Sometimes the spinoff is better than the original. It happened with Alien Nation, a mediocre movie that turned into a very good TV series. The same thing happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a rather minor-league comedy that was turned into a major-league cultural phenomenon.
And now Ninja Scroll, the movie (which was eye-catching but not very absorbing) has also been made into a TV series which manages to one-up its original material. It’s still gory, lurid and violent (which is going to turn a lot of people off), but it’s somewhat more interesting than its predecessor by dint of having more fully-realized characters and enemies who are not simply drop targets in a shooting gallery.
Despite the shared name, Ninja Scroll: The Series doesn’t have to be seen with the movie. The two are essentially standalone entities that share a few common characters and conceits. Both movies were about the adventures of wandering swordsman and ninjutsu master Jubei Kibagami, whose excellence with his weapons is only tempered by his general laziness. He’s an anti-hero’s anti-hero, and part of the fun of watching him at work is seeing what smart-ass way he’ll use to weasel out of what few responsibilities he has. One of the running gags of both the movie and the show is that every time he’s finally ready to catch a nap, something interrupts him—usually a monster.
One day Jubei crosses paths with Shigure, a pretty young woman from an isolated ninja clan. Life was good for her until horrific monsters came along and slaughtered her people for the sake of something in her possession called the “Dragon Stone,” which she knows nothing about. She manages to escape—only to blunder into the scheming hands of Tsubute, a ne’er-do-well whose idea of a good business venture is to sell Shigure to the highest bidder. She is having none of this, of course. Along comes Dakuan—a gruesome little gnome of a priest who can do some remarkable tricks with that staff of his—who wants to hire Jubei to protect all of them long enough for Shigure to bring the Dragon Stone back to its proper resting place.
Jubei’s wildly unthrilled by the idea of dealing with all of this, but after he’s attacked, he decides there’s safety in numbers and sticks with the other three. It soon becomes clear there are two parties at war over the stone: the Hiruko, an ancient tribe of aboriginal wizards (strongly reminiscent of the people from the “lost kingdom” in the equally outlandish Zipang), and the Kimon, the race of monsters seeking to use the stone for their own ends. Jubei has contempt for them both, but over time he (and Shigure) both learn something: Ugly as these creatures may be, they are not simply beasts. They have a civilization of their own, a code of honor, a way of life.
It’s this last point that makes the show more than just casually gory viewing. With each episode we see more of how the characters have to deal with their enemies and protectors. The monsters come in an astounding (and nauseating) variety: one of the best episodes features a mother-and-son who have learned how to control one of these creatures to their own ends, with Jubei being caught between them. Another episode, near the end of the series, has one of the creatures getting a crush of sorts on Shigure. At first she’s repulsed, but then she comes to understand that as repulsive as this beast is, his intentions are honorable, and he is simply clumsy and inexperienced, not malicious.
If you think about it, the story’s really most about Shigure and not Jubei, who is mostly an action foil for everything that goes on. Shigure goes through the most growth, and is given the most critical decisions to make in the whole series. Her strength and inherent decency come through every time she’s on screen. That said, Jubei goes through some interesting changes of his own: at first he professes complete indifference to everyone’s cause, but by the end he’s found reasons—however personal and contrived—to stick it out until the bitter end. The only time he and Shigure ever show affection of any kind is in the most rarefied way, but I suspect to do it any other way would simply seem out of character for him.
For a TV show, the quality of the animation is good-to-excellent, with furious and heavily stylized fighting of the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it school as the movie. None of it is remotely realistic, but let’s face it, it’s not meant to be. The Kimon in particular are a crazy-quilt of modern technology and biological engineering, vaguely reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s work. I had to smile at their leader, a monstrous grinning Buddha-figure, covered with electrodes and riding a hovercraft shaped like a giant lotus flower. And yes, a good deal of the plotting is not terribly airtight, but with a show like this the real star is the spectacle and the sweep of the whole thing. What I didn’t expect was for there to be strong and memorable characterizations—both on the parts of the heroes and the bad guys—to go with it.