Band of Ninja, and the Fundamentals of Animated Revolution

This 1967 film, courtesy of director Nagisa Oshima, may well be the most literally accurate movie length adaptation of a manga ever created.

If you are incredibly familiar with either Asian live action film history or have rooted around the Criterion Collection catalog enough, one would be most likely to know Oshima’s work from a few of his long line of feature film works. One would be his wildly controversial film adaptation of Sada Abe’s famous murder act (In the Realm of the Senses), and another his Palme d’Or nominated and David Bowie staring take on World War II British prisoners of war in a Japanese camp (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence). A third, potentially, would be for Empire of Passion, for which he won the Best Director (Prix de la mise en scène) award at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, the movie itself being one dealing in explorations of adultery and tragedy. Sadly, the director passed away in early 2013 at the age of eighty, having by such a time helmed roughly two dozen films, and just as many television specials.

Band of Ninja (also known as Manual of Ninja Martial Arts, and Ninja Bugei-chō) is the only film Oshima made across a long and very respected career that can be considered animation, and by extension be filed under anime. One will indeed find it in places like the Anime News Network Encyclopedia and the database.

What the movie looks like, how it came to be, and how it is executed on a technical level makes for a very intriguing exploration to embark upon when considering both the foundational cores and innovations within comics and animated film.

Ninja bugei-cho - Band of Ninja Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (1967, Nagisa Oshima) Sanpei Shirato Hotarubi Sakagami Shuzen Sakagami Tree Surprise

Truth be told, there are no traditionally animated sequences of any kind in Band of Ninja.

What the production is happens to be a filmed version of Sanpei Shirato’s (real name Noboru Okamoto) art and comic panels. Shirato was a pioneer of gekiga works in the Japanese comic industry, and received attention even in his own time for his achivements in the medium. Gekiga, which would more literally translate as “dramatic pictures,” is different from traditional manga (“whimsical pictures”) in terms of intent similar to the use of “graphic novel” versus “comic book” in the western industry. It aims to bring a degree of more adult, literary, or other alternative marketing niche terms to the table to set such work apart from other comics work. Naturally, taken on the whole, just as some western comic books can be more refined than graphic novels, so too are not all modern gekiga works inherently more “mature” than some manga

Be that as it all may be in the modern landscape, Band of Ninja was Shirato’s first professional series back in 1957 during the genesis of gekiga distribution. He was heavily influenced by things such as the pacing and tension one could find in kamishibai, the paper drama picture scrolls previously used by monks to teach moral lessons. These had a natural performance aspect to them, and as a result there were elements of how the shifting between slowness and acceleration that he dwelled on and how to better work such mechanics into comic panel formats. How he chose to do things like action sequences for instance, like a wide number of panels used for certain simple actions, where they go relative to page turns, that sort of thing, to generate senses of weight, drama, tension, surprise, and so on. Not that such consideration had never been made before in comics, but here in essence to bring something more of a performance quality to the work. The difference between a just portraying character drawing a sword with a declarative post, and instead the individual freeze frame motions between hand hesitation, reaching for the scabbard and hilt, drawing the blade, and all the rest to lend it robustness.

Despite the work itself being an unmoving comic and associated panels, of course. But the events would flow in the eye of the mind.

As a movie adaptation, what Oshima’s version of Band of Ninja does is to take this work Shirato had created in print, and give it voice, sound effects, and music. To be able to perhaps add additional artistic or experiential layers through things like the particular pace of a panning shot or panel reveal from the camera. Provide an alteration of impact through numerous panels in key sequence flying by in a flurry of hectic activity. And a number of other little tricks here and there one could do in small ways with a physical film camera, just as if it were over an animation cel. It continues on like this, never once breaking from its dedication to the cause, for two hours. The narrative itself being one telling a Sengoku Period story of the mysterious ninja Kagemaru and eternally cast bad guy Oda Nobunaga, among many others.

