Despite the rather lukewarm reception to DC trying to play catch-up to Marvel in their live-action adaptations of their beloved comic book characters, one place where they don’t falter is in their direct-to-video animated features. Starting off in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday, DC have been steadily pumping out these animated adaptations at a decent rate, featuring a whole gamut of heroes and villains from their back catalogue, and usually yielding films that are good to great. So, when the DC animated division made the announcement that a Batman anime was in the works, I was intrigued to say the least, and then when the trailer finally dropped, I, along with the internet as a collective, immediately got very excited. After setting fandoms ablaze with excitement, films can often struggle to live up to the hype surrounding them, however Batman Ninja is definitely an exception to this, being everything I wanted it to be and more.
Despite the fact that it’s under the same branding as DC’s western animation releases, make no mistake, Batman Ninja is not some kind of pale imitation of anime and manages to pull in some recognizable names from the anime sphere, most notably writer Kazuki Nakashima, the man behind Kill la Kill and Gurren Lagann, and Junpei Mizusaki, who makes his feature-length directorial debut, and is most well known for producing the super slick openings for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and its sequel JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Stardust Crusaders. I fully believe it’s the pairing of these two that leads to the ultimate success of the film, managing to wring so much out of the absurdly simple premise of ‘Batman and his foes travel back to feudal Japan’. The combination of the stylish and flashy directing from Mizusaki and the off-the-wall and over-the-top story written by Nakashima makes for a film that just oozes charm, even despite how simple it looks on paper. What starts off as a fairly standard action romp early on soon escalates into glorious absurdity over the course of the film, taking a sudden detour towards the end into the mecha genre, executed in such a way as one would expect from the creator of Gurren Lagann. Is it a case of style over substance? Almost certainly, but I found myself having far too much fun with what I was watching to really care.
The only real complaint I’d make about Batman NInja would be in regards to its pacing. For the most part, it’s a fast-paced and high energy movie, but in the middle it slows right down for a good 10-15 minute sequence that feels really out of place with what came before and after, in what I can only describe as a bizarre yet beautifully artistic pastel sequence. Don’t get me wrong, it looks absolutely gorgeous, with a visual style that is almost reminiscent of a watercolor painting, but its presence in this film feels really jarring and largely unnecessary to the overarching plot. Although the film does make up for this with an explosive finale right after the scene in question, it just doesn’t mesh at all, and would have been better left on the cutting room floor, despite its artistic merits.
Featuring a whole host of both friends and foes from Batman’s past, Batman Ninja has a pretty stacked cast of characters that comic book aficionados and casual fans alike will like recognise, including Catwoman, Deathstroke, The Penguin, Two Face, Poison Ivy, Bane, Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood and more. I can’t say this film adds anything to them in the way of fleshing them out, however it is novel to see so many characters all interacting with each other, and also gives the movie an opportunity to give them all unique periodic redesigns, which come courtesy of Takashi Ozaki, creator of Afro Samurai and character designer from Summer Wars.
If there was anything I was wary of coming into Batman Ninja, it was the animation. Anime projects that are almost entirely CGI have a habit of looking less than stellar, to put it politely, but this film completely bucks this trend, being some of the best CGI I’ve seen in an anime. Produced by Kamikaze Douga, who animated the previously mentioned JoJo openings and, of all things, last season’s divisive comedy PopTeamEpic, Batman Ninja’s animation manages to have what so many other CG centric anime lack, a sense of consistency and cohesion, with nothing ever looking jerky, remaining impressively smooth and natural looking throughout.
Warner Brothers’ release of Batman Ninja has both an English dub and, despite some early worries, a Japanese voice track with properly translated subtitles, even if you do have to dig in the special features to find it. I opted for the Japanese voice track for my viewing, and I was massively impressed. After you get past how surreal it is to hear all these Western characters suddenly speaking fluent Japanese, you’ll quickly realise how good the voice acting is. The cast includes Kouichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion), Ai Kakuma (Aldnoah.Zero, Amagi Brilliant Park), Rie Kugimiya (Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood) and the legendary Daisuke Ono (Black Butler, Attack on Titan). Of all the cast, the standout is almost certainly Wataru Takagi (Initial D, Hellsing Ultimate) as the Joker, who manages to pull off all the inflections and mannerisms of Mark Hamill’s Joker flawlessly.
The bizarre combination of Batman and anime turns out to be a match made in heaven, making for a gleefully fun time for both Batman diehards and newcomers alike.