Despite their overwhelming reach and appeal, it's rare to see American, European and Asian comic scenes overlapping. Most of the time they prefer to be left alone and remain blissfully ignorant of what the others are doing. But once in a while there's a forceful clash of cultures that tries to bridge the gap between these different universes. Junpei Mizusaki's Ninja Batman [Ninja Battoman] is such a project, although it must be said that it does a rather terrible job at blending the US and Japanese comic aesthetics. That doesn't mean it isn't any good of course.
Batman is one of DC Comic's hottest IPs, sporting a rich and varied film history. Burton and Nolan's episodes are held in high regard, but next to all these live action blockbuster features DC also released a slew of well-liked animated film series and spin-offs (remember the Lego Batman films). Batman Ninja isn't even the first Batman/anime cross-over. In 2008 Batman: Gotham Knight saw the light of day, an anthology project that allowed several Asian directors to create their adaptations of the Batman universe. Batman Ninja is the first feature-length anime Batman adaptation though.
Personally I dislike most of the Batman entries, feeling they are way too dark and serious for the material they are dealing with. There are many people who disagree with me of course, effectively preferring the dark and drama-driven narratives of a man dressed up in a bat suit. To each his own, but the fact that I loved Batman Ninja probably means this should raise some red flags for those who cling to the more serious Batman renditions. Batman Ninja is a rather zany anime adaptation that feels very Japanese, but just happens to feature some well-loved DC characters.
The plot is very basic. Batman is sucked into a time warp and ends up in feudal Japan. After getting back with his crew (namely Catwoman, Alfred and a couple of Robins), Batman discovers that The Joker and several other prominent Batman villains are all trying to conquer Japan, not as a united front but each villain fending for himself. Batman is eager to return to his own time, but the only way to do that is to save Japan from the Gotham villains and recover the device that can warp him back. Shakespeare it is not, then again this is not the kind of film you watch for its intricate plotlines.
Regardless of what you think of the more light-hearted tone and the throwaway plot, if you're a fan of animation Batman Ninja has a lot to offer. The cel shading tech is pushed to its limits, delivering a very stylish and classic Japanese 2D look, fuelled by the many benefits of CG animation. The backgrounds look like lavish Japanese paintings, the characters are a fine blend of Western and Japanese styles and the animation itself is impressive. Fine camera work and some very cool effects elevate it even further and some of the more outlandish designs (like the mecha-castles) are truly the icing on the cake. Halfway through there's also a somewhat experimental sequence that makes the film appear even more painting-like, all adding to the tremendous visual appeal of the film. Batman Ninja is pure eye candy from start to finish.
As for the dub, things are a bit more complicated. DC and Batman are core US properties, but the film itself feels very much like an all-Japanese project. Usually I'm quite strict when picking dubs (always favoring the original one), but things aren't as clear cut here. My gut feeling says the English dub would probably be the one to go for, the problem is that it's just so damn atrocious. I tried it out but gave up after a minute or so and quickly switched to the Japanese dub, which turned out to be infinitely better. The idea of a Japanese-speaking Batman is a little odd at first, but that quickly fades once you feel the cringe of the US dub leaving your body. As for the soundtrack, it's a rather mediocre affair, just filler noise to get rid of some awkward silences. It's a shame they didn't pay a bit more attention to it, but in the end I was happier with the fact that they went through the trouble of adding a dedicated Japanese voice track.
It's one thing to transport Batman to feudal Japan and to have a Japanese crew handle the animation, but the Japanese-ness of Batman Ninja goes way deeper than that. The presentation of the villains, the mad castle designs, the transformations during the final battle, the zany action and goofy ideas ... the film really feels like Batman reimagined as a Japanese animation instead of an American cartoon done by Japanese people. People who are hoping for a core Batman experience are probably not going to like this, people like me who don't care for traditional Batman are more likely to see it as a breath of fresh air.
Swap out the Batman characters for some original creations and nobody would've ever guessed this film was part of the Batman franchise. Then again, it would've only reached a fraction of its potential audience. While it's easy to get a little cynical about a film like this, the result is so much fun that I couldn't care less really. Batman Ninja features sprawling animation, an amazing art style and some wacky action, making it a blast from start to finish. Batman fans beware, anime fans rejoice.