The Aestheticization of Violence: Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll

The Aestheticization of Violence: Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll

 Acclaimed for its animation and uncensored action, the award-winning Ninja Scroll is often regarded as one of the most influential anime films of its time, if not ever. Ninja Scroll was released in theatres in Japan in 1993 and was being released in Western countries by 1995. It was one of Manga Entertainment’s first major releases and by 1996 it’s best seller, selling over 7,000 copies in a years’ time. Largely responsible for the mid-1990s anime boom, Ninja Scroll ranks among the elite of anime with the likes of Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

“Ninja Scroll is a champion of anime and belongs in the upper echelons of its history.” – Russell Cook, Cineview

Set in Tokugawa period Japan, a secret shipment of gold intended for the Toyotomi Shogun of the dark, who intends to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, runs aground in a ship. The Shogun of the Dark sends the Eight Devils of Kimon to retrieve the gold and keep it a secret by killing the people of the nearby village. By several twists of fate Jubei Kibagami, a mercenary ex-Yamashiro ninja, Kagero, the sole survivor of the Mochizuki Koga ninja team, and Dakuan, a Tokugawa spy, join forces to derail the Shogun of the Dark’s plans.

Ninja Scroll is often viewed as nothing more than a hack and slash action anime with its brutally graphic sex, violence, and death. However, I would argue that the film goes much deeper than that. The complexity to this simple story is striking. The film pulls a lot of influence from historical reference, the works of novelist Futaro Yamada and Western spy fiction influenced the story and style, with Jubei's character being loosely inspired by the historical figure Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi. Futaro Yamada wrote the first of a series of historical fantasy novels, The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, which is very similar to Romeo and Juliet. This influence is clearly seen with the tragic love between Jubei and Kagero.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri the director whose other works include Vampire Hunter D (2000) and Wicked City (1989) delivers the goods in this bloody and action-packed saga. Well written, Ninja Scroll is executed in a richly cinematic manner and the attention to detail is spectacular.

The film is an aesthetic masterpiece, utilizing visuals to captivate the audience. the visual that Kawajiri's film display are breathtaking. Its vibrant reds and deep hues of blue and black, it’s scenic landscapes and use of lighting, and editing that quite often utilizes the jump-cut to emphasize a sense of “disorientation for the viewer, establishing further chaos”. The audio of the film is as equally as pleasing. Kaoru Wada’s timeless score frames Jubei’s adventure across a fantastical and frightening Japan with a stirring mix of brass, trembling strings, and traditional woodwinds.

Not only does it touch on many of the traditional subjects of anime, but it touches on symbolism and human nature as well. Kawajiri's film develops an interesting relationship between its main characters and between the two sexes; it even poses a further dynamic by exploring the contrast between different ends of the spectrum of social order. Early in the film we are shown two different sex scenes both visually abrasive, but each in its own manner. The sexual violation by Tessai represents one end of that spectrum, that which lacks all order, pure chaos. This was an illegitimate act with no consent, a total violation of human rights committed by a man with the appearance of a monster connected to the natural world.

Then we are shown the scene in which Tessai has returned to inform the Chamberlain, her lord and master, of the ninja’s deaths. The Chamberlain, who has a stately appearance, is engaged in sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman appears to be of no significance to the chamberlain, so while it may be legitimate and consensual, there is clearly a master/servant role portrayed between the two. The chamberlain moves casually between having an official conversation and copulating without pause showing no respect to either of the women in the scene. This can be viewed as the opposite end of the spectrum, as order. Clearly the film does not view either of these acts as morally just, and therefore steps outside of that social order with Jubei, a mercenary Ronin warrior. Unattached to a lord, and unattached to social order.

While the two scenes are strikingly different both Tessai and the Chamberlain were wielding power for morally corrupt purposes. Jubei represents an ideology, one of unselfishness. We see this in the first scene of the movie when he states that Trying to swindle 300 pieces from a poor small clan is asking too much. However, his true selflessness is shown later when Kagero offers herself to him outside the bonds of either illegitimate physical coercion or legitimate official privilege. Jubei refuses because he does not want sex that is offered out of a sense of obligation or duty, even if it means his life. Jubei does not exist in the same moral realm as Tessai or the Chamberlain, he represents an alternative, a pureness. He held too much respect for Kagero as a woman that he waited until she expressed her love for him to kiss her, and his pure unselfishness is the essence of this film.

“Still, only true sincerity can move the human heart” – Dakuan

By: Michael Morency

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