, but they're slightly different than the usual Anime extras. By far my favorite is the storyboard-to-animation section. Four action sequences from the series are here, and the alternate angle feature allows the viewer to select between the storyboards and the finished product. Even better, one of the angles is a picture-in-picture of both options. So you can watch the storyboards, the finished animation, or both. I liked this a lot, and would love to see this on some other discs.
The music in the series is quite interesting, and the composers are interviewed. Award winning Japanese composer Kitaro created the opening and closing themes, as well as the personal themes of characters Jubei and Shigure. This interview is in Japanese, and you'll have to manually select English subtitles (unless, of course, you speak Japanese). Peter McEvilly composed all the other music (based on Kitaro's themes), and he's interviewed as well. However, I have to say these interviews were not particularly interesting, and I actually appreciate discussions of music. Also, the audio on these interviews is extremely low and muffled.
Next up is even more artwork, this time it's the creation of the DVD cover. This is shown sped-up, and while it's great to see the artist at work, I'd be a little more impressed if he was drawing it totally freehand instead of going over a previous sketch. Then there is a gallery of character designs and sketches. You'll see dozens of drawings here, of both human characters and the monsters they fight. I especially liked the way they showed simple black and white sketches, and then how those same sketches look after being completely filled in and colored.
Finally, we have a bevy of trailers. Two previews of this show are given; one is about two minutes long, the second one is more detailed and runs closer to five. A "Soundtrack Trailer" which is really just a 30-second advertisement for the soundtrack CD rounds up the Ninja Scroll trailers, but there is still a whopping 12 trailers for other Urban Vision titles. I've always loved the trailer for Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Definitely an all-around good effort for supplemental Ninja Scroll material, and I hope the remaining discs in the series (there will be 3 in total) are just as deep.
Ninja Scroll: The Series is a highly anticipated title among Anime fans, and while it has its downsides, it's still a lot of fun (though you might need a scorecard to determine who's fighting for what side). It might not be a good title for someone new to the world of Japanese animation, especially if he or she hasn't seen the full-length version. But, that movie is soon to be released in a special edition, and I'm sure that those who see it (as well as those who already love the movie) will want more adventures of Jubei. They will certainly find them in this series. Urban Vision has also provided a nice amount of extras, and I definitely look forward to more episodes and more DVDs.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - A
Sound - B+
Supplements - A-
- Running Time - 1 hour 34 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- 4 Episodes, 5 Chapter Stops/Episode
- Dolby Digital English 5.1
- Dolby Digital English 2.0
- Dolby Digital Japanese 2.0
- English Subtitles
- Storyboard-to-feature comparisons
- Interviews with composers Kitaro and Peter McEvilly
- Creation of the DVD artwork
- Art gallery
- Ninja Scroll trailers
- Urban Vision Entertainment trailers