Although Ninja Scroll has been the de facto king of all martial arts anime for some time, its pedigree comes from a long line of samurai flicks ranging back into the live-action days of the Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi films and continuing through modern titles like Dagger of Kamui, The Hakkenden, and Rurouni Kenshin. However, few capture the feral spirit of violent action and supernatural warfare quite the same way as that show, and that leaves "what should I watch if I liked Ninja Scroll" one of the hardest questions I still receive in my mailbox. The original Yotoden OVA series, released in 1989, is my first recommendation to these folks desperate for brutal mystical battles set in feudal Japan. Though not nearly as splendidly animated as Scroll, the strong plotting and unique heroes combined with vivid swordplay make this one a title I like a bit better, myself.
A village burns. Attacked by a three-headed gargantuan, the small town joins a growing list of communities destroyed in Nobonaga Oda's quest to become Japan's shogun circa 1581. Ayame is a young woman who escapes the destruction with the Kasumi clan's mystical short sword, but at the cost of her brother's life, who is slaughtered in his efforts to make sure Ayame's flight is successful. Ayame's only hope is to join forces with two other ancient clans, the Hyoga and Hagakura, to avenge the murder of her people.
Ayame succeeds in joining up with the contemplative swordsman Sakon and the brave warrior Ryoma, but their combined forces may not be enough to stop Nobonaga's onslaught. Thirsting for power, Nobonaga and his bizarre right-hand man Ranmaru have employed the Oborushu, a group of seven malevolent warriors who command shapeshifting demonic forces. Facing monstrous apparitions and potential traitors on every side, Ayame and her friends must stop Nobonaga from controlling Japan before he ushers in a world of utter darkness.
Despite appearing its age now, Yotoden is a surprisingly good series that works better now than it did when I watched it several years ago. Though the character designs follow the trends of the 1980s, the rest of the animation work is quite nice. Though there are still plenty of next-to-still-frame sequences, particularly in sections with quite a bit of dialogue, the action in the piece looks great. The money was spent where everyone wanted to see it--in some awesome battle pieces that give the viewer more than a fair share of gory swordsmanship. The soundtrack is not superb, though a number of pieces within it are, because of a few misconceived cues that just don't quite fit. (The first episode is easily the best scored, but it goes downhill from there.)
When I reviewed Yotoden a number of years ago, I complained "we don't get near as much background on the characters as we would like." This is still true, but I'm more willing to forgive it on a second critical look. Each of the three heroes has lost their homes, families, and clans in the wars that have ravaged Japan; that is what shapes their current actions, and dwelling on their pasts would not have moved this picture forward as I once thought. Besides, Yotoden is really about presenting an intelligent yet exciting samurai story, and so I can give the meager character development a pass.
However, there are a few glitches. Yotoden has two great acts and a mediocre third. Up until then, a minimum of exposition was necessary in order for the audience to understand enough of the real historical background to get into the story. However, the third OVA shifts gears, overwhelming us with a distracting chronology of events. The story also goes in an all-too-foreseeable direction, scuttling the unpredictable nature of the program up until that point. It's not terrible, but the ending is certainly less than what the first two-thirds of the program deserved. There's also a bit of credulity lost by the attempts to reconcile reality with this paranormal freakshow. Nobody who really cares about the history of Japan will likely go for a show that turns some of its players into possessed occultic madmen; those who do not care don't need the historical layer as a trapping.
The reason that I still give it a higher place than the aforementioned Ninja Scroll is because Yotoden treats its audience with respect. The plotting is quite solid. The creature features are not there for shock value, but are an entertaining plus. There's also not this air of ghoulish comedy underlying it all; it's played straight, and the show is stronger for it. Finally, Yotoden predates Ninja Scroll by four years, and if you watch them back to back, you can see that Scroll owes some of its best stuff to its predecessor.
If you want to see Yotoden in its best form, avoid the DVD that is currently available under the alternate title Wrath of the Ninja. It takes the roughly two hours from the OVAs and chops out nearly thirty minutes of material, wiping out not only important subplots but a lot of what gives the OVA series its character. I can only hold out hope that somebody will have the wisdom to put the full, unadulterated show out on the shiny disc sometime soon. (Editor's note: in August 2006, Central Park Media is releasing a 2-disc set that includes both Wrath of the Ninja and the original Yotoden OVAs. Not only is it a good way to compare the two, it's the first time the OVAs have been released in the US on DVD. Thanks, CPM!)
Although not a show for everyone--its layers of gruesome samurai action will turn off the sensitive, surely--Yotoden is a good choice for those who enjoy martial arts with a large side dish of the supernatural. Although it's not nearly as good as the awesome Rurouni Kenshin prequel OVAs, it's one of the better picks for this genre.
Yotoden OVAs -- graphic violence -- B+