Wrath of the Ninja: Collector's Series
Distributed by Central Park Media
Running Time: 225 minutes
Reviewed by Jon Minners
Back when anime first hit the U.S. hard, Wrath of the Ninja was a heavily touted title. It was the mid-90ís and all casual anime fans, like myself, knew, in addition to the usual Dragon Ball Z fare, was Vampire Hunter D, Street Fighter, Fist of the Northstar, Ninja Scroll and Wrath of the Ninja. In fact, if you loved Ninja Scroll, you definitely needed to whet your ninja appetite and Wrath of the Ninja was the perfect title to enjoy.
This DVD set includes the film everyone knows about, but also includes the mini-series of which the film is based. The mini-series was never released on DVD. I will get into the mini-series and its strong virtues later. Both share the same story.
Set in the year 1580, Lord Nobunagaís undead armies ravage Japan, slaughtering all who stand in their way. Ayame, Sakon and Ryoma are three members of three distinct shadow ninja clans who must work together to defeat the evil empire. Ayame watched as her village was burned to the ground. Before everyone is killed, Ayame is given a dagger. Legend has it that when combined with two other similar weapons, Nobunagaís rule will be ended and Japan will be free.
Ayame sets out to find those wielding these weapons. In battle with Sakon, she discovers he is actually one of these necessary companions; wielding a legendary sword needed for the battle. Sakonís clan is killed by intriguingly designed ninjas that do not die. The two must unite to fight the undead in a battle that they canít fight alone.
Ayame and Sakon are the only truly interesting characters in the film with any chemistry, as odd as that is to say for an anime. Others in the movie are introduced and then killed off without much of any back story to make you feel for anyone else, but our main characters.
Ayame has some interesting hang-ups that prevent her from being the striking woman that she is. Sakon has his own hang-ups about fate and his part to play in this great war, but his character traits, that of courage and the ability to sacrifice himself for others, win out in the end in truly heroic fashion. The romantic tension between the two is strong in this very dramatic, humorless movie. There is always a sense of dire consequences ahead and no time to joke and that gets the viewer involved; locked in to the adventure as the two do battle. Ryoma has his own merits and by the end becomes an endearing character due to his heart in battle.
The three are united when a mysterious stranger saves Ayame and Sakon from their losing battle with the undead. The mysterious man sends them in search of the third warrior and on a quest to kill Nobunaga. This stranger is very similar to that of the old man in Ninja Scroll, at least to me. Youíll notice similarities to Ninja Scroll and other anime throughout the film; not necessarily a bad thing, but not very original either.
The one thing that separates this anime from others is that it has roots based in Japanese history. Oda Nobunaga (June 23, 1534 Ė June 21, 1582) was a major daimyo during the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Under Nobunagaís rule, his army conquered most of Japan before he committed suicide in battle. From my research, I believe Wrath of the Ninja is the first anime to paint this ruler in a negative light with others in the medium following suit sometime after, including the popular PS2 game Onimusha.
Set in a supernatural element, Nobunaga, in this film, uses seven ninjas to do his conquests and like Ninja Scroll or any video game, these are the main bosses the good guys who now include the staff wielding Ryoma, must defeat before they can end the conquest and avenge the deaths of their respective clans. Unlike Ninja Scroll, and very unfortunately, none of these bad guys are really developed and are just food for the fodder before the ultimate showdown at the end, which comes with a bit of a twist, as most anime from back in the day usually did.
Overall, this was an enjoyable film. What I like is that Wrath of the Ninja is cell-animated, reminiscent of your favorite cartoons from the 80ís, and whose look reminds me of simpler days, because of its simple, but rather effective presentation. What stands out the most, besides the lush forest landscapes and beautifully designed ancient Japanese villages, is the fluidity of the character movements. They are rather realistic and make for very believable fight scenes, adding to the intensity of the film. One thing about anime is you never know when the hero of the moment will die, so when a fight is as believable as it appears in this film, you can just sense the death of a favorite character and you, as a viewer, become caught up in the fight. All together, these fights add to the drama and intensity of the film. There are even hints of a good storyline thrown in to peak our interest.
I say this, because included in this collection is the original mini-series Yotoden: Chronicles of the Warlord Period. I soon discovered that viewers of this series were disappointed that Wrath of the Ninja simply cut and spliced the mini-series, removing 30 minutes from the film, and basically erasing storyline elements for the benefit of fans that do not enjoy complexity and just like action. In their never ending quest to satisfy all fans, the mini-series is included. Yotoden never was released on DVD before, so the magnitude of this set is huge for most avid anime collectors.
Not knowing about the mini-series, I enjoyed Wrath of the Ninja for what it was; just a lot of fun to watch. But, I popped in Yotoden, which contains only Japanese dialogue, and I loved it so much more. Itís Wrath of the Ninja, but better. I mean, a number of the scenes are redundant, but so much was new to me and it really rounded out the story and increased its dramatic depth that much more. The Japanese dialogue also made for a better film. The English dialogue is horrible in Wrath of the Ninja. Bad dubbing is usually part of the charm of an anime, but when given a choice, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, as sleepy as it makes me to read, makes for a more enjoyable cinematic adventure. The original mini-series also led me to do research, as it led me to believe there was historical significance behind the film, making Yotoden both entertaining and as educational as a supernatural epic can be.
I must give Wrath of the Ninja credit for a chilling end. The dialogue from Ayame was heartfelt and made for a feel-good moment that wrapped up the movie nicely. Wrath of the Ninja was also more crisp in its presentation; more aesthetically pleasing, in my opinion. Yotoden was better for storyline purposes.
Each film appeals to a different fan base; the more action oriented or the more storyline-oriented. When you collect the two, it is easy to tell why Wrath of the Ninja and Yotoden are still classics after all these years.