TOP: MANGA ENTERTAINMENT 10th Anniversary DVD (ABR: 7.65 mb/s)
MIDDLE: SENTAI FILMWORKS 20th Anniversary BLU-RAY (ABR: 19.83 mb/s)
BOTTOM: FLYING DOG (JP) BLU-RAY (ABR: 37.98 mb/s)
While perhaps not all it could have been, the new HD master is absolutely a dramatic step up from the now roughly twenty year old analog video materials that prior DVDs have all been based on up to this point. Resolution is improved with strong, crisp outlines and nothing substantial to mention in terms of compression artifacts - one need look no further than the wall of bees to see how massive an upgrade this is over Manga Entertainment's "10th Anniversary" DVD. (The Victor R2 DVD was better in terms of compression, but was ultimately sourced from the same ugly analog master.) It's clear that some level of grain reduction has been used, with minor traces of smearing and "slow-motion" grain on brighter areas of the screen, but the use hasn't smeared anything into obscurity or led to any major textural oddities, so I'll just shrug and move on.
Much like the RUROUNI KENSHIN: TSUIOKU-HEN OVA BD I spoke at length about last year, the matte bars are solid IRE 0 black, but the feature itself has an oddly elevated gamma, giving shadows a washed out look that disappear into a sort of hazy midnight blue. Unlike the Kenshin OVAs, however, the previous DVD masters did feature shadow detail in that now-murky gamma low-end, which you can plainly see in a few of the above screenshots, particularly the one with Jubei standing up in a dark corner; his every outline in visible on the DVD, but he's been turned into a sort of ghostly sword-toting blob without any clear outlines on the new HD master. If the gamma were lower and that image actually faded to black around Jubei I'd be fine with it, range limiting or not, but looking at the Blu-ray as it is now, it's as if they crushed the gamma to reference levels, and THEN boosted it back up later on, sans any shadow detail!
I asked myself, having done color correction on intensely bizarre animated sources before, why the hell would they do that? I honestly don't understand what the fuck happened here, and I wish I did. Could have been a mistake? A color space conversion gone awry? A gamma profile interpreted out of whack? Could have been something as simple as the techs did their job without any direct input, and down the line Kawajiri looked at the results and then told them "Hey guys, this looks way darker than it should be. Can we fix that somehow?" This could easily be the bizarre result of such a request, and isn't too much unlike John Landis requesting that the grain be put back into the HD versions of Animal House and An American Werewolf in London, only for Universal to dust a layer of fake digital grain on top of their already heavily processed masters and call it a day. Technically they did as requested... they just didn't actually fix the problem. I honestly don't know what chain of events led us to having crushed-yet-washed-out shadows, and it's a shame that the few complaints I've heard of fudged shadow details were indeed a big issue... thankfully, if what you see above doesn't turn you off, you've already seen the worst of it. The new master is more processed and less like actual 35mm film than I'd have liked, but it is what it is, and after years of genuinely shitty DVD presentations, this is easily the best that Ninja Scroll has ever looked.
Sentai and Flying Dog have each created their own AVC encodes, and the two do look very similar at first glance... but, sadly, both of the issues that plagued our last guineapig Serial Experiments Lain - namely elevated black levels, and posterization (or "banding") - are both present to varying degrees. The real world shadow detail itself was already a mess making the turned-up gamma a bit of a "eh, whatever" situation for me personally, but the banding is kind of a downer, even if it's far from the worst example in recent memory. Is this merely the result of halving the bitrates? Or did Sentai get their hands on a highly compressed HDCAM source, rather than a full-bandwidth HDCAM SR master? Only their authoring team knows for sure, and I doubt they're in any rush to admit that a possible shortcoming is because the hardware they chose to sink tens of thousands of dollars in just isn't top-of-the-line enough. The backgrounds in the scene with Gara attacking Jubei in the hot spring is probably the worst example of unnatural, twitching color banding to be found on the Sentai release, but it's worth noting that the $100 import - while superior, I'll admit - has plenty of slightly more subtle color contouring of its own. If the Flying Dog transfer is... I dunno, let's say it's an 8 out of 10, the Sentai Filmworks release is probably a solid 7. Not as technically sound, but more than good enough for the vast majority of viewers, and considering how terrible your options have been until now still a worthy purchase to anyone looking to revisit the OVA itself.
Both releases include Lossless 5.1 English audio, Flying Dog in Dolby TrueHD and Sentai in DTS-HD Master Audio. Both are unimpressive ports of Manga's old DVD surround upmix, and frankly my dear, if you're actually watching Ninja Scroll dubbed in English you're getting exactly what you deserve. The original Japanese stereo mix (Uncompressed on the JP release/Lossless on the US) is surprisingly decent for a modestly budgeted Japanese production of this vintage, though a mix of this nature made about twenty years ago is only going to ever sound so fresh. English subtitles are provided on Sentai's release, while there are no subtitles of any kind on the Japanese import... that's just odd, isn't it? That Victor Entertainment sticks English dubs on there with no Japanese subtitles?
The only bonus feature on the Sentai disc is a subtitled director's commentary, but considering how rare these tracks tend to be - even in Japan, much less translated - it's reason enough on its own to recommend the US release at the price it's currently selling for. The only other bonus feature found on the JP release is a Japanese TV spot and Trailer, both of which are 1080i upscales of some really ghastly looking SD materials. And for those with a fancy packaging fetish, there's also a BD + DVD combo available in the UK that's currently selling in a sexy LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK complete with a 20 page English language booklet - and hey, it's got the JP trailers, too! Just keep in mind that the Manga UK release is REGION B only, so if you live in the States aren't multi-region capable, it might not be worth the thirty quid just to have a shiny little tin you can't actually spin in the comfort of your own home. The UK disc is confirmed to be a single-layered presentation, though I can't say for sure if the transfer is comparable to the US release or not.
Through the mid 1990s this film was something of a counter-cultural dirty bomb: A grotesquely exploitave yet professionally crafted piece of NC-17worthy material that was not only a cartoon, but one that literally every single Blockbuster Video on the planet had at least one copy of. Infamous or not, when you cut beyond what Zac Bertschy recently described as its "Museum Piece" subtext, it's still a balls-out piece of uniquely Japanese pure violence entertainment with style to spare and numerous creative set pieces. It may not be quite as wild as Wicked City or as overwhelmingly beautiful as Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and I can't stress enough that there are no scrolls anywhere to be found, but anyone writing this off as mindless candy for the basest of instincts is ignoring how much raw talent Kawajiri had, and while it's not my favorite of his films, it's hard not to just ogle how such uncompromisingly extreme material was treated with such finesse. The general death of the OVA market and Japan's natural propensity towards cute, light hearted fare means that while titles like this were never overwhelmingly common, they're practically non-existent in today's market, so while hardly representative of anything but Kawajiri's visual fetishism and bold strokes white-knuckled action, it's something that any fan of contemporary anime should at least know existed, and give a chance on its own merits. Not that it matters, really... I can't imagine anyone buying this new Blu-ray didn't see this on VHS at least once a decade ago.
While I can't say either the HD master or Sentai Filmworks' presentation is without flaws, I can't imagine this one looking or sounding any better on home video than it does right now. The JP release is superior, but not by an especially wide margin, and hardly enough to justify spending the real world price difference between them. Long time fans will be floored at just how detailed Madhouse's hand-drawn animation was for a direct to video project based on an original idea, and newcomers will likely be too filled with shock and awe at the savage, rampant bloodletting and borderline pornographic treatment of its cast to care.