EDIT AFTER THE FACT: I literally found this out only after finishing this review, but apparently Ninja Scrolls 2 (a sequel to the movie but apparently not outright rejecting the TV series as Jubei has the wind slash) was going to be a thing at some point.
Introduction and Plot
"That theme music is pretty catchy. I hope it doesn't play a billion times and becomes annoying."
Ninja Scroll the Movie from 1993 was a reasonably enjoyable action movie. It wasn't amazing or anything, but it was enjoyable enough. It was apparently received well enough for someone to actually want to make a continuation of it, ten years later. Ninja Scroll, the thirteen episode long TV series made in 2003, was meant to show the original movie's protagonist's journies fourteen years following the events of the original movie. However, none of the events of the original movie are ever referenced or brought up, so you can easily see it as it being its own entity separate from the original movie about the same swordsman character.
Which is convenient, because the TV series was... disappointing to say the least. The movie's plot wasn't anything special, but it seemed like they actually tried. With this... there's a weird stone called the Dragon Stone everyone's trying to get as well as this "Light Maiden" of legend, and all that really boils down to is a battle with a different (sometimes multiple ninjas) each episode. Then they finally make it to the place they have to go to, a bunch of stuff happens, and the series just sort of ends.
It'd be a fine action show if... the action was as good as the movie's, if the characters were actually even slightly interesting, and if the ninjas they battle every episode weren't... well...
...this. You can't throw this at a person in the very first episode (she also spawns swarms of gigantic flesh eating worms from her skin and sends them after her enemies which is but not the weirdest that this show has). Are these ninjas? They don't look like ninjas. As a matter of fact, they very much seem like horrific monsters and/or mutants of some sort.
Also, there's never an actual "ninja scroll" of any sort. That's a petty gripe I know, but still.
Let's have a quick run through of the main characters. Comparisons to the movie will be made in the case of the protagonist and one other character, because it's somewhat surprising that both characters actually had somewhat of a personality, motivation, backstory and etc in the movie, and all those are either slimmed down or outright absent in the TV series... making me think this is more of a spin-off rather than an actual continuation/sequel...
...which is good because I liked the movie.
Left: TV Series, Right: Movie.
This is our protagonist, the wandering swordsman, Jubei Kibagami. In the movie, Jubei actually had a past and actually had motivation in cutting through the crazy ninjas so he can stop their leader whom he once killed (or so he had believed). But before he was aware of his connection to these ninjas' leader, he was actually downright abrasive and unwilling to stick his neck out for anyone, and was wholly unwilling to be involved with this trouble until an annoying old man literally injected him with a poison and would not reveal to him the antidote until Jubei helped the old man finish his objective.
Well, that's great. But what about Jubei, TV edition? He similarly doesn't want to become wrapped up in the conflict between these two equally weird ninja groups, but mostly just because he'd rather lie around and sleep. He could have simply tossed the Dragon Stone after it being entrusted to him by its previous dying owner, but he chooses not to because of a change of heart, I guess.
To be fair, he only changed his mind when the person requesting of him to do this asked him again as he laid dying. Still though, in the movie, he repeatedly refused to help try and prevent a group from basically overthrowing the government and causing anarchy. In the TV series, he was asked to deliver a weird stone to some girl.
Also, movie Jubei had no special abilities of any sort. He survived all his fights only via his swordsmanship and willpower/determination. TV Jubei on the other hand, has this generic wind slash attack from episode 1 and it basically kills almost every ninja it successfully lands on. Even following them witnessing and becoming aware of this attack that almost instantaneously cuts every ninja in half, they never develop a counter towards it or actually try to avoid it...
It really doesn't make the action that fun or thrilling to watch at all because even in the few fights where he doesn't use it, I just kept thinking I wonder when he's going to use the thing.
She's the female lead of Ninja Scroll TV, Shigure. Believed to be the Light Maiden, her home village is soon wiped out by a goliath sized ninja who believes he is a car, and begins to occasionally travel with Jubei and co except for whenever the plot decides for them to be split up for a while. Her personality is... there's really not much to say. The first episode, she's all "I want to explore the outside" and "I'm such a skilled warrior that everyone here loses to me in practice fights." But then it turns out the outside world is awful, filled with horrible monstrosities of beings, and it turns out she's not at all a master fighter. After that it's mostly just... "we have to protect her, she's the Light Maiden." Eh. She's no Kagero (female lead of the movie), that's for sure. Literally being 100% poison I guess automatically beats Shigure's nothing.
Left: TV Series, Right: Movie.
