I usually like what Studio Trigger puts out, be it the over-the-top action of Kill la Kill or the whimsical magic of Little Witch Academia. When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace even won me over in a single scene. But their newest, Ninja Slayer, didn't even come close.
Let's start with the presentation. Most of the time Ninja Slayer from Animation looks to be your standard flash animation comedy. The characters are 2D cardboard cutouts with a static background — filmed largely in wide shot. Most of the time, the characters' lips don't even move. To put it another way, it often looks like a stick puppet theatre.
However, while most such comedies tend to have the characters do little more than stand around talking, Ninja Slayer is an action anime. The majority of the anime's fight scenes are done in this ultra-cheap-to-produce style. It looks more than a little silly with its flat characters crashing into each other — another reason why most anime of this type are comedies.
At the same time, Ninja Slayer is a parody of 70s anime. When it isn't in its usual 2D form, the anime adopts a more usual anime look and becomes a clear homage to 70s anime. There is a narrator constantly over-informing the audience with obvious exposition; and the show is full of static shots where nothing moves except for the character's lips — a classic budget-saving technique. Moreover, each episode is even shot in 4:3 standard definition.
Sometimes this homage to the 70s goes over-the-top — and not in a good way. The show often uses the "repeat cut" technique — emphasising a particular climatic moment by showing it several times in a row. However, instead of doing this the standard three times, Ninja Slayer will show the same repeated shot a dozen times in a row with no change in an attempt to be humorous. Sadly, it's not. It's simply tedious — and the joke returns again and again throughout the show.
While the flash animation and 70s parody silliness may have worked for another anime, the blatant attempts at comedy are a detriment in Ninja Slayer for one simple reason: the story.
Ninja Slayer is set in a cyberpunk future where superpowered ninjas rule over the common man with an iron fist. When one normal man's family is murdered by ninjas, he becomes host to a ninja spirit that shares his goal: to kill all ninjas. By drawing upon the power of this malevolent spirit, the man becomes Ninja Slayer.
While many episodes center around Ninja Slayer, others center around Koki, a Japanese school girl (also sharing her body with a ninja spirit) who attempts to escape from ninja assassins and crime lords; Nancy Lee, a journalist with the Ghost in The Shell-style power to plug physically into any network to hack it; and Gendoso, who along with his daughter Yukano, are the last of the true ninjas — i.e., ninjas not possessed by a ninja spirit.
Overall, it is a story of pain, death, hardship, and revenge. But at the same time, everything about it is so stupendously over-the-top. Before each battle, no matter what is going on, everything must stop while the ninjas introduce themselves. When a ninja is killed, he always recites a haiku, says "sayonara," and then explodes in a ball of fire. One major arc even parodies extreme communist thinking — as the communists engineer massacres of the common man so that the common man can "live a better life."
This is already darkly humorous in its inception. Adding constant slapstick to both the visuals and dialogue only detracts from the inherent comedy.
Moreover, the slapstick undercuts the show's drama. Much of the time, Ninja Slayer is a serious story. Ninja Slayer's family was murdered. Koki is nearly always on the edge of being killed. Nancy's best friend dies horribly. The only people we see in this crapsack world that are happy are the ninja villains exploiting the weak.
Frankly, Ninja Slayer would be both a better serious story and a dark comedy if it had been played straight like Studio Trigger's other over-the-top action comedy, Kill la Kill.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the way in which it was presented is the story's only problem. Ninja Slayer is set up as a series of short stories. Sometimes, an episode will do a complete story. Other times, it will take several to finish one. There is nothing wrong with this format in general. However, the problem in Ninja Slayer is that we only see about half of the overall narrative.
As we see only select stories, many major events happen off screen and are never addressed. We never, for example, see the first meeting of Gendoso and Ninja Slayer (outside of a brief second during the opening theme song). We likewise miss out on the developing friendship between Ninja Slayer and Nancy. Between episodes they go from half-antagonist allies to loyal friends. When watching, it often feels like you've missed several episodes — and obviously important ones at that.
The reason for this is a simple one: Ninja Slayer from Animation is based on a series of books which are themselves a series of short stories. Only about half of the short stories that move the overall storyline forward during the anime actually have their own episodes — hence the obvious gaps.
While Ninja Slayer fails at presenting its story, the art style alone almost makes it worth watching. When the show isn't presented in 2D flash animation, it is generally stunning — as you'd expect from the studio that created Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill.
Ninja Slayer uses fluorescent highlights on many of the characters in the anime. Ninja Slayer, for example, is outlined in green while Koki is purple.
This is also used as a means of visual storytelling. Non-ninjas have no fluorescent highlight. So when Koki isn't using her powers, she has no highlight. Gendoso and his daughter are highlighted by orange as they are not possessed by a ninja soul yet are still ninjas.
Interestingly, Nancy Lee has a blue highlight despite not being a ninja — though I guess you could argue that her Ghost in the Shell net-diving powers make her pretty much a technology ninja.
The other fun visual trick comes at the show's climax. When Ninja Slayer accepts the ninja soul inside of him and the two reach an equilibrium, Ninja Slayer's character design becomes not the fluorescent highlighted design we've seen for the whole series, but rather the character design from the book series' covers. It's a fun little easter egg as well as a way of visually showing the character's evolution instead of expositing it.
Ninja Slayer from Animation feels like a series of missteps compounded by even more missteps. It tries to be both a standard flash animation comedy and 70s anime parody at the same time — and does neither well. Moreover, the dark gravity of the narrative does not lend itself well to slapstick.
Perhaps if the series had been played straight, its inherently over-the-top concept — i.e., Ninja monsters battling in a cyberpunk dystopia — would have made for an enjoyable dark comedy. But even if that had been the case, the storytelling is so fractured that you're always feeling you missed something important. Really, as it stands now, the only thing that stands out about Ninja Slayer is the art.
And it's real pretty, you guys.
Ninja Slayer from Animation aired on NicoNico in Japan.