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  • Full FramePan&Scan
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Japanese: Dolby Digital Stereo
  • Theatrical trailer

Ninja Scroll

Madman Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 94 mins . R . PAL


Acclaimed director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the name behind such productions as Wicked City, Cyber City Oedo 808 and X, has been an influential force in Japanese animation for the last 15 years. Produced in 1993 by Madhouse Studios, Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll - a breathless, action-packed adventure set in feudal Japan - has fast become a cult classic, and remains one of the most popular anime titles of all time. One of the early feature-length releases by anime distributor Manga, this was the title that first kindled my interest in the genre.

When the entire population of Shimoda village is killed by a mysterious plague, the local Chamberlain sends a team of ninjas to investigate. But even before the ninjas reach the village they are slaughtered by a large stone-skinned brute wielding a huge, dual-bladed boomerang-sword. In fact, only one ninja survives his attack - a beautiful female named Kagero whom the brute takes for his own.

As a masterless ninja, the incomparable swordsman Jubei Kibagami roams feudal Japan as a blade for hire. But when Jubei happens upon the brute having his way with Kagero, well, he feels compelled to rescue her. Although he defeats old stone skin - the devil named Tessai – there are many more where he came from. For unbeknownst to all, a mysterious group plotting the downfall of the Tokagowa government and known only as the ‘Shogun of the Dark' are the ones behind the plague in Shimoda. Amongst their ranks are the eight ‘Devils of Kimon’ (of whom poor old Tessai was one), and with the many and varied abilities of this motley crew, Jubei may have bitten off a little more than he can chew.

Still, Jubai has nothing to fear, so long as he can put a little distance between the devils and himself. The problem is, his path soon crosses that of a Tokagawa government spy – a wrinkled old munchkin called Dakuan - who is not adverse to using a poisoned dart to force Jubei into helping him with investigations of his own. And so Jubei’s fate seems sealed; he must help Dakuan and Kagero seek out the remaining seven Devils of Kimon and foil their dastardly plans. Of course that means he’s going to have to kill each and every one of ‘em. Oh well, if he must, he must...

Both in anime and cinema in general, a large proportion of what we may call ‘martial arts’ stories are based on a very simple formula – an unassuming yet profoundly talented hero must overcome a succession of scary villains before he eventually wins the day. On the surface, Ninja Scroll also follows this tried and trusted recipe, but below the surface it offers much, much more. The writing itself is very good, with some great dialogue (even in the English version) and some decent character development. The back-stories of the two protagonists Jubei and Kagero are slowly revealed over the course of the film, and a flawed romance is kindled between them. And it’s not only the protagonists that benefit from good characterisation, with our villains – the eight devils of Kimon - all possessing very distinct personalities, a unique appearance and peculiar fighting styles.

While the writing is good, it is not at the expense of the action, and once the scene is set, it comes thick and fast. With all the devils using very different fighting techniques, there’s no shortage of variation, but one thing remains true – the action in Ninja Scroll is as bloody as animation comes. Heads fly, limbs are wrenched, arteries spurt, and although there are scenes with overtly sexual content, Ninja Scroll earns its R rating for violence alone. But in the end, I wouldn't have it any other way. Ninja Scroll is a true classic of the genre that should be a part of any anime fans collection.


The strong writing is also suported by Ninja Scroll's high quality artwork. The character animation is superb, with all characters - be they protagonist or antagonist – depicted in a very lifelike style, and all displaying a high degree of individuality. Movement, especially during the action sequences, is fluid and realistic, and we see every thrust and parry as they're exchanged by combatants. Also adding to the realism is the wealth of detail that can be found in every frame, with close attention paid to even the smallest items. Especially impressive is the almost continually blowing wind that moves every leaf on the trees, the rushes beside rivers, and generates a continuous flow of swirling leaves and other detritus. When added to the elaborate backgrounds, the overall effect is stunning, with Ninja Scroll easily the best looking anime in its sub-genre, and amongst the best anime productions I’ve seen to date. OK, OK, I did say amongst!

Disappointingly, whilst Madman’s region 4 release of Ninja Scroll provides a reasonable digital reproduction of the source material, it is a full-frame, pan & scan conversion of the original widescreen presentation; the same version that was released on VHS in the mid-nineties. Actually it’s not exactly the same version, as we shall see later. The crushing disappointment of full-frame aside, the digital transfer, presented on a single-sided single-layer disc from Madman, is pretty reasonable. The transfer displays full and vivid colours, supported by deep blacks and bright, clean whites. The image is nice and sharp, with Ninja Scroll’s inherent detail on display without adding anything much in the way of aliasing. The source material used for the transfer is nice and clean, with only the odd white speck noticeable on occasion.

