"Black Lion" (1992) is an intriguing 45-minute made-for-video (OAV) anime production that's set in 1580, during the Warring States period of Japan. It focuses on a band of ninjas from the celebrated Iga and Koga clans as they battle the powerful army of Nobunaga Oda, an actual historical figure whose often ruthless efforts paved the way for the unification of Japan in the late 16th century (and its subsequent isolation from the rest of the world). The twist here is that Oda's army comes equipped with automatic weaponry, tanks, and sophisticated flying craft. "He has access to things that should not exist in this time period," an overstatement uttered by Lord Momochi of the Iga Clan as he's typing on a computer! (The computer screen very helpfully displays a map of Japan's different prefectures and shows, in red, the ones conquered by Oda.)
The central character is an impulsive young ninja warrior from the Iga Clan named Shishimaru who has witnessed the death of his female companion Oyu at the hands of the massive, indestructible ninja-killer, Ginnai Doma, who has also left Shishimaru seriously wounded. Shishimaru wants revenge but is held back by members of the Koga Clan who seek to develop the proper strategy to take down the enormous brute who repels swords from his body and is able to put his head back in place after he's been decapitated.
Most of the piece simply follows the ongoing battles between Doma and the main ninja characters before the inevitable resolution. There is much carnage throughout as Doma rips his opponents apart in horrible ways. The bloodshed is muted, though, since the blood is never red, but usually a purple or dark brown. And the body parts and intestines strewn about are never quite detailed or bloody enough to have much effect. One wonders if this is how it originally looked or if the American distributor processed the colors differently during video duplication to make it seem less gory. (I viewed ADV's subtitled VHS release for this review.)
The ending leaves us up in the air about how Oda's army got such high-tech weaponry and how the Iga Clan got computers so far back in time. There are other forces at work here, either from the future or from another planet. Clearly, more episodes were planned to answer such questions. But they never came. All we got is this first episode. (Not an uncommon situation in the world of OAV'sOriginal Animation Videos.)
"Black Lion" is based on a manga title by Go Nagai ("Devilman," "Cutey Honey"). The character design is strong, although we wish the character development had been given the same attention. The background design is often quite beautiful, particularly in monochrome scenes of detailed villas and compounds, as seen in the backdrops used for one rooftop battle early on. There are echoes of traditional ink painting and charcoal drawing in some of the background work. Overall, it's an action-packed, entertaining piece, but it doesn't really add up to much and pales beside such other notable historical anime as "Dagger of Kamui," "Ninja Scroll," "Ninja Resurrection," "Yotoden," "Rurouni Kenshin," and two titles which I've also reviewed on IMDb, "Sword for Truth" and "The Hakkenden."
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