This 1993 anime gets grouped alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira as being classics reasonably well-known in the West. It's an expertly crafted wuxia (martial arts) film, with very stylish and frequently gruesome fight scenes, a complex story which unfolds well, and every narrative thread tied up nicely at the end. That doesn't distract from the sometimes rather troubling genre conventions it exemplifies. As expected, the hero Jubei is an itinerant warrior who refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own – a particularly attractive fantasy for conformist Japan. His attitude echoes that of Guts in the manga Berserk, who feels nothing but disdain for those too weak to avoid exploitation.
But exploitation is inevitable in the world of Ninja Scroll. Jubei is forcibly recruited by a wizened, wry (and unexpectedly wiry) government spy as a foot soldier in a secret war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and a rebellious lord (the so-called 'Shogun of the Dark'). Neither side in the conflict are particularly noble – all elites in feudal Japan use, abuse and discard those lower down the social hierarchy. But interestingly, rather than struggling against the evil empire, our protagonist's role is to protect it from something worse – factionalism and the civil war that raged before Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all comers and established his regime. The film reinforces the notion that you will be chewed up and spat out by those above your station, and that this is a price worth paying. No matter how individualistic these ronin are, they can't escape co-option by the political powers that be.
And then there's the women. Jubei crosses paths with a feisty poison-taster and clandestine ninja called Kagero – rescuing her from being raped by the first of what turn out to be eight superpowered adversaries. The poisons Kagero has imbibed mean she is unable to sleep with, or even kiss, someone without them dying. Her independence and fighting prowess is bought at the expense of a complete neutering of her sexuality. Rather unbelievably, it turns out that Jubei can and must seduce Kagero in order to neutralise the poison he has been infected with. His relationship with her for the most part of the film is huffy and disrespectful, but he is nonetheless steely enough to refuse to sleep with her on these terms, choosing death before dishonour. Celibacy is the route to heroism for both characters, even though both (particularly Kagero) are objectified and sexualised to some degree.
This is in marked contrast to the bad guys, of course, who all seem to be sleeping with each other. And not just with the opposite sex either, which adds an extra homophobic tang to proceedings...