It’s hard to think of another superhero that could potentially exist in multiple eras as brilliantly as Batman could. While it’s true there have been several examples of superheros existing outside of the modern day, like the limited series Marvel 1602, there usually tends to be a supernatural or magical aspect to the story in order to have it make sense.
Not so in the case of the Dark Knight. As one of the very few superheros whose power comes from wealth rather than supernatural means, it ends up being very easy to craft a believable period world around the character of Batman. Just look at the first Elseworlds comic, Gotham by Gaslight, which is an almost perfect recreation of Gotham City within the trappings of Victorian England.
So putting Batman, his friends and his foes into the time of the samurai seems like a no-brainer. And while the final result wasn’t quite what I originally expected, isn’t that sometimes the best kind of movie?
While battling Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore) at Arkham Asylum, Batman (Roger Craig Smith) is accidentally caught in Grodd’s Quake Engine, a time-travel machine that ends up sending several heroes and villains of Gotham City back to Japan’s Sengoku period.
However, due to the fact that Batman was one of the last people caught up in the Quake Engine, he ends up arriving in Japan nearly two years after many of his compatriots have landed. Thus he enters a nation where several of his most notorious foes, such as Two-Face (Eric Bauza), Poison Ivy (Tara Strong) and Penguin (Tom Kenny), have become daimyo (Feudal Lords) over vast domains.
With the self-declared daimyo being led by Lord Joker (Tony Hale), Batman must team up with several allies, including Catwoman (Grey Griffin) and Nightwing (Adam Croasdell), and try his best to get everyone back to the future.
With the countless depictions of Batman within our pop-culture since his inception nearly eight decades ago, it can be easy to feel like everything that can be done, has been done. Yet Batman Ninja is the first time the legendary character has been illustrated through anime. And in doing so the Batman pantheon of heroes and villains has now been shown in one of the most arresting and stunning series of images every committed to the big or small screen.
Character designer Takashi Okazaki deserves every plaudit known to mankind for his work here. With the same brilliant skill he showed in Afro Samurai, Okazaki takes worn out designs from the west and breathes new life into them with a seemingly never-ending whirl of colour and passion. It is absolutely captivating to see the Joker clad in Japanese garb or watch Bane get re-imagined as a sumo wrestler. Honestly you end up spending a lot of time on tenderhooks just waiting for the next character to see what Okazaki has done.
Director Junpei Mizusaki further shows that such astonishing visual design is backed, not only by kinetic action sequences, but also a scale rarely seen in straight-to-DVD animation. This film is legitimately epic! From the Batmobile tearing through the streets of Japan to a Batman/Joker forest showdown that echoes the finale of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. There is not just beauty in every shot, but the entire thing could honestly be called a work of art.
That said, it is true there is an expectation that viewers should already be well-versed in Batman-lore. As such some characters (in particular the villains) can appear rather underutilised and there are plot aspects that don’t really make a lot of sense within the third act. But to be fair, if you can accept an intellectual talking gorilla within the first 30 seconds of the movie’s start, then the remaining unconventional aspects are easily overlooked.
In addition, unlike the Gotham By Gaslight adaptation released earlier this year, Batman Ninja resorts to outside influences in order to place its characters in Japanese surroundings (specifically through time travel). It’s this aspect where it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the brilliance of Batman is that it’s possible to fit his character with reasonable ease into different time periods. Getting to see Batman as a rich Samurai-like individual who lives to stamp out the evils from a 16th century Japanese city would have been an incredible presentation of the character.
In the end, while DC’s live-action output may leave much to be desired, Batman Ninja shows their animated fare is vastly superior to almost everything their Marvel rivals have put out in the same medium.