Tag Archives: Ninja

This anime is full of ninjas. You may not see them, but they are there.

Naruto – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Naruto

 

Related: Naruto Shippuden (sequel)

Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow (side story)

Naruto the Movie 2: Legend of the Stone of Gelel (side story)

Naruto the Movie 3: Guardians of the Crescent Moon Kingdom (side story)

Similar: One Piece

Hunter x Hunter

Basilisk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Super Power Action Adventure

Length: 220 episodes (~80 filler episodes)

 

Positives:

  • Many awesome fights.
  • Creative abilities and powers.
  • Lasting consequences.
  • Great villains.
  • Episode 101.

Negatives:

  • Takes a few episodes.
  • Naruto isn’t the most interesting protagonist.
  • Explaining the obvious at times.
  • Flashbacks and filler, though most filler comes after the canon episodes.
  • Relies on the inferior sequel, Shippuden, to complete a few arcs.

Audiences have a love-hate relationship with long running battle shounen. The gargantuan episode count can be reason enough not to give them a shot. In my experience, fans of long running anime often got into the series from the ground level when the episodes were still in double digits and not nearing a millennial celebration. Unfortunately, being there year-one and having a series be a part of your life for a decade or more does lead to a skewed perception of the show’s quality. So, when tackling Naruto classic, my year-one battle shounen, I kept in mind the best anime I have seen since – having not seen Naruto in seven years also helped gain distance.

Naruto centres on young ninja Naruto and his quest to become Hokage, the highest rank in ninjadom. Naruto has a demon fox trapped within, desperate to break free and destroy everything, as it did to the village years ago. He is a pariah in society and uses humour for defence. As part of a three-man squad with Sasuke, the last of an elite clan, and Sakura, whose large forehead is her tragic backstory [sarcasm], they carry out dangerous missions under the guidance of Kakashi, their teacher who has no cares to give.

My first issue is the protagonist himself, Naruto, a problem that applies to most shounen protagonists. I hate how the protagonist is always happy-go-lucky, the “goodest” of the good guys, and thus an uninteresting protagonist. Shounen writers choose these protagonists because they are the least likely to alienate a young audience. Imagine if the protagonist were Gaara instead, a Sand ninja with a similar backstory, who turned out a remorseless killer instead of a prankster – many kids would be terrified and leave before they get to see his full arc. That’s not to say a happy protagonist can’t be challenged through conflict, but in Naruto’s case, his conflict is weak and the pariah status lasts a few episodes at most.

This leads onto my next point – backstory. The writer dumps a hero’s entire backstory into our laps at the first possible instant (usually their first major fight). Just one big dollop mid-fight. A writer should hold back details until the audience is at breaking point, and then reveal something amazing. Naruto’s heroes have little such mystery. Even Sasuke, whose backstory is the most interesting among heroes, is more about his brother, a villain.

Look to the villains and we find the opposite. Their backstory is held in reserve until it can no longer be hidden, making us acutely interested in them as characters. Orochimaru, for example, the main villain and major reason to watch this, doesn’t have his life story narrated to us the first time he fights, as seen with most of the young ninja. His power-hungry past builds him up to be a phenomenal villain, one piece at a time. When you think he can’t be anymore evil, another piece is unveiled to make him even more nefarious, and another, and another.

All shounens have a huge cast, often of filler characters; thankfully, however, a memorable support crew supplements Naruto’s weak protagonist. Many seemingly irrelevant side characters have great story arcs. There are too many to detail, so I will focus on the best and my favourite among them, Rock Lee, the mop-topped and bushy-browed ninja in the springtime of youth. He is a ninja without powers; he can’t use any ‘spells,’ so to speak, relying on hand-to-hand combat. Lee should have been the protagonist. He still fits the criteria for a shounen protagonist: A go-getter, hardworking underdog, and with a quirky, fun slant to him. He succeeds where Naruto fails because the writer went all-out with Lee. His hard work is genuine, while the demon fox does most of the work for Naruto. Lee’s underdog status will never vanish because of his no-spells weakness, whereas Naruto is no longer an underdog after a single arc, even if the writers try to say otherwise – again, the demon fox. When battles matter above all, having the weakness be a combat one is the most interesting. Lastly, Lee’s humour is far better; Naruto is simply juvenile, a brat most of the time, but Lee’s quirks come from his passion, his innate mannerisms, which never feels forced.

