In 2008, about a week before The Dark Knight hit theaters, Warner Home Video and DC Comics released Batman: Gotham Knight, an excellent collection of six anime shorts from the studios behind Ghost In The Shell [Production I.G.], Paprika [Madhouse], Steamboy [Studio 4°C], and Noir [Bee Train]. Now, ten years later, we have its spiritual successor in Batman Ninja (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pack, DVD, digital; with digital 4K to come), a full-length anime movie that ranks alongside Batman: Gotham Knight as one of the most unique, intriguing, and exciting Batman animated movies.
In Batman Ninja, an experiment by Gorilla Grodd sends Batman and his BFFs back to Feudal Japan (1603-1868). Except that since time travel is an inexact science, Batman arrives two years after the rest, and has to contend with a society that’s under the control of Feudal lords previously known as Penguin, Poison Ivy, Deathstroke, Two-Face, and The Joker. Joined by some old friends, The Caped Crusader must stop this affront to history before it damages the timeline beyond repair.
Like all of Batman’s animated adventures, Batman Ninja is an action-packed adventure very much in the vein of the comics. But what makes it different is how it fully embraces its anime roots in its look, presentation, and storytelling, as opposed to just being an anime-influenced animated movie.
It also employs numerous anime genres — including samurai action, historical fiction, and others I can’t mention without spoiling something — by embracing how anime approaches storytelling differently than American animation. Batman, for instance, is unusually introspective, prompted by the realization that he doesn’t have all of the wonderful toys he’s come to rely on, and the ones he does have don’t all work in this setting.
The result is a gripping, action-packed, but also rather unique take on The Dark Knight. Especially once he follows in everyone else’s footsteps and, as they say, “goes native.” But this only works, and manages to not collapse under its own odd weight, by having a script that’s clever in how it melds comic book tenets with anime sensibilities.
It also helps that Batman Ninja boasts a solid voice cast of Bat-veterans on the English side, including Tara Strong [Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay, Batman: Arkham Knight] as Harley Quinn, Grey Delise [Batman: Arkham Knight, Injustice 2] as Catwoman, and Roger Craig Smith [Batman: Arkham Origins] as Batman. The same can also be said for the Japanese version, which has Koichi Yamadera voicing The Caped Crusader as he did in The LEGO Batman Movie and the TV dubbed versions of Batman and Batman Returns. Though his costars — including Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure‘s Wataru Takagi as The Joker and Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom‘s Rie Kugimiya as Harley Quinn — are all new to the ways of The Bat.
Batman Ninja is also one of the rare DC animated movies that doesn’t feel too short, like it could’ve used another scene or two. Though it is a rather glaring omission that the Cassandra Cain version of Batgirl didn’t make the trip, given how she was so ninja-esque, especially when she didn’t talk. Though maybe that would’ve been too obvious.
Really, though, the only serious issue I had with Batman Ninja [SPOILER ALERT] is with a local ninja clan, who believe a prophecy about a helpful foreigner in a bat mask. Which isn’t nearly as interesting or as plausible (relatively speaking) as if the ninjas were instead been inspired by Batman’s sidekicks Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Robin, who also arrived in Japan early.
Still, Batman Ninjamanages to pull off the neat trick of being an exciting and unique Batman story, as well as a solid action anime in the tradition of Samurai 7, Moribito, and Afro Samurai. It’s one of the better animated Batman movies — the best since Assault On Arkham— and a big step above similar Japanese takes on American comic book as the Iron Man, Blade, Wolverine, and X-Men animes Marvel made a few years ago.
While the movie is the centerpiece of Batman Ninja, the Blu-ray, DVD, and digital also include a handful of extras. Though, sadly, only a handful.
To start, Batman Ninja has both the English and Japanese versions of the movie, though the differences are only slight and in the dialog. It’s not just a translation, but it’s also not like how Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! is a radically reworked version of the original Gojira.
Next, the Blu-ray, DVD, and digital versions of Batman Ninja have two making-of featurettes: “East/West Batman,” in which the filmmakers — who include writer Kazuki Nakashima [Kill La Kill], director Jumpei Mizusaki [who did the opening for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure], and character designer Takashi “Bob” Okazaki [Afro Samurai] — discuss the making of the movie, and how anime and Japanese culture influenced it; and “Batman: Made In Japan,” which centers on Mizusaki, Nakashima, and Okazaki, and what they brought to this movie. Both of which are informative and interesting, and include interviews with a number of the filmmakers, though they would’ve worked better as a single video.
Batman Ninja also has “New York Comic Con Presents Batman Ninja,” which features Mizusaki, Nakashima, Okazaki, and the co-writers of the English language version, Leo Chu and Eric Garcia, both of whom also co-produced Afro Samurai and Afro Samurai: Resurrection. It covers much of the same territory as the featurettes, but does include new info, especially when they get to the Q&A section.
Unfortunately, that’s it for the Blu-ray, DVD, and digital versions of Batman Ninja. There’s no commentary track, nor anything on either the Japanese or English voice cast. And while it does have the original Japanese trailer, it’s only because it was shown during the aforementioned NYCC panel. You can’t watch it on its own, nor does this have the English trailer.
The Batman Ninja Blu-ray, DVD, and digital edition also would’ve also benefitted from a featurette on previous Japanese Batman stories, such as the mangas as Batman: Child Of Dreams by Kia Asamiya and Yoshinori Natsume’s Batman: Death Mask. As is, there’s only a passing reference to Batman: Gotham Knight and Jiro Kuwata’s mid-’60s mangas, which are currently available as Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batman: Volume 1, 2, and 3.
Even with the extras in the Blu-ray, DVD, and digital editions being rather thin, Batman Ninja is still a worthy addition to any Bat-collection. It’s an exciting and unusual tale, one that really does show us what a Bat-anime should be. And, I hope, will be again.