Shuranosuke Zanmaken: Shikamamon no Otoko (Shuranosuke the Demon: Man of the Death Scythes Crest; Sword for Truth), directed by Osamu Dezaki. 49 minutes. December 28, 1990.
Dezaki must have been slumming when he directed this OAV for Promise Co., Ltd. and Toei Video – he used the name Tsutomu Dezaki and took only a Storyboard credit. It has gotten several reviews as the worst OAV ever made.
A major reason that reviewers were so outraged was that Sword for Truth was first released in the U.S. as Ninja Scroll 2. It had nothing to do with Ninja Scroll except its Japanese “samurai” setting. It was painfully inferior in quality, and it was full of more gratuitous gore and blatant nudity than Ninja Scroll had. The credits say that it was adapted from a series of novels by Takeshi Narumi; the viewer gets the impression that an awful lot was left out.
An official blurb reads: “They owned the land and the people on it, but one man they did not own was Shuranosuke Sakaki the master swordsman. Bearing his distinctive “Scythes of Death” crest, he walks alone and unafraid, cutting a path through those who stand in his way.
“In this action packed adventure, Shuranosuke is hired by the Tokugawa Shogunate to rescue Princess Mayu from the clutches of a group of bandit ninjas, the Seki Ninja. They will stop at nothing to prevent him from succeeding and call on the undead spirits of Seki Ninjas in Hell to assist them.
“Shuranosuke’s skills are put to the ultimate test as he leaves a trail of blood and several limbs behind him in a desperate attempt to save the Princess.”
Oh, really? He’s so stone-faced he looks bored most of the time. It opens in 1635 (1603 plus 32 years) with a squad of the shōgun’s police racing towards a “secret meeting place” in Edo, the shōgun’s capital. “When we get to the secret meeting place, I want every one of the treacherous dogs put to the sword,” their commander yells without moving his mouth. The secret meeting place contains – well, it’s not clear whether it’s a real giant white tiger, or a giant white tiger supernatural monster. It appears to be both at different times during this sequence.
While the police are fighting the tiger (“It’s just a big pussycat!”), a group of Seki Ninja kidnaps Princess Mayu. The tiger seems invulnerable until it comes to a lone man walking slowly directly towards it. His twin “scythes of death” crest looks extremely like a swastika to me. “You leave me no choice but to destroy you,” he says, apparently unwilling to just walk around it. He kills the tiger and goes on his way (the police are smart enough to get out of his way) without revealing his name, or what he was supposed to be doing except looking extremely bad-ass.
At a street fair in Edo, the man cuts the clothes off a girl thief. He goes to a Shinto temple where he is challenged by six masked killers. He kills them all. Their leader, Gunbei, admits casually that they were only throwaway sword fodder to test the warrior’s skill. He, Gunbei, is the real master swordsman. The warrior kills him and leaves the temple. (Why did he go there? How had Gunbei and the others known that he would be there?) He is confronted by their real leader, Daizen Mikura, head of the Mikura clan, servitors of the shōgun. They were charged with guarding Princess Mayu, but the whole fight with the white tiger was to distract them so the rogue Seki Ninja could kidnap Princess Mayu. The Seki Ninja have left a note pinned to the body of the Princess’ personal bodyguard: they demand the Princess’ ginryu family sword as ransom. The sword is to be delivered to them at the Ekonji shrine on Benten island by one man at the Hour of the Boar. If the demand is not met, the Princess will be raped and then killed. “Please, sir, I beg you: rescue our princess!” Daizen offers four boxes of gold coins.
Shuranosuke lives in a dilapidated hovel in a cemetery. He gives the cemetery’s caretaker one of the boxes of gold coins; a year’s rent in advance. He has a visitor; the girl street thief, Oren. “What do want?” Besides lots of NSFW graphic sex, she wants to kill him. “Any man who makes love with me must be so cold and full of hate he could kill me at any moment. So I have to kill you first.” Huh? After she quickly changes her mind to being unable to get enough sex from him, he dismisses her. “You’d better go now. Otherwise making love to me may be the last thing you ever do.” Because the Seki Ninja strike just then. Shuranosuke walks out of his hut, still nude except for his sword Onimaru, into the cemetery to kill the rest of the ninja while Oren watches.
Cut to Princess Mayu being forced to enjoy a lesbian orgy, under the influence of opium. The leading Seki lesbian says, “Oh, Princess Mayu, you must bring me the ginryu sword.” Apparently they don’t trust Shuranosuke to bring it, and how is Princess Mayu supposed to bring it if she’s been captured?
