A couple years ago, DC could undoubtedly be called the kings of animated Superhero film and TV. The old WB channel shows like Batman or Superman and the golden age of Justice League and the DC animated films from the 2000’s were my childhood. Early 2010 animated shows like Young Justice pushed the envelope further and DC was on top compared to even Marvel’s best successes.
Sadly, recent projects have been of mixed quality. Films like Gotham by Gaslight and Killing Joke are held back by their writing or uninspired artwork. Even worse, it is likely that future DC cartoons are fated to be relegated to DC’s new streaming service. Not all is in vain though, as Kamikaze Douga’s new animated feature, Batman Ninja, has managed to break this monotony, creating one of the most visually captivating films the studio has made in years.
First and foremost, This film runs at the speed of a bullet and wastes no time throwing you right into the middle of the film’s crazy premise. Batman and the rest of the Bat-family (Robin, Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and even Alfred) have assembled at Arkham Asylum where Gorilla Grodd has gathered an assortment of Batman’s rogue’s gallery to conduct an experiment on a Time machine.
Batman’s interruption causes the time machine to malfunction, transporting Arkham Asylum and everyone inside into Sengoku-era Japan. Batman shows up two years late due to an anomaly and must rejoin together with his team to fight back against the villains, who have taken over the warring regions of Japan, to ultimately send everyone back to the present.
The last paragraph and a half all take place within the opening two minutes and set the stage wonderfully for a truly epic story of a hero out of time. Following Batman’s journey as he comes to terms with his surroundings helps the film explain the circumstances behind the film’s rather batshit (ha) premise.
This film was rather divisive amongst my friends for how ridiculous things got later in the film, but I think it is worth praising how the introductory act sells the premise. After Batman’s initial culture shock and a faceoff with Joker, there is some much-needed exposition from Selina Kyle. The visual accompaniment not only is beautiful but explains how everyone is there, why Batman is two years late, and so on. Informative and entertaining, a lesser film would not have tried half as hard.
All that said, Batman Ninja’s ridiculousness is not always so thoughtfully explained away. The addition of the mechanized fortresses that each of the villains possesses or are in the process of constructing is the most out of place. We get explanations about how the villains are importing resources and technology from other countries, altering the timeline, but the film never really justifies how the mechs themselves came to be. A throwaway line would have sufficed and the film had excused plenty of other oddities already.
Personally, I think the mechs were unnecessary and the supernatural elements later are even more immersion breaking. However, this is part of the larger subject of how the film was made. It is clear from the behind the scenes features that the creators wanted not to show “Japan through the eyes of Batman,” but “Batman through the eyes of Japan.” As such, tropes of Japanese subcultures, such as Ninjas, action with hints of the supernatural, prophecies depicting the intervention of heroes and of course, the mechs are all present here.
Kamikaze Douga clearly drew from the infinitely referential gestalt of Japanese culture to offer a unique depiction of Batman. This comes through brilliantly in its technical elements as I will explain later, but I will admit that the film misses some opportunities to really shine narratively, because of the creator’s goal.
There are small issues I have, like how there is little interaction with the people of Japan nor display of the plight of the people in the film. We only assume things are bad because the leaders of these warring states are themselves, Batman villains. The Bat-clan of ninjas who elect Batman as their leader in correspondence with their clan’s legacy is the only real surrogate for the people of Japan. More pressing an issue is Batman’s character arc.
A lot of the marketing for the film placed an importance on the idea of Batman stripped of his high-tech gadgets and having to rely on his wits and his body. I like this idea, as it can bring out the best of Batman’s skills. I can even excuse the ridiculous mechs in this case, because they, in turn, would represent the larger than life villains that he has faced his entire career that he must now face as simply a man.
However, because the large battle of the third act introduces what is undeniably a supernatural element to Batman’s embrace of the title of Ninja, the resolution robs itself of the satisfaction that would come from Batman thwarting the mechs himself. What could have been a great climax showing Batman and his allies destroying these mechs from the inside is replaced with the type of dramatic showdown more fitting of Gurren Lagann than Batman.
Again, I believe this to be because the creators, in their attempt to portray Batman as a ninja, chose the interpretation of Ninjas most common in Japan. This portrayal is more commonly supernatural in its execution. When you think about it, every aspect of this film’s absurdity is as broad a display of the trope it is based on as possible.
The portrayal of Sengoku-era Japan is as rich and wrought with multi-sided conflicts, betrayals and the conflicting aspirations of leaders. Even visual motifs like Batman looking out upon his village brought back memories of Sengoku Basara during my viewing. The mechs are uniquely designed to tailor their pilots but also combine and transform like a multitude of mech shows. The ninjas then, display teleportation, disappearing, Jutsu and other common motifs seen in shows like Naruto.
Batman Ninja chooses to portray Batman’s journey to defeat Joker in a more abstract way. By embracing the Japanese over the top interpretation of Ninjas, Batman defeats the over the top mech, a symbol of the villains’ embrace of the culture and their conquering of such. And to be fair, even if the supernatural fight doesn’t entertain you, there is still an excellent fight between Batman and Joker at the very end. This same fight has solidified itself as one of my favorite battles between the two ever put to film. You even get to see the rest of the Bat-family face off against their own rivals, however brief.
On the topic of characters, while Batman’s arc may not reach its full potential, he is still as awesome as ever, especially voiced by Kouichi Yamadera (Spike Spiegel). The writers did an excellent job capturing the essence of these characters. Wataru Takagi gives a standout performance as the Joker. His avant-garde excentricities capture the energy of Hamill’s Joker while possessing a theatrical quality of similar character archetypes from Japanese media.
Equally impressive as a villain, though certainly more defused in their performance, is Gorilla Grodd, voiced by Takehito Koyasu (Dio Brando). Grodd is a fairly underused villain, as he is commonly a Flash villain, so seeing his intellect utilized in a Batman story is nice to see.
The rest of the bat family and the other villains are all done well in regards to their portrayal, like Red Hood’s violent tendencies or Selina’s altered allegiances. However, don’t expect them to be very integral to the plot. They are all there primarily for fanservice, but that’s ok. The characters have all been given these awesome designs for the era, courtesy of Takashi “Bob” Okazaki of Afro Samurai fame.
I still think that the film’s story has merits despite the missed potential, but those reasons are purely on a technical level. This is not only one of the best looking DC animated films I’ve seen in years, but it is the best example of CG animation I have ever seen come out of Japan. So rarely does Anime do CG correctly but this film is just one of a few recent examples that are paving the way for better CG out of Japan.
Not only CG but the synergy of hand-drawn and CG animation is seamless. Most daring, visually, is an Arthouse scene that pops up between act two and three. The art first switches to a wispy storybook style, then to an abstract, completely hand-drawn style, even utilizing rotoscoping. It’s a shame though that the scene itself is so narratively jarring and doesn’t add much in the long run. It an appreciably dramatic scene, however, that offers a storybook feel.
The film’s sound design impressed me far more than I expected. Even during sequences of silence impresses through the use of authentic ambient noise during sequences of downtime. The behind the scenes on the Blu-Ray talked about how the Japanese view silence differently than how the west views it. Whereas the west views silence as an absence of sound, the east tends to think that silence holds an equal weight in a scene.
On the topic of sound, I would like to formally dissuade anyone from listening to the English dub of Batman Ninja, and not just for the usual reasons. Typically the sub vs dub debate comes down primarily to the actors and the directing but here scriptwriting is a huge issue.
The Japanese script by Kazuki Nakashima is great and filled with all sorts of nuance and a good understanding of the characters. With his previous works including Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill and Con Revo, the silliness of Batman Ninja suddenly makes a lot of sense. The English script, however, creates an almost completely different film. Worse still, Tony Hale’s performance as Joker is the worst version of Joker I have ever heard.
On the bright side, the music by Yugo Kanno is amazing. His resume working on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Psycho-Pass set my expectations pretty high but weeks still after my viewing of the film the main theme is still stuck in my head. it is a perfectly heroic sensory assault with an eastern flavor to it that stands alongside the best Batman music from the Burton films to the animated series to the lesser known Arkham series theme.
Director Junpei Mizusaki, a fairly young director with few credits, has orchestrated one a truly incredible piece of art containing a lot of new favorites. A script penned by the writer of some of my favorite Anime. Character designs that now rank among my favorites for these characters. Best of all, one of my favorite new Batman themes of all time.
Visually astounding and heartfelt in its efforts to portray Batman through a Japanese cultural lens, Batman Ninja is one of DC’s best-animated films in years. It may lack the narrative strengths to win over those uninitiated to Japanese media, but if you can appreciate the film for the sensory ride it takes you on, you are in for a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. An art piece more concerned with how it makes you feel than being coherent. I hope I’m not alone in saying it, but I think that’s just as powerful.
Thank you very much for reading!!! This film has had me conflicted but every time I pick it apart, I end up loving it more. Not for everyone, but it should be watched by all Batman fans. Tell me what you thought of it. Did you love it? Was it too weird for your liking? Leave a comment below and let me know what else you’d like me to review. Follow my blog for more great reviews and as always, see you next time.