As the new Ninja Scroll series opens, a masked figure named Roga is running through the woods at night when he's confronted by a froglike, veiny man who demands the return of the Dragon Stone. Moments later, a gibbering critter riding a unicycle/ornithopter/umbrella/spear intervenes in their confrontation. A massive, creepy woman who sprouts toothy monsters from her body arrives to join the party, as does a tall, smart-mouthed man who claims they're all interrupting his sleep. A few challenges and a few gruesome attacks later, half the group is dead and the rest are paying their respects to each other. It's an abrupt opening, but it's a perfect example of how this follow-up to the cult-hit 1995 Ninja Scroll movie goes. Every few minutes, another unique and colorful character is introduced, a gory fight happens, blood sprays, and someone is left in pieces.
There is actually a plot, but over the course of the four episodes on the series' initial DVD, very little of it unfolds. As it develops, Roga has stolen a mystical treasure, a carved green rock that will supposedly reveal a treasure when it comes in contact with "the Light Maiden." That maiden is an attractive young girl named Shigure, the darling of her isolated mountain village—until a mechanized monster arrives to kill everyone present and kidnap her. Roga intervenes, as do other forces—including the smart-mouthed man, whose name, Jubei Kibagami, will be familiar to fans of the original Ninja Scroll. Many deaths later, Jubei is in possession of the Dragon Stone, and has been charged to find Shigure and give it to her.
And so he sets off on a journey that's frequently interrupted: A cat-woman, a lizard-man, a lady who transforms into and merges with tree roots, a man with a hypnotic disco ball where one eye should be, and many other bizarre creatures emerge to claim the stone. Each serves either the Kimon ninja clan or its rival, the Hiruko, and each is hoping to kill Jubei, seize Shigure, and claim the treasure for their own faction leader.
Creatures bite the dust with videogame gore
Ninja Scroll: The Series is reminiscent of a console video game, in that new opponents pop up every few minutes, mostly to go down in a spray of blood, having revealed little about themselves except their ninja factional allegiances, their primary powers and their skills at prefight banter. But few video games have this kind of freewheeling Darwinian action, in which everyone's fixed on the same target, but some antagonists die before even confronting him. Given how strange and unique Jubei's enemies are, it's almost funny how quickly they fall—in one particularly memorable fight, he stabs a ground-melded monster, which emerges from below, appearing onscreen for the first time just in time to drop dead. Life is cheap in Ninja Scroll—monster life, at least—but that's certainly within the tradition of the original film, which pitted Jubei against unique demon after unique demon, with graphically bloody, decisively summary results.
The look and feel of Ninja Scroll: The Series is similarly true to the source material. The character design is very different, as is the animation style, but the series puts a similar premium on intense color; complex but very clean, sharply defined animation; exciting fight choreography; and highly creative creature design. The original's creepy sexuality also returns, in graphic but television-friendly fashion, as the series' well-endowed female antagonists show a disturbing trend to strip near-naked when fights break out.
By episode four, Ninja Scroll: The Series is beginning to feel repetitive, as the body count climbs without more than a small handful of the characters distinguishing themselves before their sudden slaughter. Jubei's sneering attitude isn't much fun either—he begins many of his appearances by whining about how he was woken up yet again, and there must be a plot to keep him from napping. But an eventual plot twist promises a quest as well as more carnage, and that's twice as much fun as Ninja Scroll fans will necessarily expect. Those who loved the first film are likely to be satisfied with the more-of-the-same on display here: more semi-naked women, more cool fighting stunts, more great animation and more time in which to tell a simple story.