Curiously for a cinema release, the image does suffer from interlacing – the product of a reduced-frame-rate master, and it's possible that this PAL image has ultimately been drawn from an NTSC source. As is typical for feature length anime releases that have been crammed into a single layer, pixellation artefacts do crop up from time to time in the background of some shots. In general this is very minor, and in only one or two instances is it really noticeable.


In terms of audio, Ninja Scroll provides both an English dub and the original Japanese soundtrack. However, whilst the English track is an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the Japanese track is a simple two channel Dolby Digital mix that pales in comparison. Oh well, I guess we can’t have everything.

The English 5.1 mix, utilising all six channels to create a wide and impressive soundstage, is stunning - there’s no other word for it. With dialogue coming crisp and clear from the centre channel, the remaining sound is finely balanced between the front and rear channels. The effect is a wide and immersive sound experience, with every ring and clash of swords echoing around your living room. Whilst the surround channels are utilised to carry a portion of the effects and the traditional Japanese score, there’s also abundant use of ambient sound, from the obligatory Japanese crickets to rain, waterfalls, birds, and the roar and crackle of flames just to name a few. This is complemented by generous use of the subwoofer to enhance the score’s booming Taiko drums, and every bang crash and wallop the combatants mete out to each other. Channel separation is also reasonable, with the circular arcs of Tessai’s whirring boomerang sword, and its thundering path through the trunks of huge trees, particularly impressive.

The Japanese track, whilst providing aficionados with the original voice performances, is nowhere near as impressive. Whilst the dialogue is still clear and distinct, the surround channel is not utilised to anywhere near the extent that it is in the 5.1 mix, and what remains is at such a low level that you’ll have to increase your volume above reference levels just to hear it. Similarly, the subwoofer is also used sparingly, and again at a level that is much reduced. Thankfully, the English subtitles are clear and easy to read, being the Madman standard yellow with a black border. With the Japanese voice artists supplying much more convincing performances than their American counterparts, this is certainly my track of choice. Hmmm, but still, that English track does sound so damn good...

In all, this is a frustrating choice for anime fans, with both tracks supplying pieces of the perfect Ninja Scroll experience. You’ll just have to watch it twice as often to make up for it.


Static non-anamorphic menus provide access to a number of extras that are predominantly promotional materials. All in all there's nothing of any real interest for fans is to be had here.

  • A Guide to Ninja Scroll: a six page synopsis, as well as short character profiles for Jubei, Kagero, Dakuan and the eight devils of Kimon.

  • Manga Video Commercial: A promotional video montage of manga titles (including Ninja Scroll) all set to a pumping techo/rock crossover track. Enough to make you rush out and buy the whole collection.

  • Manga Video Fan Club Trailer: A montage of stills promoting other Manga titles (yawn).

  • Ninja Scroll Trailers:Back to back, we are presented with the original Japanese trailer with obligatory J-pop moments, the English theatrical version, and a trailer produced by Manga for its US video release. Interestingly, several of the moments that have been cut from the film appear here.


There is no doubt that Ninja Scroll is the ultimate ninja/samurai anime experience, combining exquisite animation with kick-ass action and even a little character development. However, I cannot conclude this review without mentioning the ridiculous censorship that region 4 owners of this disc are having to endure.

The fact of the matter is that this DVD release of Ninja Scroll has lost just over one minute of footage as compared to the VHS release. The reason is that Madman utilised PAL masters provided by Manga Video UK which had already been cut by the BBFC. Madman have been quoted as saying that they had no knowledge of the cuts at the time of mastering, but there it is.

OK so it’s only one minute of footage, right? But censorship of priced-to-own material, be it video, audio or whatever, just isn’t acceptable in my books. In the end, with the region 1 disc suffering no such restrictions, you'll have to make up your own mind.

  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=1504
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      And I quote...
    "...a true classic of the genre that should be a part of any anime fans collection."
    - Gavin Turner
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Toshiba SD-2108
    • TV:
          Panasonic TC-68P90A TAU (80cm)
    • Receiver:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Amplifier:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Speakers:
          B&W 602
    • Centre Speaker:
          B&W CC6 S2
    • Surrounds:
          JM Lab Cobalt SR20
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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