What’s up Vice-Corps! Last week we bravely tackled the TOP 5 MANLIEST, but that was just the beginning. Today, we’re counting down the sneakiest, most ruthless, and most unseen killers that stalk halls of anime. Watch your back and be perfectly still, because this is the TOP 3 ninja anime. They’re right behind you!
Unfortunately (and somewhat shockingly) there just isn't that much truly great ninja anime out there. I hated to do it, but when I found myself considering things like PUPPET PRINCESS and NINJA RESURRECTION to fill out the list, I realized some things had to be cut. In the end, I decided it was better to focus on what's actually good then to extend the spotlight to include inferior anime that happens to fit into the category. Now, on to the list!
HONORABLE MENTION == DAGGER OF KAMUI
This is some epic ninja filmmaking. KAMUI is a classic revenge story - - with one-armed ninjas, evil monks, nefarious ninja treachery, cover-ups, Japanese history and shurikens flying all over the place. What more could you ask for!?
At over 2 hours (132 minutes!!), this film could test the patience of less-dedicated viewers, but every scene is lovingly animated with fluid movement, beautiful settings and expressive gesture. This is definitely an old school heavy hitter. If you’re a fan of this era of animation, this is not to be missed!
Rintaro directed this beast of a film, and while he has something of an inconsistent track record, this is among his best and best looking work. Watching this could almost make you forget all about HARMAGEDON.
NUMBER THREE == BLOOD REIGN: CURSE OF THE YOMA
Back in the 90's, this was released in America as CURSE OF THE UNDEAD YOMA; which is a hilarious and pretty misleading name. While I actually prefer the old title for its over-the-top-ness, this is not the zombie-ninja epic that name implies. In fact, BLOOD REIGN is a fun little two part ninja/horror OVA with some really nice action, solid designs, surprisingly nice music and quite impressive animation in places.
This falls pretty comfortably into the “wild-man” days of ultra-violent weirdo OVAs being released in the states. Things do indeed get weird, violent, absurd, and even hilarious (possibly unintentionally so) here, but it’s all for the good. BLOOD REIGN has a charm to it that’s hard to resist.
Oh, right - - there’s also an evil horse with fangs that parts the sea to trample a dude, then drowns in that same ocean about 5 minutes later.
And, of course, the usual giant spiders, brain-pods full of naked best friends munching on human heads, ninja-wolverine-claws, sexy burn-faced girls, evil living trees and horrible butterfly monsters (that’s right butterfly monsters) complete with terrifying twinkling wings.
Early in the first OVA, our hero Hikage fends off two Iga ninja in a fight sequence that’s still surprisingly tense, gripping and effective. It’s a very well storyboarded sequence, with strong animation and a somewhat realistic feel. Things get nuts pretty quickly, but this first fight is a real standout and a large part of why BLOOD REIGN nabbed the number 3 spot.
NUMBER TWO == WRATH OF THE NINJA (The YOTODEN movie)
Ah, the classics. This is actually a compilation movie of the YOTODEN OVAs, which is unfortunately the only way to get any YOTODEN on DVD in America. It’s been slightly edited down to fit into a theatrical runtime, and it suffers a bit as a result. Still, WRATH has a lot of heart and the kind of classic ninja antics you should expect - - no, that you should demand from your ninja anime.
I’m talking about people being sliced in two, only for it to be reveal that they were logs the whole time (!!). I’m talking about mid-stream stare-downs with jump and slice conclusions, silly looking monsters and demons in disguise. It’s all here in this genre-defining series.
YOTODEN is kind of a big deal in Japan, voted number one OVA of the year in both '87 and '88 by the readers of ANIME V. I don’t think it ever really caught on over here, and that’s probably largely because it didn’t get released in the states until late into the 90's, with DVD releases in the 00's. By then, the art style looked pretty dated and I think most kids just passed it by. This is a shame because YOTODEN has a lot to offer and stands comfortably on its own merits, fully worthy of the Number Two spot on our countdown.
But let's be honest - - in the ‘90s and ‘00s, almost all ninja anime in the US was overshadowed by one super-popular release. So much so that many fans refused to accept other ninja anime as anything but a rip-off, despite what things like “dates” and “the facts” seemed to suggest.
Still, it’s easy to see why this one ninja epic from the 90's captured the hearts of so many degenerate American otaku. In fact, it’s our number one…
NUMBER ONE == NINJA SCROLL
This is probably the easiest decision I’ve had to make yet for this column. NINJA SCROLL is in my personal top ten anime of all time, so this is a complete no-brainer. Some of you may remember my forceful thoughts on the subject from one of my previous articles (here), but if not, here’s the short version…
Lets get serious, this movie is the bee’s tits. It has everything you could want from an action movie - - plus some stuff you probably didn’t know you wanted; plus some scenes that will make your girlfriend squirm. NINJA SCROLL is clearly of the opinion that “more is more” and delivers in stylish droves. The movie looks great and the designs are all memorable, and elegant.
This movie is never boring, and quite often over-the-top in the best way. If you’re at all familiar with the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, then you should know what to expect. If not, here are some Cliff’s Notes to give you an idea...
- A giant rock-man gulps down an unnerving amount of blood from a freshly-amputated arm.
- A midget with a honeycomb back shoots bees.
- A woman full of gunpowder gets jealous.
- Hundreds of faceless ninja foot-clan get sliced into tiny pieces.
In other words, NINJA SCROLL will put hair on your chest, regardless of your gender.
Sure, NINJA SCROLL is full of ridiculous/awesome/nutso shit but it’s also really well-paced, beautifully animated, and expertly directed. If you’re looking to watch a bunch of sneaky guys with swords stab and betray each other, there’s no better anime to turn to than this one.
Okay, elephant in the room: NARUTO is not on this list and you guys just have to deal with it. My personal opinions about the show aside, it's really just a shonen fighting anime with headbands and the word "jutsu" thrown around every so often. NARUTO is as much a ninja show as SAILOR MOON is a show about planets. Excluded.
I do encourage all of you butthurt NARUTO and BASILISK fans to leave inflammatory rants in the comments section below. I’ll be sure to ignore them.
Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - -dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn