Warner Brothers Animation and DC Entertainment recently released Batman Ninja, one of the oddest, and for a select audience, most refreshing takes on the character. It isn’t the first time fans have been treated to an unexpected version of the beloved hero and his supporting cast.
Creators have done campy versions of Batman in the past—the television show of the late sixties may hold a fond place in the hearts of many fans, but its detractors are legion. Despite that, DC’s animation division released two animated films based on that program, voiced by the original actors. They wouldn’t have done a sequel if it didn’t have its loyal following.
Manga artists have produced Batman comics on multiple occasions—in fact, it was the crossover appeal of the sixties TV show that led to the production of the first Japanese Batman comic, by Jiro Kuwata from 1966-1967. Since then, industry legends like Kia Asamiya, Katsuhiro Otomo as well as talented younger artists like Yoshinori Natsume, have tried their hand at adding to the character’s legacy.
Throughout Batman’s recent animated iterations, producers have farmed out much of the work to studios around the world, particularly in Asia. That was the case ever since the earliest days of Batman: The Animated Series, when acclaimed studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha did some of the best work that show featured—though the less said about Korean-based studio, Akom Production, the better. Batman Ninja is a natural progression for all these elements, but whether you feel it succeeds is a matter of personal tastes.
Batman Ninja plays on several established Anime tropes, many of which may seem odd to viewers unaccustomed to the culture and genres of Japanese animated fare. If you aren’t an anime fan, you may not enjoy the film unless you can approach it with an open mind. To give too much of the plot away would ruin it for those who are interested—but a quick synopsis should do.
During a confrontation with Gorilla Grodd at Arkham Asylum, Batman triggers a machine the villain built which transports several of the characters to feudal Japan. Due to being the furthest away from its blast, Batman arrives two years after several members of his rogues’ gallery, and soon discovers they’ve been creating mayhem in the nation and consolidating their power in order to take over.
The contrast of the modern Batman with this ancient society is at the core of the story. More than a simple, clichéd “fish out of water,” the plot centers on the Dark Knight reconnecting with his roots—his training, skill and unbreakable will. Faced with multiple antagonists, each with an army of followers, the Batman seems hopelessly outmatched, until he discovers that his greatest allies have also traveled back in time.
So far, so good. However, as the conflict escalates, the action takes a turn towards the weird…or towards the anime. Anachronistic technology, giant mechas, flying contraptions, inexplicable fuel sources and everyone’s ability to speak fluent Japanese all play a part in the bizarre plot.
If you can roll with the idiosyncrasies, or are already an anime fan, you’re in for a unique treat. Director Junpei Mizusaki (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) and character designer Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai) take a fresh approach to the cast. The designs are elegant and complex, and the animation is fluid despite its intricate choreography. No Batman tale has ever looked quite like this. For many viewers who may be tired of seeing the same old thing, that’s a great development.
The plot is definitely thin and features the quirks mentioned above—but interestingly, varies depending on whether one watches the original Japanese language track or the English dubbed version.
Filmmakers in the US usually follow an established and prerecorded script they animate to and attempt to synchronize facial movements with, because animation is a story-driven medium here. In Japan, it’s all about the visuals, so artists storyboard and even begin animating before the story is finished; often, writers adjust the plot on the fly in order to match the art.
In the case of Batman Ninja, the US screenwriters didn’t have much of a general outline of the film’s plot, let alone a detailed script, throughout the movie’s production, including while they wrote the English language version. The Japanese artists eventually provided rough storyboards, though deciphering them proved problematic. Often, the US team would have to rewrite scenes months after completing their initial efforts because they would receive additional context or information about it.
Despite the challenges, the American crew felt liberated to make the film as authentically “Batman” as they wanted, while the Japanese creators kept their production as true to their cultural sensibilities as possible. For aficionados of anime who debate the comparative merits of subtitled versus dubbed, the very different versions provide ammunition for both positions. Whichever side of the divide you fall on, or even if you are new to anime and are simply curious about an unusual new concept for the Dark Knight, Batman Ninja will provide you a visual treat unlike anything you might have seen before.
Watch: Check out the Official Trailer for Batman Ninja from DC