Ninja Scroll or Jûbê ninpûchô or The Wind Ninja Chronicles (1993)
One of the most interesting things it’s possible to do when dealing with the written and visual media is to travel in time. Today, slipping a DVD into the player slot can bring you yesterday’s films and television programs, or you can pick up book classics from days gone by. Except what exactly do we mean by a classic? It’s a word we bandy about knowledgeably as if it has some agreed meaning. So, distinguishing it from antique, what makes a modern classic in the sense of quality? Starting off with the thorny problem of age, the Americans celebrate “old” high-end cars by distinguishing between classics manufactured between 1925 and 1948, and the more modern mass-produced vehicles even though sometimes produced in small numbers. In other words, “classic” refers to the perceived quality of the vehicle manufactured at a time when it was difficult to achieve the kind of beauty more easily achieved when technology advanced. This is slightly different from the notion of classic rock which tends to be a reference to old tracks we know and love from a shortlist of bands that have achieved cult status, i.e. it’s a quality of endurance in a mass market largely made up of disposable junk. This makes the selection of the qualifying music something of a moveable feast with some radio stations and music packagers refusing to go beyond the 1960s, and others quite happy to cover all popular music up to the 1980s.
We have the same problem of classification with the cinema. Some refer to quality as assessed by groups of critics or as having been recognised in Awards. Others rely on popularity measured by audience numbers or the box-office cash generated. Yet relying of the taste of others or on some arbitrary numbers rather misses the point because, today, we might value an old but obscure film for the aesthetic qualities that went unremarked at the time of release. In other words, “classic” sometimes signals an act of historical reclamation or rehabilitation, retrospectively conferring an “award” of quality on a work that was “ahead of its time”.
Since I comfortably span decades of content in all forms of artistic endeavour, I’m less inclined to make arbitrary decisions based on specific dates or events, e.g. on the abandonment of the Hollywood studio system or the shift from 78s to 45s and 33s in terms of rpm. I think this is a generational issue. If a piece of work, no matter what its form, is still read, watched or enjoyed by the children or grandchildren of those who produced it, this is a classic. When so much contemporary work is junk, it takes about twenty-five years for the average and poor to disappear from view, leaving only the good and the ironic bad that achieve cult status simply because they are so bad as to become amusing. In this I admit the marketers abuse the word. We too often see the words “modern classic” which is copyright holders trying to sell some of their back catalogue to a modern audience that doesn’t know any better. There’s also the problem of genre. When we want to label something a classic, is this just a judgement of the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic experts in the particular field, or must the work have achieved some degree of acceptance outside the genre? Take any older book, film or television program as a sample. Should any modern viewer find the work accessible and immediately likeable, or must it first appeal to the cognoscenti?
I’m musing in this way because I decided to watch Ninja Scroll or Jûbê ninpûchô or The Wind Ninja Chronicles again. This is a “classic” piece of anime cinema from Madhouse Studios, released in the distant past of 1993. I’ve also had a run of books written in the style of Jane Austen and others as if draping a coffin with the flag of a dead author somehow makes the modern artifact a better container of interesting and enjoyable content. I’m also minded to mention The Dark Knight Rises (2012) as based on A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. You can’t keep a good plot down, says I. Anyway, the anime comes to us courtesy of Yoshiaki Kawajiri who has an impressive track record in the anime field going back to the early 1970s. The story falls neatly between two subgenres. It’s both about the ninja and the samurai traditions, while conforming to the thriller convention of a government spy and two helpers penetrating the security of a group intent on destabilising the current government. We start with Jubei Kibagami (Kôichi Yamadera) who’s moving from job to job as the whim takes him. Early on, he’s established as an expert with the sword. We then switch to a team of Mochizuki Koga Ninja who’ve been sent to assess reports both that there’s an outbreak of plague in Shimoda village and another group of ninja arriving in the area. All but Kagero (Emi Shinohara) are killed leaving the “classic” scene of horror as Tessai (Ryūzaburō Ōtomo) physically picks her off the ground by one leg and licks her in anticipation of raping her. Thanks to a timely distraction provided by Jubei, she’s able to stab her attacker in the eye and make a temporary escape, but this does represent a marvelous moment that transcends time and hits with the same impact today as it did eighteen years ago. The spy Dakuan (Takeshi Aono) recruits Jubei by blackmail and appeals to the girl to follow. He’s wonderfully cold-hearted, having no real interest in the survival of either individual, but content to use them as stalking horses to lure out the Devils of Kimon who are behind the deaths of the villagers and apparently supporting the plot to undermine the shogunate government.
We then have the usual series of individual combat sequences as the “team” whittles down the opposition. This all plays out against Jubei’s backstory which is slowly revealed to show the coincidence that the current problems are being caused by Gemma Himuro (Daisuke Gōri), a man he killed in a past encounter who has been able to reincarnate himself. Needless to say, all this leads up to a rematch with Jubei realising he must do rather better than just beheading the man if he’s to prevent him from coming back to life again.
The artwork is cleanly drawn and fascinatingly detailed in telling a sophisticated story of political intrigue and violence as the means to seize power. The relationships between Jubei, Kagero and Dakuan are completely unsentimental with the only real concession to gender politics being Jubei’s insistence that Kagero take herself seriously as a ninja — this includes his refusal of her sexual offer even though it might save his life. So, overall, I would take this as a classic piece of anime that’s as fresh today as it was all those years ago when I paid to see it in the cinema. That said, I’m not convinced many modern viewers outside the anime, fantasy and horror fields would find Ninja Scroll or Jûbê ninpûchô or The Wind Ninja Chronicles of general interest, although it might serve as a good example of early work to introduce the history of anime to modern audiences. In saying this, I note that it’s about to be re-released on DVD, presumably bearing the legend “Modern Classic”.