Shuranosuke poles a skiff to Benten island. He finds the temple’s own boatkeepers murdered by the Seki Ninja. He goes on to the Ekonji temple where he finds Princess Mayu being held on the roof by Doga, leader of an army of black-clad Seki Ninja. Doga demands that Shuranosuke give him the sword. Shuranosuke does, but asks why the sword is so important. Doga laughs evilly and orders his ninja to kill Shuranosuke. Princess Mayu says she wants the handsome stranger to make love to her before she is murdered. Shuranosuke kills lots of Seki Ninja, disarms Doga, grabs the Princess, and they flee with the rest of the black-clad ninja after them. Suddenly they are rescued by an army of red-clad lesbian ninja who race past them, engage the Seki Ninja, and surround Doga. They are the Koga Ninja who have come to retrieve the ginryu sword from Doga. They kill him and take the sword — but “Let me show you why I’m called Doga the Invincible,” he laughs, and resurrects himself with supernatural strength. He kills the Koga Ninja – but Shuranosuke and the princess are already gone with the sword.
Shiranosuke and the princess pole the skiff through the lake. They are greeted by friendly Mikura servitors, but a monster rises from the lake to kill them all. Shiranosuke kills it.
There is an utterly pointless scene with a samurai and his guide to Lord Suzaka’s mansion. “The scent of death is in the air tonight,” the samurai says, stopping the guide who is really an assassin. “I am Kazumo Ozaki, an officer of the Okiyama clan,” the samurai introduces himself. The other is Marōji the assassin. They duel, sword against jiujitsu. The assassin wins.
Shuranosuke and the princess meet a fleet of floating lanterns, the symbol of the Festival of the Dead. They are welcomed to Hell’s gateway by the accursed soul of a Seki Ninja, who tells them that they have drifted onto the River Styx. The lanterns erupt in flame as the accursed soul attacks them. Shuranosuke kills it.
He takes the princess to an inn, where he is obviously well-known by the sultry innkeeper. The princess comes to him during the night, saying that he is not really a cold-hearted killer at all. “I killed both my parents. And later that evening, I killed my younger brother as well.”
The next day he returns the princess to the Mikura clan. Daizen, dressed in white, offers him the rest of the money – eight boxes of gold – and a bonus. Shirnanosuke asks why he is dressed for a funeral? “You have come into contact with the princess, and so you must die.” Mikura men armed with flintlocks surround them. Shirnanosuke threatens to kill Daizen as well, but he says that he expects to die also. The princess rushes in to stop them. Shiranosuke gets up to leave, without the money. “If you throw a stone at a stray dog in the street, it’ll never take food from you again.”
A monk in fire laughs maniacally. “The white tiger has been slain. One of god’s four incarnates has been destroyed. It’s the start of a trial by fire. It’s a test to see if the Tokugawa will rule for generations or be ground into the dust!”
Shiranosuke, walking through Edo, passes by Marōji the assassin. Marōji remarks that they both have the smell of other men’s blood. “Just be thankful it isn’t your own,” Shiranosuke says. “For the time being,” Marōji answers. “Now is all we have.”
Unresolved points: Where the Seki Ninja got the white tiger. Why Shiranosuke lives in a cemetery. What happens to Oren, the female thief, who just fades out of the story. Why the ginryu sword is important. Who the Koga Ninja are, and how their fight with Doga the Invincible turns out. Who Lord Suzaka is. Why Marōji the assassin is brought into the plot. Where the Seki Ninja get their demonic spirits. Whether Shiranosuke’s past – “I killed both my parents. And later that evening, I killed my younger brother as well.” – is important. Whether the other three god’s incarnates are intended to enter the story. What will happen between Shiranosuke and Marōji. Yep; there’s plenty to leave the viewer feeling frustrated.
Most reviews refer to Shiranosuke Sakaki as a samurai, but the OAV itself is careful to call him a swordsman, a warrior – he has no lord, he’s not even a rōnin; he’s a killer for hire. Did the real government that the shōgunate established allow killers for hire to operate openly in the national capital? Not hardly!
It was almost ten years after this OAV was released in Japan in 1990 before it came out in the U.S. as Sword for Truth from Manga Entertainment; on VHS on June 30, 1998 and on DVD on July 25, 2000.
Next week: “Forgotten” OAVs #36.