It’s interesting that Batman is actually known in Japan. He and Robin even had their own manga series, which a few years ago was translated into English as Bat-Manga if you want to look up their adventures against Lord Death Man. So a Batman anime isn’t all that surprising. Besides, as Gaijin Goombah once discovered, Batman is totally a ninja anyway. So when 2018’s Batman Ninja was announced it didn’t surprise anyone, and the curiosity began.
Was this going to be an Elseworlds story, like the adapted Gotham By Gaslight, or a time travel story? It turned out to be the latter, and thanks to Toonami (part of the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network) I was able to finally see it. For the record it was the English version they aired and that’s what I’ll be using but since the English trailer spoils part of Batman’s character arc (nice going, nitwits, and that was the official Warner Entertainment trailer) I went with the Japanese trailer instead. This may be one of the shorter waits since starting this series, which may end up being an unintentional theme for this week, but was it worth waiting for at all?
RELEASE DATE: 2018
RELEASED BY: Marvel Studios & Walt Disney Pictures
RUNTIME: 1 hour 25 minutes
RATING: unrated (apparently direct to video doesn’t get an MMPA rating, but this isn’t a movie for kids)
STARRING: Roger Craig Smith, Tony Hale, Tara Strong, Will Friedle, Fred Tatasclore, Yuri Lowenthal, Grey Griffin, Eric Bauza, & Adam Croasdell,
SCREENWRITERS: Kazuki Nakashima (original), Leo Chu, and Eric S. Garcia (English)
DIRECTOR: Junpei Mizusaki
BOX OFFICE: it’s a direct to video movie
ESTIMATED BUDGET: darned if I know
The Plot: Gorilla Grodd (Tatasclore) sets up a time machine he calls his “quake engine” in the hopes of clearing some of the competition out of Gotham City. Due to Batman’s (Smith) interference the two along with Alfred, Nightwing (both Croasdell), Catwoman (Griffin), Red Robin (Friedle), Robin, and Red Hood (both Lowenthal) are drawn to ancient Japan along with Two-Face, Penguin (Tom Kenny), Poison Ivy (Strong), Deathstroke (also Tasasclore), Grodd himself, and of course The Joker (Hale) and Harley Quinn (also Strong–keep your jokes clean please). Batman arrives two years later to find the villains fighting for control, with the Joker taking the lead in their contest. With his vehicles destroyed can Batman meet up with his allies and get everyone home before the Joker turns ancient Japan into his personal playground?
Why did I want to see it?: It’s Batman in ancient Japan. I was as curious as everyone else how he got there, if this would be Japanese Batman or time travel, and the visual looks were interesting. (According to IMDB the fight scenes were actually filmed with actors then animated on top of that like a form of rotoscoping.) It’s a Batman story that wouldn’t work in a regular continuity but as a side story it has much potential.
What did I think?: I rather enjoyed it actually. There are some bad parts and they’re rather big but the movie lives up to most of its potential. It’s Batman and friends time displaced to ancient Japan. Of course it’s going to be a bit crazy and that’s half the fun. The animation appears to be cel-shaded CG, and for most of the movie it works well, though for some reason there’s one part with an amnesiac Joker and Harley (I try to keep the spoiler as limited as possible for a proper review in this series) done in a completely different style but I’m only guessing at the symbolism for it and frankly it was more of a distraction than helping the story. There’s also a huge fight scene involving giant robots and Batman in a sword duel with the Joker but both are too close to the action so you don’t get to see a whole lot. That’s actually disappointing.
Additionally there’s too much focus on Joker and Harley, as usual. Grodd, who is supposed to be a Flash villain but somehow keeps ending up in animated Batman stories, gets a bit more as part of the reason everyone is here, but everyone else is limited. Two-Face works for Joker, then Grodd, then turns on Grodd depending on the coin flip. That’s still more than Ivy, Penguin, and Deathstroke get to do until the final battle and even then there isn’t a lot of dialog. Poor Tom Kenny didn’t really get to do much in this one and he’s my favorite Penguin. It’s not just the voices that are lost though. Imagine what Slade Wilson is doing in this period? Think about the crew having to track down Ivy with her powers in an anime. (No hentai jokes, either.) If we had gotten to see the Bat Family going after each one rather than having them all in one place in the finale that could have been amazing.
Meanwhile we get some great performances from the English actors we do get to see a lot. Roger Craig Smith has played Batman before and he does a good job here. He’s not too serious but he isn’t a goof either. Smith has a great balance and he’s not even playing the Bruce Wayne persona in this film. Will Friedle, who usually plays Terry from Batman Beyond takes over as Tim Drake during his Red Robin period and while that took me out for a moment he soon locked into the role. Yuri Lowenthall plays double duty as Nightwing and Red Hood, and you can easily tell the two roles apart. Lowenthall and Tara Strong know their way around anime dubbing so I’m not surprised how good their performances are, though again we don’t get a lot of Dick or Jason, and I think he liked playing Jason Todd a bit more. I don’t know if Grey Griffin does a lot of anime (sure I could look but the deadline’s approaching and I don’t want to miss two in one week) but her Catwoman is perfect for the setting.
The Joker and Harley are getting overplayed at this point, which is extra annoying they steal the show and the other villains get so little to do, but credit where it’s due. Hale and Strong are almost perfect in the role. Hale easily battles Troy Baker for second best Joker (Mark Hamill of course being #1 and Kevin Michael Richardson a close third depending on the Hale/Baker winner) and his chemistry with Strong’s Harley is spot on. The animation style making Joker look extra creepy and extra flamboyant (any more so and you’d have Him from The Powerpuff Girls) is the icing on the probably poisoned cake. Also the candles are dynamite. You may not want any of this cake but you will enjoy the performance. You’d better given how much screentime they get.
The story…has a few holes. Time that should have been spent on giving the other villains something to do is spent talking about ninjas and even I question a few accuracies. There’s stuff that makes for decent visual but doesn’t necessarily benefit the story, but luckily only hurts it for the time being taken. This might have been better as a miniseries, as Batman, Catwoman, and Alfred have to find the others then defeat the villains one by one to restore the quake engine and get everyone home. There are good moments and an overall plot but a few specifics keep it from being a great story. The worst of it comes from the theme of whether or not Batman can handle this without high-tech. It would be a great theme if they spent more time on it, but he gets over the loss of the Batmobile and its various sub-vehicles rather quickly, and we never see him without the computer with the holographic controls and screens. It doesn’t seem to run out of power and maybe it gets trashed in the first big battle but it’s not really brought up. Considering that some of Batman’s gadgets are low-tech you’d think he’d grab a few of those. The theme is about him using traditional ninja gear and the world around him but the theme is not as well explored as I would have liked.
Was it worth the wait?: I’d watch it again if I came upon it on TV with nothing else to watch, and I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t think I’d add this to my video library. It might be interesting to watch it in Japanese with subtitles to see how the Japanese voice actors take to the roles (according to the IMDB listing there are no re-used actors like in the English dub) but that would be it. Batman Ninja is a great concept that wasn’t given a chance to live up to its full potential but what we got was still enjoyable.