The Caped Crusader’s Japan jaunt is a missed opportunity in “Batman Ninja”

The Dark Knight goes anime. Batman Ninja is unlike anything we’ve seen from Warner Bros. Animation. It combines time travel with period martial arts and mecha. The film is an entirely Japanese production with character design by Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki.

It is absolutely gorgeous, perhaps the most artistic vision of the Caped Crusader yet. The premise is clever, but the execution of the plot is patchwork at best. The screenplay by Kazuki Nakashima incorporates multiple themes from Japanese culture and history. The version I saw was dubbed for English and not subtitle. The cultural nuances are surely lost in translation.

Following in the noble tradition of “Sharknado,” “Snakes on a Plane” and “Sex and the City 2,” this elaborately execute nonsense is the kind of project where you just know that the title came first. “Batman Ninja” (or “Ninja Batman” as it’s being call here) answers the question nobody had thought to ask: What East-meets-West

The result is a cross-cultural hybrid every bit as unlikely as Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” though rather less memorable.

Produced by a Japanese team for overseas paymasters, “Batman Ninja” certainly looks the part, but there’s something strangely dutiful about its execution, like its creators were reluctant to stray from the most generic storytelling conventions.

During a mission at Arkham Asylum, Batman (voice in the Japanese dub by Koichi Yamadera) is transport back to 16th century Japan, along with much of the regular cast of heroes and villains from the comics. Actually, it turns out he has arrive a couple of years behind his pals.

The Sengoku (Warring States) period, already one of the most chaotic in Japanese history, is now being play out by rival clans led by the Joker (Wataru Takagi), Two-Face and other villains who get so little screen time it’s a wonder they bother to show up.

Each of the baddies is in possession of a glowing widget, and only by collecting them all can Batman get everyone back to present-day Gotham City and avoid doing irreparable damage to the course of history.

This prompts a succession of attacks, counter-attacks and betrayals, where the Japanese setting is mostly a backdrop for the characters to do what they always do, just with cosplay. The hulking villain Bane gets turn into a sumo wrestler, Alfred the butler adopts a chonmage hairstyle, and Batman briefly goes incognito as a Jesuit missionary.

Character designer Takashi Okazaki was also responsible for “Afro Samurai,” and he takes a similar approach here, giving the DC Comics cast a thorough anime makeover. The difference is most pronounce with the female characters; I’m not sure Catwoman has ever look this cute.

There are no cameos by well-known historical figures. Apart from a bat-worshipping ninja clan who pop up at opportune moments but contribute little to the plot, the locals are mostly happy to stay at home and leave the time-travelers to have their fun.

The scene in which Batman finds himself suddenly whisked from Gotham to the middle of a dusty feudal town is one of the film’s best, but such culture-shock moments are rare.

We don’t get to see him fumbling with chopsticks or copping an earful for tramping mud all over the tatami mats.

As the Caped Crusader ditches his modern gizmos and embraces the old ways, his adversaries go in the opposite direction, introducing steam power and machine guns to Japan a few centuries early and upgrading their castles in a manner that would do the creators of Gundam proud. The climax involves armies of monkeys and bats doing things that I’m not going to pretend made any kind of sense.

It’s all very silly, and likely to appeal most to viewers under the age of 12. Yet for all its visual flourishes, “Batman Ninja” feels like a miss opportunity. Like so many crossover specials, it’s rather less than the sum of its parts.

Batman Ninja opens in present day Gotham City.

Batman crashes a demonstration of Gorilla Grodd’s Quake Machine at Arkham Asylum. The device activates and transports the entire island hundreds of years in the past to feudal Japan. Batman is shock to discover that he arrive two years after the fiendish criminals.

Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy have become lords battling to be shogun. He must stop the war, recapture the Quake Machine, and restore the timeline. It’s a daunting task for our hero. Luckily, Batman’s vaunt sidekicks and gal pal Catwoman were caught in the time warp as well.

My issue with Batman Ninja is the choppiness of the plot. The overall story is interesting, but the scenes don’t always flow. I think there was such focus on the look of the film, working out details in the plot became an afterthought. The characters have zero exposition. They talk enough to propel the action. This is all done with loads of anime tropes. Every standard in the genre makes an appearance in some way, down to the requisite pet monkey. It’s complete overkill, but an understandable commitment to the genre. Batman Ninja is an anime and mecha film to the core.

Batman Ninja is a wildly refreshing take on a known commodity. This film, along with the better, but not as visually stunning Gotham by Gaslight; are need departures from the norm. Don’t get me wrong, Sam Liu and his California team do a pretty good job with the Batman and Justice League animate films. It’s just nice to see a different viewpoint from the Japanese. I can’t wait to see what Mizusaki and Warner Bros. Animation does next. How about a manga Superman?

INFO:

Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action & Adventure, Animation, Anime & Manga, Drama
Directed By: Junpei Mizusaki
Stars: Kôichi Yamadera, Wataru Takagi, Ai Kakuma
Written By: Leo Chu, Eric Garcia, Kazuki Nakashima
On Disc/Streaming: May 8, 2018
Runtime: 85 minutes
Studio: DC Comics

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR BATMAN NINJA

David Gelmini
This is a beautiful film in every sense of the word.

Víctor López G.
It is one of those feature films that must be faced with a certain predisposition and with the mind as open as possible.

Michelle Kisner
This is hands-down the most avant-garde animated film to come out of DC.

Terence Johnson
Batman Ninja is one of the most raucous movies of the year and the most entertained I have been in a while.

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