Ninja Scroll (or Jubei Ninpucho) follows the journey of three warriors brought together by their common goal of destroying the Eight Devils of Kimon. The Eight are a team of deadly killers with superhuman powers. Ninja woman Kageru first encounters one of the Eight Devils while investigating a series of mysterious deaths in a village under her lord's domain. She is joined by Jubei, a wandering male warrior who has a personal score to settle with Genma, leader of the Eight. A Tokugawa government spy Dakuan enlists their aid in defeating the Eight, who are plotting to take over Japan.
Ninja Scroll is one of the few Japanese animated films that do not suffer from the "blond/red/brown hair, blue/green/violet eyes Japanese characters" syndrome. Its treatment of female characters leaves something to be desired though. While all the women in The story are strong warriors who are just as capable as their male counterparts, the females are sexified to a level male characters are not. The character of Kagero comes across as emotional, needy and insecure compared to the male Jubei, who is the strong, calm type.
While the main characters are mildly interesting, what might be even more interesting is how the cast of villains possibly reveals contemporary perceptions of color and sexuality. Two of the Eight Devils are black-skinned characters. One is Tessai, a huge, brutish blood-drinking creature who tears his enemies from limb to limb. Tessai attempts to rape Kagero and even threatens to kill her and rape her corpse when she resists. Does the stereotype of the sexually unrestrained black man with a bulging, highly-developed musculature sound familiar? The other black-skinned devil is a shadow-warrior Shijima who later captures the pale Kagero and sexually molests her. There are four other men among the Devils. Three are pale-skinned and the fourth, Gemma their leader, is tan, as is the hero Jubei. It is worth noting that among the six male Devils, only the two black-skinned ones assault women.
One of the pale-skinned Devils is Yurimaru, who is Gemma's second-in-command and also his male lover. While such a detail might raise eyebrows among some non-Japanese viewers, Japanese audiences would not be surprised. It is common practice for Japanese feudal lords to have sexual relations with young, beautiful male retainers, who are then favored with increased official responsibilities. But what is unusual about the Gemma-Yurimaru relationship is Yurimaru's expectations of monogamy. Typically, a male favorite to a feudal lord understood he was just one of many bed partners and accepted his master's dalliances with other male favorites and female concubines. But the beautiful Yurimaru apparently expected to be, or wanted to be, Genma's only lover, and it is the dynamics around Yurimaru's desire and desirability that contributed in part to the disintegration of the Eight Devils.
One by one, the henchmen of Gemma fell before Jubei, but the hero Jubei did not destroy any of the first 7 Devils on his own. Gemma, last to die, was the only one defeated by Jubei alone. Zakuro was killed by Dakuan and Jubei. Four male Devils were killed by Jubei and Kagero. The female Devil Benisato was terminated by her own teammate Yurimaru after she was captured by Jubei and his allies. Yurimaru's motivations for killing Benisato were apparently both professional and personal. On one hand, he didn't want her alive to leak secrets to their foes. On the other hand, Benisato was Gemma's other lover.
With Benisato out of the way, Yurimaru quickly moves to ingratiate himself further with Gemma by offering to kill Jubei, his master's archenemy. The outcome of the duel was decided in Yurimaru's favor and all seemed lost for Jubei when suddenly, the gay villain was conveniently blown to bits in a trap set by Zakuro, a female Devil. Jubei miraculously survives the blast. Zakuro would later claim that Yurimaru walked into a trap she intended for Jubei. But her motivations may be more complex. On more than one occasion, Yurimaru had rebuffed Zakuro's advances harshly. Instead of attributing his rejection to lack of personal interest in her, she blamed it on his homosexuality. The 'scorned woman' factor is revealed when Zakuro waves Yurimaru's severed arm at their master Gemma, declaring that Yurimaru had gone to be the 'queen' of the devils.
In medieval Japan, an androgynously beautiful young man who serves his lord and lover faithfully would be cast as the romantic hero, not the villain of the story. But now Yurimaru joins a long list of gay villains in Japanese film, such as Kano Souzaburo of Gohatto and Kaoru from Neo-Genesis Evangelion. Japanese attitudes towards men who love other men have changed with the arrival of Western moral influences in the modern era. But even so, the representation of homosexuals in Japanese film, including animation for young audiences, is less of an issue in Japan than it is in North America. Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, popular Japanese animated series introduced to the North American market, both had gay or lesbian characters whose preferences were 'lost' in the English dubbed vision. Apparently, what 'conservative' Japanese audiences could handle is too much for the allegedly more 'liberal' North Americans.
Ninja Scroll (1995) was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri whose other works include the Animatrix short Program.