Lee’s fights are excellent, some of the best in anime. Naruto in general has great fights, varied too (strategic, all in the mind, brute strength, or trump card types), but Lee takes it to a whole new level. Abilities in Naruto have a lot of thought put into them, each character bringing some cool power, but there is something about Lee’s style, distilled down to its essence, matched to his personality, that makes him so engaging. His conflict, his challenges aren’t only more significant, but also more relatable. They made a big mistake not choosing Lee instead of Naruto.

Like all battle anime, Naruto has its share of padding and filler. Naruto’s go to driving sock is the flashback. A handful of flashbacks, most from season one, are repeated, I swear, at least ten times throughout the series. We have a recap in episode 14; they couldn’t even wait a season. Sometimes we flashback to last episode…twice…in one episode. Desk, meet Face. They like to state the obvious when explaining abilities at times as well – do shounen writers think their viewers are retards?

Naruto doesn’t have it as bad as the likes of Bleach and co. Naruto’s filler is mercifully back-loaded after the canon, with only a half-dozen filler episodes during canon, most of them actually good. One must wait until Naruto Shippuden to have one’s mind drilled through their eyeballs in pain, which leads me to my final negative. A few story arcs conclude in the sequel, a shounen padded and dragged out as bad as any other.

We know filler is born from a need to have an episode everyday while giving the manga time to get ahead, but when releasing on disc later, they should trim all the TV fat. Get rid of these flashbacks, burn the filler, and stop opening with the final scene from last episode. A master edit for Naruto would be fantastic.

Naruto is, ultimately, a good anime weighed down by the trapping that burden the battle genre. If Naruto were never intended for morning TV, it could have had a faster pace, a more engaging protagonist, and more respect for the audience. However, as is, Naruto is still worth watching if you want a good battle anime and are willing to skip the padding yourself.

Art – Medium

Good visual design for the most part, particularly in abilities; however, the animation is inconsistent. In Lee’s fights, the animation is excellent, fast, fluid, precise, but where Naruto is involved, expect plenty of static. Naruto’s signature move being a hundred clones means the time and budget for a 1v1 fight is now spread for a 100v1 fight. Most clones are frozen in the background and those that do move, slide rather than run. Also, bright orange for a ninja?

Sound – High

Naruto’s soundtrack goes far beyond the morning cartoon. The hype tracks truly build hype, the perfect instrumental piece accompanies tragedy, and the villains walk to their own sinister church organs. Voice acting in Japanese is another standout. The dub, however…yeah…Naruto’s voice, he sounds like a chain smoker and that “Believe it!” rubbish (they cut it after season one – what mercy!). The dub is hit and miss for such a large cast. Some, like Orochimaru (Steve Blum), the performance I would have guessed as most difficult to match, are perfect.

Story – Medium

Teen ninjas fight for their village. Cool powers, great supporting cast, Lee, nefarious villains, and engaging battles, all bogged down by shounen padding.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Good shounen to start with. The overall high quality is predicated on you skipping the filler (for a simple guide, stop at episode 140). It is a medium quality otherwise.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great MusicHoly S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Support Characters

Negative:

Terrible Start

Afro Samurai – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Afro Samurai

 

Related: Afro Samurai Resurrection (sequel – included in this review)

Similar: Ninja Scroll the movie

Samurai Champloo

Shigurui: Death Frenzy

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action

Length: 5 episodes (season 1) & movie (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Gory, stylised action complemented by bleak visuals.
  • Great and sometimes unusual voice work, particularly from Samuel L. Jackson.

Negatives:

  • Poor sound mixing muffles speech under the music.
  • Not much to the plot, even with flashbacks.
  • In particular, the anime doesn’t explain why the headbands are worth anything beyond pieces of cloth.
  • Though the action animations are great, the lip movements don’t match the words half the time.

After seeing his father decapitated for a headband, Afro trains up as a samurai to avenge his father and reclaim the number one headband. Afro Samurai is set in a feudal Japan meets futuristic Wild West world of swordfights, gunslingers, and Mexican standoffs, wind blowing through your afro. Legends say the strongest warrior and owner of the number one headband is a god and only the number two can challenge for that power. Being number two, challengers beset Afro as he works his way to the mountain of number one. He knows no love, no happiness, only the murderous violence the number two headband incites in the heart of every man after the power of number one.

