In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
“What—ninja Batmen!?” Yes, Harley, that’s right. Batman has been part ninja since at least the 1970s and ‘80s, when creators like Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, and (of course) Frank Miller made explicit the connection between his use of shadows, disguises, and gadgets and the semi-legendary warrior-assassins of Japan. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins brought it to the big screen, for what is the “League of Shadows” but a fictionalized (more than usual) ninja clan? But 2018’s Batman Ninja, directed by Jumpei Mizusaki, goes even further, thrusting the Caped Crusader (along with a good selection of his allies and enemies from Gotham City) into Warring States-era Japan courtesy of a time-space machine built by the super-intelligent Gorilla Grodd.
Entering the time-warp a few seconds later than the elite of Gotham’s underworld, Batman finds that two years have already passed in Japan before his arrival, enough time for the criminals to ascend to power as daimyos (warlords) and begin altering the timeline. Penguin, Poison Ivy, Death Stroke and Two-Face each rule their own state, jostling for territory and power, but the most powerful of all is Lord Joker, ruling from “Arkham Castle” with his ever-present consort Harley Quinn. With the elements of Grodd’s “quake engine” divided up between the bad guys, they’ve industrialized and raised armies. Grodd himself waits, holed up in the mountains with his monkey troops, playing the supervillains off each other until the time is right for his own plan to unfold. The field is tilted against Batman before he’s even oriented, but luckily for him he also has friends who arrived before him: present and former protegés Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Robin, as well as loyal butler Alfred and sometime-ally Catwoman. Another ally is Eian, leader of a ninja clan whose symbol is a bat—those bat-themed ninja who took Harley Quinn by surprise—and who has been awaiting a prophesied leader. Ultimately Batman must defeat all of the villains so he can get them in one place and return them to twenty-first century Gotham City.
Batman’s malleability as a character is one of the key reasons for his longevity: it’s been pointed out that the cheerful straight-arrow played by Adam West; the disillusioned grognard in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; and the father figure to multiple Robins, the Outsiders, and even international Bat-franchises of recent years differ in which parts of the core mythos they emphasize, and yet are instantly recognizable as the same guy. Some artists—Darwyn Cooke and Grant Morrison come to mind—are able to synthesize the various portrayals into a cohesive whole, where others choose to focus on one element, using what they need for the particular story they have to tell.
In recent years, a hyper-competent, never-wrong, always-two-steps-ahead Batman has taken hold, at least as the popular view of the character. Batman Ninja begins with this idea, but takes pain to show how dependent Batman has become on his high-tech gadgets: suddenly appearing in the middle of a town in feudal Japan and attacked by Lord Joker’s samurai, Batman sets off a gas grenade and then aims his grappling gun, first in one direction and then another, realizing that there are no tall buildings for him to latch onto. Escaping on foot, he uses the built-in communications tech in his suit to orient himself, to no avail: there are no satellites to feed him GPS or news intel. Later, he recovers the Batmobile (which also came back in time with him), but it is destroyed by Arkham Castle’s defense system, with the car, the flying Batwing, the Batcycle, and even powered Bat-armor proving insufficient. With his toys broken, he doesn’t know who he is and complains that he has “nothing.” Is this really the Batman who usually seems so invincible?
Naturally, this stripping away of externals is only the first step in rebuilding himself, the low point before his ascendant triumph. It’s a classic case of backing the hero into a corner so that they can show what they’re really made of: when Batman realizes what he does have—his body and training, his keen mind, his will to fight, and his allies—then he can adapt to his situation. Marking this turning point with a dramatic monologue, he refers to the ninja’s pragmatism and versatility and declares, “We will master the ways of the ninja, our weapons will be everything that exists, and I will turn [the Bat clan’s] legend into reality.” Deception, disguise, and misdirection are major themes throughout the story, and the climax shows him fully embracing them and turning them to his service, clouding the Joker’s mind to make him see what Batman wants him to see, just like the classic ninja.
Made entirely by a Japanese crew (aside from the executive producers at DC and the Western voice talent for the English-language dub), Batman Ninja is a surprising and frequently exhilarating fusion of American superhero comics and Japanese anime, with young creators bringing their own influences and style to characters that are popular all over the globe but are usually presented from the Western perspective. (Jiro Kuwata’s so-called “Batmanga,” a series of original comics published in Japan in the 1960s and only widely-known in the West in recent years, is another example, but those stories were set in the modern era and spun off from the popular TV series, so cultural differences were more subtly expressed, rather than being the point.) Anime tropes are embraced, with the line between parody and homage lovingly smudged: that Robin suddenly has a monkey sidekick who can understand English (or is it Japanese? the language barrier is no more a problem than the barriers of time or space) surprises Batman upon his arrival, but everyone else has had time to get used to it. Likewise, steampunk “mobile fortresses” that transform into giant robots just come with the territory.
The creators are clearly having a blast finding points of connection between the two sources of inspiration, from the aforementioned similarities between Batman’s methods and those of the ninja to Gorilla Grodd’s control of the monkeys with a special flute. Specialized Eastern weapons like razor-edged fans and man-sized kites make appearances, showing that Batman isn’t the only one who likes clever gadgets. Bane makes an appearance as a super-powered sumo wrestler, an inspired choice, but one that doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go with him, so other than his one scene he doesn’t figure in the action. Character designer Takashi Okazaki has done a fantastic job translating the modern characters’ looks into costumes reflecting traditional and historical Japanese garb, as well as bringing in the ruffled collars and tights of eighteenth-century European visitors. Batman disguised as a missionary with a bat symbol carved into his tonsure is a fun example, as is Red Hood posing as a Buddhist monk with a tengai (head-covering basket). Both Western comics’ and anime’s love of fan service is fully embraced as well: “Time for some girl-on-girl action,” Catwoman says to Harley Quinn at one point, causing me to double-check the rating: PG-13, “some suggestive material,” and—oh, they’re just fighting, okay.
As far-out as some of Batman’s live-action films have gotten, it’s animated films like this that approach the free-wheeling, imaginative mixing and matching that comic books regularly indulge in. Interestingly, Batman Ninja doesn’t have time to make much of Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne or his motives for becoming a vigilante, other than the Joker’s continual taunt that being a hero must be a drag. I could imagine a version of this story in which Wayne must assume the persona of an honorable landowner or samurai, hiding his secret life as a ninja, but this isn’t a full Elseworlds treatment, and in any case it’s nice to know that there’s still ground left uncovered in this premise. It’s admirably thorough in ringing changes on its ideas, though, fully justifying the awestruck Eian’s words upon seeing clouds of bats form a kaiju-sized Batman to fight Lord Joker’s Voltron-like castle on the “Field of Hell”: “Behold the mighty Bat-god before us!”