Ninja bugei-cho - Band of Ninja Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (1967, Nagisa Oshima) Sanpei Shirato Piles of Skeletons Human Bones Eaten By Birds

The production ended up as it did for practical reasons.

The special effects required would have been expensive if not impossible for a live action work to do in an accurate style Oshima or Shirato would have been pleased with. Numerous body doubles, large scale sieges, the extensive three dimensional camera rigging that would be required for capturing how the duel sequences go in the comic, etc. Certainly, while Band of Ninja was successful and lauded enough in its printed form for Oshima to get attached to the project, it is not like the adaptation would have the budget of 1963’s Cleopatra or 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, these contemporaries were already sounding cinematic alarms across the world that the historical epic film genre was dead, such incredible financial busts that these were. A Japanese live action work on that level of abundance would be by all means out of the question.

A full fledged theatrical animation was also deemed to be grossly out of reach to do appropriate justice to the source material, given the speed, detail, and fluidity it would need to have. The rich or heavier line look captured in Shirato’s panels, intended for a more adult audience as they were at the time, was something seen as desirable to retain as core to the work and its experience. The simple solution Oshima came to then, whose mechanics I have already delved into a bit, was to film these panels themselves.

In excerpts from a 2002 talk at an event ran by The Japan Foundation, Bangkok, captured by this Italian fansite to Sanpei Shirato’s original work, here is a small part of what Oshima had to say when looking back on Band of  Ninja so many years after its 1967 release:

I, however, proceeded where others withdrew and now consider it my honor as an adventurer-artist to have been able to bring “Ninja Bugeicho” to the screen. […]

Motion pictures nowadays are saddled with a lot of restrictions commonly referred to as common sense. The common sense of producers, critics, audiences, cultural and educational groups, the common sense of mass communication in general is what puts motion pictures in a framework. And naturally themes treated within a framework are severely limited. We must therefore remove the restricting framework, break it up and throw away the pieces.

It is a bold statement, much in keeping with the revolutionary tone of the narrative in this comic, movie, and the techniques to bring them together. Because the final product does very much feel like something that would be incredibly difficult if not outright impossible for most people to convince a studio to support as a full theatrical feature today.

Through it all, that it does retain a lot of incredibly strong direction even today speaks well to the degree of intent taken with it at the time. It dovetails well with those words Oshima would share on the industry on the whole decades down the road.

Ninja bugei-cho - Band of Ninja Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (1967, Nagisa Oshima) Sanpei Shirato Samurai Burning Arrows

These direction elements that I have made note of is what interested me the most in this film, even while very much in the middle of my initial viewing of it.

Even in a regular film, be it animation or otherwise, there are to varying degrees panning shots, slow zoom outs, and all that. So on a visual storytelling or cinematography level, pointing a camera at the panels and seeking to give them a filmic quality is not all that different in core objective than what one does in many other productions. And there are “good” and “bad” kinds of cinematography at that, so it is not like anything about where one points a camera is itself easy.

But Oshima had a clear respect for Shirato’s comic, and I think that shines through here. The battles have definite weight and gravity to them, as was intended even in their original page turning form. The way a scene may go from archers and artillery launching their payloads in one moment, as we arc across the screen watching their missile soar and arc impressively in the air, to the savage impact such implements are having on those below. It is a graphic work in multiple senses, as it is certainly unapologetic in showing decapitations, soldiers buckling under duress from incendiary weapons , and so on. Yet, it is not what I would consider gratuitous or puerile, but very matter of fact. I would certainly not say it is celebrating violence for the sake of violence itself, by any means.

The visual progression as we smash through multiple panels of swords being drawn and their resulting conflicts, or a character realizes the identity of another. There is an enduring, classic quality to the narrative and its subject matter across the Warring States years in its quest and intent. That these deaths are more things that tend to happen along the way, and that not even our leading figures have significant plot armor in this most conflicted of times as neighbors arm up. Again, all of this without any animation going on besides the careful camera work.

One could liken Band of Ninja to watching a series of animation storyboards assembled into a full feature, and I do not think they would be too far off the mark.