Afro Samurai’s biggest draws are its over-the-top action and style. The action is in the vein of Kill Bill with its excessive gore, blood spraying in ludicrous amounts. No shot is standard, not shot is dull. The camera zooms into every unsheathing of a sword, light sparking off the blade, every cocking of a hammer, pull of a trigger.

From its desaturated colours to no-cares-given protagonist, Afro Samurai is sombre anime. The only source of humour is Afro’s chain smoking sidekick, Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L Jackson). He is the antithesis to Afro, never shutting up and a coward. He doesn’t do much beyond provide commentary to the adventure and say what Afro is really thinking. Ninja Ninja is Jackson at his silliest and quite humorous.

Afro Samurai’s bleakness doesn’t just cover its tone but also extends to its sparse plot. On his quest, Afro meets various characters from his childhood (including a Vader-type samurai with a teddy bear head), which the plot does try to inject personality into by way of flashbacks. However, these flashbacks are minimal in content and depth, and little effort is made to characterise in the present. There is also this brotherhood of monks looking to create a clone of Afro with all his skills to claim number one for themselves. While I found their Evangelical preacher of a leader amusing, the brotherhood doesn’t feel particularly relevant and could have been cut from the show with ease, but then you would have even less to populate the narrative.

What bothered me most were the headbands. They never explain why these mere pieces of cloth have any kind of power. I fail to see how you have to own a headband to be the best or challenge the best. Furthermore, if they are as powerful as they claim, can’t one simply bury the headband in the middle of a forest to stop challengers hounding you? If they don’t know you have the headband, they won’t bother challenging. Hell, if you have to have it on you to gain its power, then stuff it in your sock instead of parading around with it on your head. Misery solved.

If you can look past these logical fallacies and want an anime all about the action and blood, then Afro Samurai is for you. On the other hand, if you want more than ankle-deep characterisation and story, then skip this one.

Art – High

Afro Samurai uses a high number of key frames to bring the gruesome animation to life. Desaturated colouring enhances the bleakness of Afro’s quest. The mouth animations don’t match the words half the time – not just out of sync, but the wrong shape altogether (this anime was drawn for English).

Sound – Medium

Great voice work overpowered by the poor mixing of music, which is an even bigger shame since the music itself is decent – a mix of rap and long whistles for Mexican standoffs.

Story – Medium

The flashbacks provide backstory to the characters, but in the present, the plot doesn’t involve much beyond killing a series of enemies to reach the top.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of over the top action. Afro Samurai is worth your while if you want an anime all about the action and with enough backstory to give the characters purpose, don’t expect more than that.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingNo Development

Basilisk – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou

 

Similar: Ninja Scroll the Movie

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal

Romeo x Juliet

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action Adventure Romance

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Creative powers make for strategic encounters.
  • Both ninja clans have good and evil.
  • No character feels safe.
  • Tragedy of the premise makes you feel for the characters.

Negatives:

  • Some characters don’t get the development and screen time they deserve.
  • The English voice track doesn’t work well with Japanese nouns and honorifics.

Two ninja clans have feuded for the last four-hundred years, only held at bay by a royal pact prohibiting conflict in the last few generations. In this time of tenuous peace, Gennosuke, grandson of the Kouga clan leader, and Oboro, granddaughter of the Iga clan leader, have fallen in love and their marriage is to create a binding peace between the clans. However, the current shogun decides to use the clans to determine the successor from his two sons. Each clan must select its ten best ninja to annihilate each other. The winning clan will receive the support of the shogun for the next thousand years and rule over the defeated. The pact is broken.

Basilisk is a brutal story as both sides cut each other down to the last. You quickly learn that no one is safe in this conflict; no character wears unkillable ‘plot armour.’ This creates great tension in every moment of conflict, for you never know what will happen, who will die. Basilisk makes great use of the ninja theme with every aspect shrouded in deception and brutality. Each ninja has a special power such as a spider-man who spits glue-like phlegm, and a woman can use her blood to mark the target and create a red mist she can vanish into. To reveal any more would constitute spoilers since the powers themselves are kept hidden for use as twists in the plot. I love strategic use of character abilities and talents.

The writers did a great job with the characters. Neither clan is the good or bad side. Both have characters with shades of grey, beautiful and ugly, calm and angry, kind and cruel. Having these complex characters on both sides makes it all the harder to see them die.

