Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl: Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch
Mike Toole rates it:
Jubei Yagyu is one of Japan’s most famous historical figures. Like the towering Musashi Miyamoto (who is often depicted as a friend/teacher of Yagyu), Jubei was a statesman and, more importantly, a swordsman. The Yagyu family had forged the most formidable swordfighting school in all of Japan by Jubei’s time, and under his steerage, the Yagyu school was adopted by the Shogun and Yagyu himself formed the government’s first secret police organization. He’s so popular that you can see him depicted many times in anime and manga and games, including Ninja Resurrection, Samurai Armageddon, and Samurai Shodown. Yagyu’s most prominent distinguishing feature was the eyepatch he wore over his destroyed left eye.
But Yagyu didn’t leave behind an heir to his mighty school. What, the viewer is asked, would have happened if he’d sent his chief assistant, Koinosuke Odago, forth to find a suitable successor? What if he painstakingly crafted a heart-shaped “lovely eyepatch” for the heir to wear as proof of their lineage? What if, on his deathbed, while trying to describe the qualities he sought in the heir to the Yagyu school, the only words Jubei could choke out before dying were, “bonnie boom boom bum”? What if it took Odago something like 300 years to find someone with a bonnie boom boom bum? Well, we’d end up with Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl, that’s what.
The girl in the title is actually Jiyu Nanohana, an average 14-year-old, the new kid in town, and the daughter of a famous (and flaky) novelist, who lovingly calls her “Jubei”. While Jiyu herself is appealingly normal and wholesome, the cast of characters she’s quickly surrounded by in her new hometown are hilariously bizarre– there’s her new best friends, the junk food-addled Maro and poker-faced Sachi. There’s Jiyu’s dad, Sai Nanohana, who’s alternately a fiercely-protective father and a blubbering idiot. There’s the local hoodlum who decides he has a crush on her, Bantarou– he parades around town with his two monkey-esque flunkies, Oozaru and Kozaru, and along with bearing an amusing resemblance to Pokemon‘s Ash, he stridently and vocally endorses the lifestyle of being, in his words, “unrefined”– he’s so theatrical about it, you expect him to burst into song at any moment. He also wears an orange shirt with an ever-changing kanji character on it. And finally, there’s Shiro Ryuujoji, one year older than Jiyu, captain of the kendo team, and part of the family that the original Jubei Yagyu shook down to bring the Yagyu school to prominence. You’d think that these two would be natural enemies, but no– he’s in love with her, too.
But where does Jubei Yagyu come in? Well, on her very first day at her new school, Jiyu encounters Koinosuke, who, upon observering Jiyu’s “bonnie boom boom bum”, is overjoyed at finding who he thinks is the correct successor to the Yagyu heritage. Jiyu is in denial of this idea completely, but when her teacher reveals himself as a henchman of the Ryuujoji family and attacks her and her father, she decides to take up the lovely eyepatch that Koinosuke offers her. As she puts it on, she inherits the skill and ferocity (and cool clothes) of Jubei Yagyu himself, and displays more slicing and dicing power than Ron Popeil armed with two ginzu knives.
But Jiyu is upset and confused by this new complication in her life. She just wants to be a normal girl, but she gets a new teacher every day, and they keep attacking her. If it isn’t the Kevin Spacey lookalike, it’s the pair of clumsy substitutes who resemble Penn and Teller, or perhaps They Might Be Giants. Shiro and Bantarou want to protect and befriend Jiyu, but they don’t know what to make of her connection with the eyepatch. And her dad… well, her dad just wants to know who the heck this Koinosuke guy (who takes up residence at her house) is.
The remainder of the show is framed by bizarre sight gags and puns (hint: one of her opponents is named after a popular anime series now on Cartoon Network), and is enhanced by the weird personality tics of the supporting cast. Jiyu’s dad swings pendulously between lucidity and near-insanity. Koinosuke dogs her about the eyepatch relentlessly, but is otherwise endlessly fascinated with fried eggs and toast. Bantarou decides that anything he does must be unrefined, even if it’s riding on a 3-person tandem bike with Oozaru and Kozaru. The two henchmen can read their boss like a book, and constantly snigger at his attempts to win Jiyu’s attention. And then there’s Shiro’s mom, who looks like the unholy offspring of Chibi Maruko-chan and H.R. Pufnstuf.
I hate to say it, but the dub is exactly the sort of merely-adequate work I’ve come to expect from Ocean. The translation is awkward (in particular, it’s never explained why Jubei Yagyu is always referred to in Japanese order– “Yagyu Jubei”– but everyone else is in English-language order), the pronounciation of the Japanese names seems to change every five minutes, and there are several Canadian-isms that pop up (the characters describe themselves as being in “grade eight”, and Bantarou lets an “…eh?” fly once or twice). Puzzlingly, the characters never refer to Jiyu as “Jubei-chan” as the title does. Most of the cast’s performance is decent at best, but I have to admit that the voices of both Jubei and her dad really stand out– she’s animated and cute, and he voices Sai’s constant bouts of craziness and confusion nicely. I wish Ocean would credit their actors, like Bang Zoom! and TAJ and ADV and Coastal do. Still, an average dub can’t really spoil a show that is, all things considered, excellent.
It seems to me that Jubei-chan, like the forthcoming Excel Saga, is assuredly the product of minds that grew up watching nothing but cheesy anime in the late 70s. I mean, honestly, only animators who grew up watching the tube constantly could possibly come up with something as warped as a screwball comedy about a magical girl who transforms into a dour, lethally-powerful ninja. Creator Akitaro Daichi and storywriters MADHOUSE pepper the series with weird gags, including a villain in the 4th episode who looks like a refugee from the scribbly-animated Crayon Shin-chan, and an end-of-episode eyecatch that looks distinctly 70s.
This undercurrent of surreal humor, combined with a cute little teenage love story and some of the best swordfighting scenes I’ve seen in anime recently, make Jubei-chan a complete success. Creator Akitaro Daichi directs with flash and style, and Muttihiri Moony’s character designs are cute and appealing. The dub, while not excellent, is very passable– I’ll be getting the DVD as soon as possible, so I can enjoy the Japanese version too. But what surprised me the most about Jubei-chan is the title character. She’s soft-spoken without being weak-willed, she’s level-headed, and she’s attractive without looking like her anatomy was designed by an overimaginative 13-year-old. In other words, Jubei-chan is instantly likeable, and more human than many characters I’ve seen portrayed by flesh-and-blood actors. As such, I’d place her in the ranks of leads in such quality recent productions as Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. Jubei-chan isn’t quite as good as those two, but its slightly skewed take on so many different genres at once is hilarious and engrossing. In the end, I only wanted to see more immediately, which is exactly how one should feel after seeing the first 4 episodes of a TV series.
Added: Thursday, October 16, 2003
Related Link: Bandai Entertainment