Dakuan, this weird old man shows up and bothers Jubei in both iterations of Ninja Scroll in one way or another. In the movie, he's an agent of the Tokugawa clan and basically sees Jubei as a potentially handy tool in thwarting those wishing to disrupt the rule of the Tokugawas. Manipulative and not unwilling to do some morally questionable actions to bring about the result he's aiming for, he poisons Jubei once Dakuan realizes Jubei is wholly unwilling to help him out of the goodness of his heart. In the movie, he's an actually serious character.
In the TV series, he's just the old man in Jubei's group. He may or may not still be a spy but I don't think they really ever mention that. Or perhaps it's just a really similar looking old man...
Finally, we're at Tsubute. A thief character Shigure encounters and then becomes a part of Jubei's group because literally why not. They needed another character, I guess. He literally contributes absolutely nothing at all, even moreso than Shigure and Dakuan (he can at least sort of defend himself and the other two a little). Apart from dialogue because of course we need dialogue, Tsubute's biggest contribution to the show other than be annoying is trying to steal the Dragon Stone from Jubei/Shigure on multiple occasions despite not even knowing if he could actually sell it for anything. Why continue to let the obvious and clearly unrepentant thief continue to travel with you even though he keeps trying to steal from you and contributes NOTHING????
That covers the main characters. What about their enemies, if this show's plot is really little more than "they proceed to travel and then are attacked/ambushed by ninjas"?
"Bat ninja? His power is bats! HOW ORIGINAL."
I recall thinking when I was watching the first episode, "Well, okay, I don't see this getting any weirder, if this is what the start is like."
But then, of course, there's the ninja who is literally just an eyeball that flies down people's throats to possess them. Thus, Jubei is straight up just killing random people one by one in this abandoned house after this eyeball flies down their throat. Of course, he finally stops it by cutting the eyeball in half. After a bunch of other people are needlessly dead.
Also, a kid watches his mother burn to death after she becomes possessed by the murderous eyeball.
The group of ninjas in the movie were strange too and some of them had supernatural powers themselves, but nothing like this. There was a guy who could turn his skin into stone, and the main bad guy could literally force himself back to life just because his will to remain alive was just that great, even if he had his head cut clean off. Additionally, there was a "main bad guy" and Jubei actually had reasons and backstory to have motivation to stop him.
Whereas the apparent "main bad guy" of the TV series turned out to be a miniature alien person and their actual body was apparently just a suit he controlled...? Also, robots exist, in this world as well apparently.
As well as because the degree of the insanity used in making these ninja abominations was much less in the movie, it also worked in the movie because it was a movie. Eventually, I think they just started to run out of ideas with the series. There is a ninja whose "power" is essentially... it can take the parts of people and animals she kills and then can attach it to herself or to others.
"I will now combine you with a dog. Why? I don't know, why not?"
Of course, it escalates after that point. She has her face pretty badly cut after one of her fights with Jubei, so she kills a snake and uses its skin to fix it. Then, she stumbles into a bear, kills it, and then attaches its arms to herself. BEAR ARMS. HOW DID SHE NOT WIN? Oh right, Jubei can cut through the air.
She eventually got so tired of losing that she traded her limbs to another strange ninja who was mad that he had weird ugly looking limbs, because she would gain the ninja's poison powers which would perhaps make her win if bear arms didn't. Also, her arms of course choke the ninja to death after they make the trade because yeah, why not.
So weird. And... here's the thing. The weirdness does not make this show any better. If anything, it makes it worse (although the eyeball episode was my favorite episode). But I guess they thought, well, we can't just do what they did with the movie. A swordsman killing relatively normal ninjas (comparing them to this) isn't enough. Yet if they had actually done that, I think it could have actually been much, much better.
Like, I really don't get why there was a need for a scene where the moth ninja tries to rape the tree ninja. That sure was weird. And didn't add anything at all except I guess Jubei is the protagonist and a good guy so okay he'll stop the rape even though she tried to kill him and his group probably not even a couple of hours before this.
"Well, a similar scene happened in the movie so..."
Bad characters (this version of Jubei and the old man from the movie are worse), generic/uninteresting fight scenes, thin bad plot and when there is plot it's really needlessly weird, and... the opponents Jubei fights are either bad, generic, weird, or a puzzling mixture of all of the above. Carry a magical stone, protect a girl, fight some freaks, and that's thirteen episodes, we're done. Was looking for at least an average/okay and consistent action show coming from the movie, but ended up being a 3 out of 10.
My recommendation is to watch the movie because it genuinely is much better and then just leave it at that, and pretend this doesn't exist. There's better action shows out there. Probably.