It is clear Basilisk drew much inspiration from Ninja Scroll the Movie with the unique ninja powers and action style. In my review of Ninja Scroll, I noted the lack of character development as a core issue. Thankfully, Basilisk uses its longer screen time to develop the characters through flashbacks and during downtime. Even then, a few characters don’t get the screen time they deserve in such a large cast.

Basilisk excels at character design, each ninja’s look based on their powers – they even have a ninja with no arms or legs. The action is suitably gory and uncensored as a man cuts off his own head. I do wish the visual style in general had more grit like Ninja Scroll the Movie and BerserkBasilisk looks too clean by comparison.

Finally, we come to the audio. Don’t use the English track. With so many archaic Japanese names and locations coupled with honorifics –dono and –sama spoken in American accents (some rather heavy, see: character Okoi), the English voice work sounds strange. If they insisted on using the honorifics with these voices, they should have use titles like ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ instead. Stick to the Japanese original with its well-matched voices to the characters.

I highly recommend Basilisk to anyone who isn’t averse to a little gore. The ninjas and their powers make for an engaging narrative of action and tragedy.

Art – High

A variety of character designs that fit their creative powers. Gore and violence worthy of the brutal premise. I would have liked more grit in the general art.

Sound – High

In Japanese, each character has the right voice, well executed. In English, however, the heavy use of Japanese words doesn’t sound right. Outside of the forgettable title tracks, the music is nice. I particularly liked what I refer to as ‘mountain monk’ music (I have no idea what it’s called) – flutes, chimes, ethereal vocals, etc.

Story – High

A tragic tale of two ninja clans willing to fight to the last warrior if it means wiping out the opposing clan. Add in the forbidden romance, and you have a great story to hear.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Can’t go wrong watching this. Basilisk manages to deliver great action coupled with complex characters in a dark tale of love and hate.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Holy S***Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrategic

Negative: None

Ninja Scroll the series – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou: Ryuuhougyoku-hen

 

Related: Ninja Scroll the movie (prequel)

Similar: Basilisk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 13 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The villains have some interesting abilities.

Negatives:

  • A bloated cast of villains leaves no room for character development.
  • The art and animation is lacklustre and markedly worse than the movie.
  • Uninteresting plot.
  • Lacks the choreography that made the action in the movie compelling to watch.
  • Awkward dialogue and poor audio quality.
  • Electronic music doesn’t match the medieval setting.

Fourteen years after the events of the movie, Jubei is once again roped into conflict when a group of demons destroy a village, killing everyone except the priestess Shigure. Jubei fights the demons and acquires the mysterious Dragon Jewel, making him a target to the demons. The government agent Dakuan from the movie is charged with the priestess’s protection. He hires Jubei again as a bodyguard to escort her and the Dragon Jewel to safety.

These fourteen years weren’t kind to Ninja Scroll. It went from a good action anime in the movie to a snooze-fest in Ninja Scroll the series. Each episode is about fending off some new ninja with a speciality power. While the powers have some creativity to them, the characters have no depth. One major complaint I had against the film was the lack of development for most characters, stating that a little extra screen time could have served admirably. Here they have thirteen episodes to work with, and rather than develop characters, they bloat the cast with a new villain each episode.

Even Jubei is worse. It seems like they heard the one line description of Jubei’s character from the movie (easy-going vagabond ninja) and didn’t bother to look further into his character. He is now one-note. His haunted past, inner turmoil, humanity and strength, all gone.

So, the narrative and characters are bland, but what about the action, the movie’s best aspect? Surely, the action is still worthwhile, no? It isn’t, I’m afraid. Though it is the strongest part of the series, which isn’t saying much, without the choreography and animation from the movie, action scenes aren’t compelling. Every fight has that moment where Jubei slashes at the enemy, appears to do nothing, they stare at each other, and the villain even talks before being split in two. I grew bored within a two episodes.

You will be thankful for the dull action when you have to listen to poor dialogue coupled with awkward voice work, particularly in English where the audio quality fluctuates between characters. Many of the actors aren’t the same as the film and worse than their originals. Almost every English voice, some with terrible accents, sounds either bored or as if they are reading straight off the script. The mismatched music doesn’t help either. Synth and electronic music wasn’t the best choice for a medieval setting. Who thought mechanised singing was a good idea?

