J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Batman Ninja: Holy Warring States, Batman

When word got out Scott Adkins was in the running to be the new Batman, we briefly thought we might see a Dark Knight with legit martial arts chops. Alas, our hopes were soon dashed with the announcement Ben Affleck had been cast. How did that work out for you, DC? We can maybe get a hint of the martial arts Batman that could have been when the Caped Crusader and just about all of Gotham super-villains are sent back in time to Sengoku Era Japan in Jumpei Mizusaki’s Batman Ninja (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Blame the gorilla. Gorilla Grodd’s time machine was supposed to whisk away Batman and all the costumed villains he has assembled for a phony summit meeting, leaving Gotham ripe for his picking. Instead, everyone was swept off to feudal Japan, including himself, Cat Woman, Robin, Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and even Alfred Pennyworth, who happened to be in the Bat Mobile at the time, even though that really doesn’t make any sense. Frankly, only Commissioner Gordon is left out, but at least he should have some peace and quiet for a change.

The time warp works differently for everyone, so by the time Batman arrives, the villains have already set themselves up as Daimyos jockeying for power. Of course, the Joker is the one most likely to successful unify his hold over the entire nation. Batman will lose a lot of his gadgetry trying to stop him, but he will find a surprising ally in the Bat Ninja Clan, whose prophecies have foretold his arrival.

Frankly, Batman Ninja would have been better if it were more grounded and martial arts focused. Instead, the film misleadingly promises to go back to basics, but doubles down on the mecha. This film should have been all about Batman kicking butt with the Bat Clan, but instead, it spends a great deal of time watching the super-villains bash each other’s mechanized fortresses.

Still, there is no denying Mizusaki’s impressive eye for visuals. In fact, the striking high point of the film (a provocative scene in which Red Hood menaces a couple of serfs who may or may not be Joker and Harley Quinn in disguise) is rendered in a style that deliberately evokes Japanese landscape watercolors. Plus, the character design work of Afro-Samurai’s Takashi Okazaki is pretty cool, except for maybe Sumo Bane.

In the English dub, it is also easy to hear why Roger Craig Smith’s commanding voice has become a fan favorite for both Batman and Captain America. As the Joker, Tony Hale is nearly as manic as Robin Williams in Aladdin, which is good for the energy level but bad for the film’s long-term wear-and-tear.

Of course, the Social Justice Warrior Thought Police will object to Batman Ninja on principle, because they have decided racially segregating books and film is the progressive thing to do. If we consider Batman a “white savior,” it should also be noted all the villains are white too (seriously, who’s whiter than the Joker?). Yet, the fact remains this is almost entirely a Japanese production. In fact, there is a long tradition of placing Batman in different historical settings (in Paul Pope’s story “Berlin Batman,” the Weimar Dark Knight saves the library of Ludwig von Mises from the National Socialists), so to place Warring States era Japan off limits would be discriminatory, by definition.

Batman Ninja should have been better, by more fully embracing the hack-and-slash and hand-to-hand action promised by the “Ninja” title. Nevertheless, it is a richly rendered work of animation that often pays homage to Japanese artistic traditions, even including a hat-tip to Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Generally entertaining, but not the transcendent cross-over we were hoping for, Batman Ninja is recommended for established fans of the animated features, now that it is available on DVD And BluRay.

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