Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Batman Ninja

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!”

Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Ninja Scroll

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.

“You should check out Ninja Scroll, it’s awesome.” I don’t recall what led up to that recommendation, whether I had talked about my recent dabbling in Japanese culture or whether it came out of the blue, but it stuck with me. A little over twenty years ago, I had a sudden burst of fascination with all things Japanese, triggered by reading Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume. I recall being hit by the sense of a whole new world opening up for me, one that I had known of in a superficial way but which enriched my sense of history and provided a way forward to develop and deepen the aesthetic of my own work. At the same time, Japanese manga and anime were becoming hugely popular, and friends only a couple of years younger than me seemed to connect to it deeply and intuitively, while friends my own age couldn’t get past the big eyes, shrill voices, and memories of cheap imported cartoons like Speed Racer. In my late twenties, I was already aware of a generation gap.

Even then, with much less material available in the West than there is now, it seemed overwhelming: where to even start? Like a lot of those younger viewers, I recall Cartoon Network’s Toonami block being a big deal: I know I watched Cowboy Bebop around that time, and I started picking up translated manga volumes, nearly at random: not everything I read stuck with me, but I encountered Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (aka Lum) for the first time, as well as reading American treatments of Japanese subjects like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I usually preface discussions of manga and anime with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert, but by now I’ve seen enough to know where my preferences lie and to have a sense of how much I don’t know.*

As it happened, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Ninja Scroll until last year, and, well, that was probably too late to be truly blown away by it. It does, in retrospect, make sense as a recommendation from that particular friend: he wasn’t a “weeb,” but he was still someone who dove deep into his chosen areas of fandom, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with a big RPG collection and a classics major whose gateway had been the numerous myths and legends of the Greek and Roman worlds. I remember that he took his blood and thunder straight: he didn’t care much for the winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that undercuts the seriousness of so much modern genre fare. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I bet the Marvel Cinematic Universe drives him nuts.

Ninja Scroll is, if nothing else, serious: one might go so far as to call it grim, even gritty. Like the samurai manga that so influenced Frank Miller in the 1980s, the medieval fantasy world of Ninja Scroll is a dangerous one, with little room for sentiment. The 1993 animated film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, centers on Jubei Kibagami, a wandering mercenary ninja in Tokugawa-era Japan. Although Jubei minds his own business and (breaking with the usual practice) charges his employers only what they can afford, he becomes involved with a major conflict when he rescues Kagero, a kunoichi (lady ninja) of the Koga school, from a monstrous, rock-skinned attacker. The rest of the Koga ninja were wiped out after falling into a trap, and Kagero, after escaping, must report the attack to her clan patron and then, if possible, avenge her fallen comrades.

Jubei would be happy to move on from that one chivalrous act, but by interfering he has become a target of the rock man, Tessai, who is one of the Eight Demons of Kimon, a band of ninja whose mastery of supernatural forces has rendered them grotesque and inhuman. The manipulation of an impish old monk (and Tokugawa spy), Dakuan, seals Jubei’s involvement: the Demons are working for a shadowy “Dark Shogun” whose goal is the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (and to guarantee Jubei’s cooperation, Dakuan poisons him and offers the promise of an antidote as bait). Much of Ninja Scroll’s running time is made up of episodes in which individual Demons attack Jubei, Dakuan, or Kagero to prove themselves. Their attacks are coordinated by Yurimaru, a dandy who uses strings to eavesdrop, communicate, and control people from a distance, as well as killing directly by garotte or electrocution. Yurimaru is merely the first of the Demons among equals, reporting to Lord Genma, the real instigator of the plot and, it turns out, a figure from Jubei’s past. As in many martial arts movies and video games, it plays out like a series of boss fights before Jubei can reach the Final Confrontation.

Perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I enjoyed rewatching Ninja Scroll more than I did the first time I saw it. There is a great sense of atmosphere, whether in a dark forest or a fogbound marsh: a late scene in which Jubei fights to free a mind-controlled Kagero is strikingly rendered in shades of red against the setting sun. The beauty of nature—a spider’s web, lightning flashes, or glittering stars reflected on the surface of the ocean—is often contrasted with equally loving depictions of spilled blood, raining from the trees or trickling down the eaves of a roof, or spit out in gouts by the brutalized and near-dead.  As over-the-top as some of it is, however, the hard-hitting violence is part of the genre’s appeal, and there is a definite “cool factor” to the various Demons and their powers: a snake woman whose tattoos come to life; a ninja who emerges from shadows and sinks back into them, attacking with a prehensile claw; a man in control of a swarm of wasps whose hive is his own body; and more. These enemies are as specialized and cleverly themed as comic book supervillains, and they’d be right at home in fighting games like Mortal Kombat (and I’m sure there was an overlap in fans of the two properties).

But the cynicism and nihilism of the characters and their world are also of their time, and were probably what I found off-putting the first time around. At worst, the bleakness and depravity of the setting comes off as trite, edgy for edginess’s sake. I’ve written before about the exploitative character of many kunoichi films, and Ninja Scroll continues that pattern, with the lady ninja being groped, assaulted and violated in ways that go from graphic to explicit. (I’m willing to accept that foreign standards are different when it comes to depictions of sexuality, but assuming that this wasn’t transgressive or shocking in its home country is equally patronizing: this is the kind of stuff that gave “otaku” a negative connotation in Japan.)

“When you fight monsters, you must become one yourself or you can’t win,” Dakuan warns Jubei. In the scene, Dakuan is referring to the hard, unsentimental choices the ninja must make, but it resonates with what we already know of Kagero, externally beautiful but deadly to embrace. Because of the lady ninja’s duties as a food taster for her patron, the poisons she’s been exposed to have built up in her body; yes, she’s immune to poison, a useful trait, but she is also toxic to any man she sleeps with, forced to live alone or slay her lovers. She is, in Dakuan’s words, “a perfect woman for this hellish world.” It’s hard to say if this is as meant as a commentary on womankind in general—the few (non-Demon) women who appear in the story seem to be present to show how limited Kagero’s choices for her life really are—but the conclusion to Jubei and Kagero’s will-they-won’t-they follows a well-worn pattern: she dies after saving his life, tragic and beautiful, and he moves on, carrying her memory, a more pure spiritual union than any mere physical coupling could accomplish. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering when Ninja Scroll was made, following the AIDS epidemic and the sex = death ethos of so much 1980s horror, or perhaps it’s simply a case of pet themes and obsessions emerging in an artist’s work (Kawajiri’s 1987 debut, the bizarre Wicked City, was even more explicit in connecting intercourse with body horror).

The poison of forbidden flesh is also implicit in the Demons’ voracious appetites: for power, for status, for money, all of which have undercurrents of libertine self-gratification. The Demons’ cruelty is sensual: “I hope you have an excruciatingly painful death,” Yurimaru tells Jubei when he has him in his power, as if about to savor a delicious meal. Yurimaru isn’t physically a monster like the other Demons, but his explicit homosexuality marks him as one. Even the other Demons mock him to his face for it: at least Lord Genma is bisexual. For his part, Genma is a parody of the macho he-man, hugely muscular with a massive, projecting chin. Kawajiri saves his most brutal fight scene for the confrontation between Jubei and Genma aboard a burning ship: the history between them, with Genma having betrayed Jubei and Jubei killing Genma (he got better), is an intimacy that Kagero can’t hope to compete with.

Ultimately I didn’t have to go all the way to Japan for an explanation of the dynamic between Jubei and Kagero: in The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer uses the divide between Clark Kent and Superman, and their respective relationships to Lois Lane, to illuminate a common dynamic, one that applies equally to Japan’s wandering swordsmen and ninjas like Jubei Kibagami: “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.”

* Yeah, yeah, anime is a medium, not a genre, and there are movies and series that cover every subject imaginable, from the most mundane to the completely fantastical. But around the turn of the century, when I was just getting into it, the imports available in the US tended to be the latter, and getting into anime meant becoming familiar with a number of distinct narrative conventions, tropes, character types, and, yes, genres.

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).

Following

Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.