I’m not sure why Ninja Scroll the series needed to be. It doesn’t add anything to the movie, introduces nothing of worth, and doesn’t even manage the action that made the original entertaining.

Art – Low

So generic. Lacks the dark visual quality of the movie. Also suffers from an inconsistent frame rate. Weak gore. Shadows go missing quite often.

Sound – Low

The wrong kind of music for the theme and setting coupled with poor voice work to match the awkward dialogue.

Story – Very Low

A repetitive new-enemy-of-the-episode structure that leaves no room for character development or any meaningful plot, for that matter.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Avoid this and watch Basilisk instead. Ninja Scroll the series isn’t worth your time, even if a fan of the movie. It’s just too boring to suffer through the blandness.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: 

Awful DialogueDissapointingEar Grating Voice WorkNo DevelopmentRepetitiveShallowTorture MusicUseless Side Cast

Ninja Scroll the movie – Review

Japanese Title: Juubee Ninpuuchou

 

Related: Ninja Scroll: the Series (sequel)

Similar: Afro Samurai

Basilisk

Sword of the Stranger

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action

Length: 1 hr. 30 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Well-choreographed and brutal action.
  • A variety of cool ninja powers.
  • Dark visuals to match the grim narrative.

Negatives:

  • With the action focus, most characters have little to no development time.
  • Some awkward explanatory dialogue.
  • Weak music.

Jubei is a vagabond swordsman, hiring out his skills to those who can pay. One night, he helps a ninja woman in trouble. She is Kagero, the last of her ninja unit after an investigation into a mysterious plague led them to slaughter at the hands of a ninja who can turn to stone. He is known as one of the eight devils – eight ninja with extraordinary abilities. A government official looking into the matter hires Jubei to defeat these devils. Thus, Jubei and Kagero are drawn into a plot that threatens to overthrow the government.

Ninja Scroll is an action heavy film of blood, nudity, and cool abilities. The action scenes, Ninja Scroll’s focus, are the most exciting aspect with great choreography and variety in techniques. At only an hour and a half long, there isn’t time to drag out the action or have characters stare into each other’s eyes for episodes on end. Each fight in Ninja Scroll is sharp, intense and varied as Jubei faces the eight devils, all with interesting powers. One ninja can live in shadow, while another can summon snakes from anywhere – anywhere… The manner in which these powers are used is the anime’s most creative aspect. Unfortunately, outside of the action, these villains have no development; they are evil and must do evil things with cool powers.

The lack of development is an issue across the board except for Jubei and Kagero, whose motivations and personalities are explored beyond surface level. The government at the core of the plot doesn’t get any screen time to establish and why this overthrow could be so disastrous. Of course, if your interest lies solely with the action, then this won’t matter. The plot itself is constructed enough to support the action; it isn’t vague or full holes, but does lack depth.

Ninja Scroll is a good-looking film, especially when you consider its 1993 release date. If all you saw during its era was Dragon Ball Z, then Ninja Scroll’s gritty quality comes as a surprise. The artists went for a grim atmosphere throughout, shadows filling all corner of the screen. Even when the sun is out, jet-black shadows contrast with the light in every scene. The animation is good – the blood in particular, which there is plenty of. Each villain has interesting visual designs to fit their abilities. I particularly liked the snake woman with her intricate tattoos.

A great failing is the dialogue. There are several moments where a character will explain how someone died even though we just saw them die. Too much stating the obvious, as well. Jubei slashes the rock ninja, who says in a stilted manner, “A very skilful attack, but you must realise I cannot be cut.” Exposition by stating the obvious isn’t good writing. The dialogue in the latter half gets pretty rubbish at points.

Ninja Scroll stands on its great action and dark atmosphere. It’s a shame that they didn’t extend the airtime to allow for character exploration, and they could have hired a better dialogue writer.

Art – High

Ninja Scroll looks good, defying age, and is loaded with blood.

Sound – Medium

A variety of voices well executed; however, the Japanese takes the edge, as the plethora of ancient Japanese names sound odd in English – a minor gripe. The music is underused and weak overall.

Story – Medium

This is purely about action with a decent narrative structure to support it. The villains are cool in design, just not in development.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Ninja Scroll’s action coupled with dark fantasy art is well worth your time. Just don’t expect extensive character development.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Holy S***Riveting Action

Negative: 

No Development