Whether we like it or not, Batman is Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ bread and butter. Batman is always a guaranteed box office success regardless of the quality of the films, with even the worst of the live-action Batflicks making profits. Any given month, Batman is the most published character in DC’s comic lineup to the point where you wonder if DC even knows how to market any character that isn’t Batman-adjacent. Despite how reliable Batman is as a character, DC will rarely, if ever, step too far outside of its comfort zone with the character. If it does, then it’s often only for a split second before going back to normal. And strangely enough, that weird split-second experimentation with the Bat-family occurred five years ago with the straight-to-digital anime feature film, Batman Ninja.
The film stars Batman (Roger Craig Smith), who has been transported back in time to the Sengoku Jidai alongside the rest of the Bat-family and a whole host of villains. These villains quickly become daimyo and begin to wage wars against each other for territory, with Batman attempting to stop them but failing to do so due to his lack of tech in this classical time period. Because of his lack of expertise and the overwhelming odds he’s facing, he learns from a clan of ninjas the art of ninjutsu and uses those skills to defeat the villains, who eventually fall under the control of Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore) and the Joker (Tony Hale).
If you’re wondering about the film’s pedigree as an anime, then you’ll be happy to know that Warner Bros. went all out to make sure that the film was made by veterans of the industry. The animation was handled by Kamikaze Douga, a relatively smaller anime studio, but one that audiences will be familiar with from its involvement in most of the openings of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, with the director of the film, Junpei Mizusaki, also serving as director of those intros. Character designs were handled by Afro Samurai’s Takashi Okazaki, with writing duties being handled by the head writer of Kill la Kill, Promare, and Gurren Lagann, Kazuki Nakashima. To its credit, Warner Bros. made damned sure that if it was going to make a Batman movie inspired by anime, there would be no doubts about the authenticity of the project.
But if you’ve never heard of this film before, it’s mostly because DC limited its push for the film back in 2018. It was announced at New York Comic Con 2017 where the creative team opened up about the film’s production and how they didn’t intend to make a Batman anime but more of a Japanese-inspired interpretation of Batman. Afterward, the trailer would circulate online, and most people gravitated towards discussing their thoughts on Veep’s Tony Hale being the Joker. Plus, being a straight-to-digital film that released the same week as Avengers: Infinity War meant fewer people even knew it existed.
If the film also sounds like the stupidest concept for a Batman story, then you’d be right. Batman Ninja is a chaotic mess of cultures mixing with each other, oftentimes haphazardly and oftentimes with no real cohesion or logic to it. There were several points throughout the film that I thought to myself that this was some of the stupidest storytelling I’ve seen in years. You can really feel that the staff tasked with making this film struggled to mesh Japanese and Western cultures because what’s here is borderline nonsense. However, that leads to the film throwing everything it has against the wall and trying to make everything stick, resulting in a magical piece of media that is completely unrestrained in its execution.
Regardless of the state of the plot, the animation is top-notch, using wonderfully stylized 3D models that were and also continue to be some of the best uses of the technique. There are moments where it feels somewhat clunky, usually in the quieter scenes of people talking, but in the frequent action scenes, it delivers in spades. The entire climax where Batman is fighting against the Joker is almost certainly the highlight of the film, using every last cent of the budget to deliver a fight that ranks as one of Batman’s best fights put to film. It’s that good. The film even flexes its animation prowess by having an entire scene take place in a hand-drawn hyper-stylized Japanese watercolor painting, one that required its own entirely different staff to complete. It’s anime eye candy at its finest.
The character designs also take some bold swings in depicting Gotham’s finest, and for the most part, they succeed. Many of the male characters have stark and wonderful new designs, the best of which is the Oni-inspired Joker, whose unhinged state of mind makes him more and more monstrous as the film goes on. I’m also in love with the idea of making Jason Todd’s mask as the Red Hood into a komuso tengai hat and having him pose as a Buddhist monk in the countryside. Other designs are much less successful — such as every female character, who all look exactly how you would expect an anime-inspired Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn would look, complete with jiggle physics!
But yes, within the 85-minute runtime, Batman Ninja openly acknowledges that its story is a mess of ideas that don’t get fully fleshed-out explanations and don’t attempt to tell any grand narrative with its runtime. It knows it isn’t beholden to any continuity, so it just does whatever sounds cool and would make for entertaining set pieces. Bane becomes a sumo wrestler and fights Batman while using the Batmobile as armor. Batman can use ninjutsu to turn himself into a flurry of bats and can disappear and reappear at will. The climax has each of the villains fight each other over domination of Japan not through typical warfare, but by turning their castles into giant robots that battle each other in epic fashion. Does any of this make sense? Absolutely not, but it’s something that Batman hasn’t been for a while: fun.
To some, that may be the death knell for recommending this movie, with many fans thinking he should be grim and stoic at all times. Visions of the Adam West era and Joel Schumacher’s films soured fans on a lighter depiction of the Caped Crusader, claiming that those films are too goofy and cheesy, despite how fun and entertaining they can be. Batman Ninja is cut from the same cloth but is fun differently. Those lighter pieces of Batman’s history were inspired by the era of comics where you could have Batman transform into a baby or be forced to wear a different color costume every day. This Batman film is instead fun in the same way that watching Team Dai-Gurren use a drill several times larger than the universe to defeat the final boss of Gurren Lagann is fun.
Despite its many hurdles, Batman Ninja was an experiment that studios like Warner Bros. should try more. It was a blend of two very different cultures that should mix more. While the film is almost entirely style over substance, it had a lot of passion poured into it. Warner Bros. and DC respected what anime as a genre was capable of and delivered something that was truly unique and exciting to watch. As far as DC animated films go, I would go as far as to argue that it’s the best-animated film it ever made. Granted, if you’re someone who has no interest in anime you may think differently, but if you go into this film with the right mindset, I’m fairly certain you’ll be joining me as well.