I do think such a sentiment would undersell how many panels are actually in use however, and how detailed many of them can be for how little screen time they may take up. This was a retail comic at the exploratory front lines of its era, after all.

Ninja bugei-cho - Band of Ninja Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (1967, Nagisa Oshima) Sanpei Shirato Hotarubi Sakagami Sword Drawn Eye Glare Pose

The movie is broken up into chapters, as one could expect given the source material and the way it is trying to portray it, and I think that works to its benefit here.

As it does clock in at nearly two hours long, I should be honest about some things regarding the pacing. Despite how positive or otherwise championing it I may sound on the whole, I did have to stop it a few times at natural break points to be able to get an intermission break and so on. One is having a comic flipped, paced, and acted out for them in every sense of consideration, which is incredibly neat to be seen and experience on such an extravagant level. This is far beyond Manga Motion Comics, Toei’s Ga-nime line of experimental films, Studio Ghibli allowing impressionist painter Naohisa Inoue to breathe elements of animated life into his gallery works for the Iblard Time (Iblard Jikan) anime, and many other experimental anime films dealing in limited animation.

But on the other hand, this faithfulness or formatting to the source perhaps then does so well in capturing the spirit of it all that it triggers my mental switch on how I tend to normally consume physical comics. Finish several chapters, then do something else for a while. Which is a tough mental nut to crack, in that I could not imagine watching this entire movie from start to finish in a single uninterrupted sitting.

A fair number of the later chapters in the film are side stories establishing how different members of the ninja group grew up and came to join each other. So there is also a sense of confusion that can set in unless one does a really solid sense of keeping all the years, battles, what came before and yet after what, and so on. Having at least passing familiarity with the general historical time period would be helpful, despite the work itself being a greatly fictional one. As a movie, looking at it like an anthology collection of related short films to take in pieces but playing to a interconnected journey and conclusion may be the better idea than a straight shot linear sit down approach. But again, that may very much be the film making me process it so much as a comic, so ones own mileage may vary wildly. I know others can certainly demolish whole stacks in a single marathon without a second thought.

Ninja bugei-cho - Band of Ninja Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (1967, Sanpei Shirato Nagisa Oshima Hotarubi Sakagami Jutaro Yuki Showdown Roof Of Fushikage Castle

That all being said, I think Band of Ninja was definitely a very solid media experience to have had, and it is very surprising just how natural a lot of it felt as it was presented. That elements such as its violence and gore can retain its kineticism and punchy narrative impact, rather than look like a lackadaisical series of shock effect flipbook pages. This would have been such an easy film to mess up given the methods used to bring the comic into a new media format with sound and all. But there is an experimental craft and attention to detail in its portrayal of events and shot composition that I think a lot of modern anime can still learn a lot from.

On home video there is only a DVD version, which is what I used for capturing the images in this post. There are a strain of English subtitles floating around out there in the vast oceans of the internet, though I must warn that they are a clunky script that replaces character, location, and other names with alternative national equivalents. Consider reading more around the Italian Sanpei Shirato fansite I had mentioned,  as it does have some English language walkthroughs for the plot, character names, and all the rest. A rather essential resource to have come across, and the author has my great thanks.

Like many classic films, I do not think one coming to know what the plot is in advance ruins the experience of having watched it in any way. And if one has seen enough period films or narratives like this one, they can probably easily extrapolate even from the limited information on the plot I have been providing on the eventual fate of the romantic ninjas on the side of the revolutionaries. But this makes the film no less noteworthy to actually having seen, as a technical demonstration, and there is an interesting thematic vibe to be taken from such a fundamental story being told in such a

From what I have read elsewhere, it seems there is a recent high definition transfer (complete with proper English script translations) that shows up at select film events or art exhibitions every now and again.

I think that would add a lot to the experience, were it to be become more widely available beyond such limited doors. To highlight the grains, depth, and flow of Shirato’s lines all the more, of such paramount importance to given the nature of Oshima’s work here of making a film of a progression of comic panel art.


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