This series, which will run through February because I guess it’s the month of love, will focus on love stories in the realm of fantasy, science fiction, and similar genres. My goal is to show that not all romances are (or should be) tacked on or stereotypical.
One of my favorite anime movies of all time is Ninja Scroll. Originally released in 1993, it was certainly a product of its era, rife with ultra-violence, showers of blood, and unnecessary nudity. But for all that, it is an extremely well put-together story, with lots of incredible action, memorable characters, and a twisting plot that ultimately makes perfect sense. I could probably gush endlessly about it, but one of the perhaps least discussed aspects is the interaction between the main protagonists Jubei and Kagero. There will be plenty of spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it, go do so now and then come back!
Jubei Kibagami is a wandering ninja for hire who would rather help people than get rich. He’s haunted by a past in which he followed orders without question and did many things he’s not proud of, so now he serves no one. He is, for my money, the anime equivalent of Indiana Jones. He’s a rough-around-the-edges hero who can certainly hold his own, but is nevertheless almost always out his depth and in terrible danger. Hence, he’s easy to like and capable of mirth, but usually has to turn it off and fight for his life.
Kagero is in many ways the opposite. She too is a ninja, but because she’s female and immune to poisons, she is relegated to poison-tasting for her lord and is considered expendable. She yearns to prove her worth and independence, even if it means dying to do so. She is tough, capable, and serious, but probably too trusting of her superiors.
Jubei and Kagero do not meet under ideal circumstances. After witnessing her comrades slaughtered by the monstrous rock-skinned assassin Tessai, Kagero is captured and likely to be subjected to a horrible fate at his hands. Fortunately, Jubei is passing through and helps her escape. Later on, one of Tessai’s comrades has Jubei in a similar situation and Kagero comes to his aid. Thus begins an unlikely partnership in which they begin to depend on each other against the Devils of Kimon, a group of deadly killers with bizarre supernatural powers.
The pair have a give and take in which Kagero questions Jubei’s lack of loyalty to anything and anyone, while Jubei questions Kagero’s willingness to die for her superiors. At one point, he even tells her that he hates those who think nothing of their own worth. This stuns and hurts Kagero, but it’s clear that Jubei actually means she needs to think more of herself.
The story of Jubei and Kagero comes to a head when Jubei, who has been poisoned by the government spy Dakuwan to ensure his loyalty, leaves Kagero alone with him. She forces Dakuwan to give her the antidote, which he tells her is her. Kagero’s body is so infused with poison that any intimate contact between her and another person will ultimately kill them. However, the poison in Jubei’s system would simply cancel out hers, leaving him cured of both. This terrifies Kagero. Ultimately, it means that she would once again be used by someone for her curse, and indeed her sex, rather than being acknowledged for her actual courage and strength.
When next Jubei and Kagero meet, Jubei has saved Kagero at the risk of failing to stop the actual threat of the Devils. She asks him why, and he simply says it’s because they’re comrades, and that’s what comrades do for one another. Upon hearing this, Kagero throws herself at Jubei, telling him that the only way to save him is to offer herself to him sexually. Jubei sees immediately that agreeing to this would shred what little remains of her self-worth, and after giving her a silent thanks, he departs to face the last of the Devils of Kimon.
Sadly, the story does not have a happy ending. Kagero follows Jubei and is mortally wounded by Gemma, the leader of the Devils. In her last moments, Kagero tells Jubei she grew to care about him because he treated her like a person instead of just an expendable resource. They never say anything as obvious as “I love you” to one another, but their every mannerism and intonation says it for them.
They share a brief kiss, enough to cure Jubei it seems, and she gives him a small memento in the form of her headband, which Jubei keeps wrapped around his sword at the story’s end.
What I like about Jubei and Kagero is that they in no way follow the typical romance arc. Their initial meeting has no love at first sight glance, as they’re too busy running from a guy who could break them in half with his hands, let alone his spinning blade of death. They also don’t dislike each other in a way that belies sexual tension. In truth, as should be expected, they’re too busy to worry about the romance subplot. Kagero wants to succeed at her mission, and Jubei wants to stay alive. Their feelings come about because both of them put themselves on the line for each other time and again. Despite being very different people, they see and bring out in each other positive and admirable qualities. They also make sacrifices for each other time and again. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.