From the earliest announcement of Warner Bros.’ latest animated Batman adventure, we knew that Batman Ninja would be an anime take on the classic DC Comics property. What we didn’t know–what we couldn’t know–was just how insane that take would turn out to be. Maybe we should have had an idea once it was announced that Junpei Mizusaki, the producer behind JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, would be directing the film from a script by Kazuki Nakashima (Kill La Kill, Gurren Lagann) with character designs from Takashi “Bob” Okazaki (Afro Samurai), but seeing is believing. Luckily for you, dear reader, you can see for yourself since Batman Ninja arrives on Blu-ray/DVD today!
Both the original Japanese audio/voice cast and the English script/dub are included on this home video release, and I’ll get into the merits of both in my review below, but this one’s likely going to divide some Bat-fans out there. If you’re looking for a serious take on the Batman mythology delivered in a visual anime style, you might be disappointed. If, however, you’re up for a bonkers ride that sends Batman and his allies into feudal Japan and pits them against his rogues gallery in the “most anime” way ever, you’ll really dig Batman Ninja. The special features included on the Blu-ray are pretty scant, but they do dig into what makes the “East meets West” design of Batman Ninja such a unique take and they go a long way towards explaining some of the more obtuse cultural connections for dumb Westerners like yours truly. Let’s get into it!
When I heard that Batman Ninja would be an anime movie that sent Batman into feudal Japan during the era of warring states presided over by a shogun and his subservient lords, my anticipation was understandably off the charts. I was expecting something along the lines of Yojimbo, Ninja Scroll, Seven Samurai, etc. Imagine, as I did, Batman landing in the distant past without the use of his vast array of technology, forced to battle through each territory–controlled by supervillains like Gorilla Grodd, Deadshot, and Poison Ivy–by making allies of locals and becoming a sort of samurai. That’s … kind of what we get with Batman Ninja? But the tone is way, way different from what you’re probably expecting.
I don’t want to go into spoilers because half the fun of Batman Ninja, whatever version you’re watching and listening to, is seeing the insanity unfold before you. As the creative team behind the scenes mentions multiple times in the special features, this isn’t “Japan through the eyes of Batman, but Batman through the eyes of Japan.” The translation here is that just about every anime trope you can think of has been jammed into Batman Ninja, for better or worse. This thing is way zanier than I expected it to be; sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you definitely can’t say the team didn’t go for broke on this one.
Visually, Batman Ninja is a stunner. One of anime’s strengths, and Japanese cinema overall, has always been its visual storytelling which often trumps the narrative and dialogue itself. Batman Ninja is no different. The movie is rooted in cutting-edge CG-characters and backgrounds (your mileage may vary here but I’m not the biggest fan of this approach; see Berserk 2016…) but uses 3D trips into a “virtual reality” space to move the story along through exposition, and in a particularly original sequence, switches to a sort of animated watercolor style that’s absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, the shallow story undercuts the otherwise glorious animation.
To view Batman Ninja in the best light, watch it with the Japanese audio and English subtitles. This movie is steeped in all things anime and Japanese cinema by design, so it’s in its purest, craziest form with the talented Japanese voice cast doing the heavy lifting. That’s not to say the English voice cast isn’t up to the task; veterans Roger Craig Smith, Tara Strong, Grey DeLisle, Tom Kenny, Yuri Lowenthal, Fred Tatasciore, Will Friedle, Eric Bauza, Adam Croasdell, and Matthew Yang King are solid. Relative newcomer to voice work Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development) turns in a good performance as The Joker, one which took me a while to warm up to but ultimately found to be quite enjoyable. It’s just that the English script and vocals lose something in translation and Batman Ninja needs to keep the Japanese spirit intact to be at its best.
Batman Ninja is for those folks who take neither their Batman stories nor their anime too seriously. If you can sit back, have fun with it, and laugh yourself silly at the insanity on-screen, you’re going to have a good time. It’s at least worth a rental just for the experience.