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Ninja Scrolls is one of the films that is often described as part of the holy trinity of Anime. Of course this holy trinity only applies to American audiences, who, in the early nineties were offered Ninja Scrolls, Wicked City and the classic Akira to whet the appetite from Japanese Animated Drama.
In many ways, Ninja Scrolls is the most accessible of the three as it generally follows a western narrative. And by western, I don’t mean ’western civilization’ I means western as in Clint Eastwood western.
Some audiences may have been skeptical of Ninja Scrolls at first, buy early on in the movies viewers are treated to one of the most engaging and creative cinematic moments ever. In pursuit of a shadowy killer, a gang of ninjas unleashes a barrage or throwing stars into a forest that is so withering, it looks and sounds more like a machine gun than manual weapons.
For that moment on Ninja Scrolls never fails to engage and excite the audience.
The story may not be the primary reason to see Ninja Scroll, but even if you’re not the biggest fan of gore and too-cool-for-their-own-good ninjas, the visuals may be enough to make it worth checking out.
Starting with the obvious (and most important), the action is top notch: smoothly animated, well choreographed, and there are even some really nice little artistic touches (mostly with the supernatural powers of the bad folks--a guy who can literaly slip into shadows, for example). In the non-action scenes, the character animation is also pretty good, although some of the dialogue scenes are a little static.
Backing the animation are a combination of slick art and rather original character designs--hard-edged but attractive and relatively realistic. The backgrounds are somewhat less memorable, but even those are quite well drawn--from detailed bamboo forests to rooms at sunset crisscrossed with hard shadows.
The acting in Japanese is well cast and features several big-name voice actors. I didn’t notice any particular standout performances, but from Jubei’s aloof, slightly bemused tone to Kagero’s appropriately harsh (and dramatically well acted) voice to a whole collection of classically creepy sounding demons this is an all-around solidly acted production.
The translation in the subtitles, however, was occasionally a little... strange. I really like it how every power is referred to as a "technique"--we have techniques for turning your skin into rock, techniques for turning yourself green and sprouting leaves (I’m not joking), and I couldn’t help but laugh when they called reassembling dismembered limbs (and reattaching your own head) a "technique".
As for the dub, the dialogue is awkward and much too modern sounding, more or less what you’d expect from your average kung fu movie dub (ok, not quite that bad). That said, the voice work is done by some of the best in the business, and it is interesting to hear a familiar (but hard to place voice as the protagonist Jubei