No matter how many Batman films you’ve seen before, you likely haven’t seen a take on the Dark Knight as different and ridiculous as BATMAN NINJA. The anime film sees Batman, his allies, and his enemies transported from modern-day Gotham to feudal Japan. And it only gets crazier from there, with things that shouldn’t transform or combine often doing exactly that, among other absurd and distinctly anime elements.

But it’s not just what happens in BATMAN NINJA that sets it apart from the character’s previous films. The film uses bold CGI character designs that blend established looks with historical Japanese outfits, in addition to several striking art styles for different parts of the story. With the help of translators, ComicsVerse talked to director Jumpei Mizusaki, screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima, and character designer Takashi Okazaki to learn how they crafted such a bonkers film.

Creative Freedom

If it sounds like the creators took an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to BATMAN NINJA, it’s because that’s not far from the truth. Following a Q&A event at New York bookstore Kinokuniya, Nakashima painted a picture of an almost completely uninhibited creative environment in which he, Okazaki, and Mizusaki did their brainstorming.

“Even in the meetings that we’d have where we’d throw out ideas, I’d toss out an idea for the story. And then Mr. Okazaki would be like, ‘Oh, then I think that this kind of character design would fit right in.’ And then the director would [go], ‘Ah, then we should have this kind of battle scene using those designs and using that story.’ And then I’d come in and say, ‘Oh, but I can do you one better.’ Each of us kind of piled on the ideas almost like a Jenga, where none of us wanted to retreat,” Nakashima told ComicsVerse. “And then you have the [Warner Bros.] producer sitting in the corner going, ‘Oh my god, is this actually going to come together? I’m kinda [a] li’l worried.’ And we’re like, ‘No, no, no, don’t worry about it.”

“The director Mr. Mizusaki, he loves crazy ideas,” Nakashima later said. “So I think it was actually the less crazy, the very blasé stuff that got tossed out, and all the crazy stuff actually ended up in the film.”

Batman Ninja - Sengoku Batman clashes swords with Demon King Joker
Sengoku Batman clashes swords with Demon King Joker in BATMAN NINJA.

The filmmakers’ relatively unrestrained process also applied to BATMAN NINJA’s character designs, despite the extra work it meant down the line. “I produced these really intricate designs,” Okazaki told ComicsVerse after the same Q&A event. “And director Mizusaki said to the modelers, ‘No, you can’t take any lines out. You have to preserve it just as it is.’”

Even for a movie that was released straight to home video formats in the west (it’ll hit theaters in Japan on June 15), BATMAN NINJA’s creative process seems like it would have been rapidly curbed by a studio executive hoping to play it safe, especially with a major property like Batman. But letting the creators have complete freedom seems to have been the idea from the very beginning. As Leo Chu, who worked on the English language adaptation of the film alongside Eric Garcia, told the audience at New York Comic Con’s BATMAN NINJA panel last year, Warner Bros. “very much left the filmmakers alone in making this movie,” resulting in a film that is “very authentically anime.”

Not the People You Hire to Make a “Safe” BATMAN NINJA

Plus, if Warner Bros. had wanted something safe, they probably wouldn’t have gone with this particular creative team. Nakashima is best known as the head writer of KAMEN RIDER FOURZE (the 2011 entry in the long-running tokusatsu/”special effects” franchise), and for being the series composer (essentially, the main writer) on the 2007 mecha anime GURREN LAGANN (which follows a group of humans fighting the ruler of Earth and his Beastmen army) and 2013’s KILL LA KILL (which centers on a girl searching for her father’s killer at a high school where students wear superpowered uniforms). Particularly in his anime work, he frequently operates in a ridiculous, comedic, and action-packed space.

Batman Ninja - Bat-shaped ninja village
Why yes, that is a bat-shaped village.

Mizusaki, meanwhile, notably produced several incredibly energetic and stylized openings to 2012’s JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE. The openings combined 2D and CGI animation as part of a style Mizusaki’s animation studio, Kamikaze Douga, would work on with Okazaki for BATMAN NINJA. Mizusaki’s personal thoughts on the creative process might be best summed up by Kamikaze Douga’s motto: “compromise is death” (which explains why Mizusaki refused to simplify Okazaki’s character designs).

In contrast, Okazaki is most famous for a significantly more violent (but just as wild) project. He wrote and illustrated the 1999 manga AFRO SAMURAI, a bloody revenge story set in a technologically advanced feudal world, where the person who possesses the Number One headband has the powers of a god. The series was adapted into an anime starring Samuel L. Jackson in 2007, the 2009 sequel to which Okazaki helped write.

In short, these are not the people you go to for a Batman movie that doesn’t occasionally push the boundaries of realism.

Getting Black Anime Characters Right

Narrative and Visual Considerations

Just because the creators were able to incorporate so many crazy ideas into the film, though, doesn’t mean they didn’t have any guidelines. Okazaki made a deliberate effort not to go into “the realm of the extreme” with his designs, while Mizusaki and the film’s production team made grounding BATMAN NINJA’s crazier elements (or at least attempting to) a priority.

“I believe it is significantly important to give reality to something ridiculous,” Mizusaki told ComicsVerse via email, before referencing one of several ridiculous events from the film’s final act. “Even if giant robots are assembled into one huge robot, they don’t fly in the air but use rails instead. And when the robots [move], they cannot do it swiftly. We take pride in the style of our production team not to simply create something ridiculous. We seriously create something ridiculous with full efforts.”

Batman Ninja - Batman, Catwoman, and Nightwing
Batman, Catwoman, and Nightwing reel as their foe picks himself back up.

The creative team also wanted to ensure BATMAN NINJA respected both its American comics and Japanese roots. This is at least part of why the film features time travel in the first place, instead of Batman in modern-day Japan, or an Elseworlds­-style story with a version of the Dark Knight who lived in feudal Japan.

“We wanted to respect the current DC universe Batman characters. And…if he traveled to modern-day Japan, the ninja that you meet are not authentic ninja,” Nakashima said. “And if you had Batman who grew up in feudal Japan, that’s not— not necessarily not real Batman. But that’s not the current Batman, that’s not the Gotham Batman. So…you had to have time travel.”

The decision to use time travel wasn’t the only big choice that didn’t come solely from unbounded creativity, either. According to Mizusaki, the use of different styles in the film — which range from one that looks like a watercolor painting to another resembling a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e painting — came from a desire “to portray the several ‘perspectives’ of the characters within the movie.” But it was also the result of their goal to “keep…the overall quality high by working with several production teams” and “letting them adapt their styles,” “rather than using the energy to unify the visual style.”

What Does the Future of DC Anime Look Like?

Given the overwhelmingly positive response to the film’s visuals, it wouldn’t be surprising if Warner Bros. was already thinking about which characters should get a similar treatment. When asked by the moderator at Kinokuniya’s Q&A event which DC character they’d like to see done in BATMAN NINJA’s style, Nakashima and Okazaki expressed their interest in Sandman, with Nakashima adding, “And, of course, Superman. Come on.” Responding to the same question, Tara Strong (the English voice of Harley Quinn) suggested Batgirl and something with Huntress and Black Canary. However, she ultimately concluded that a future DC anime should have “all the chicks in it.”

As far as the filmmakers’ future with Batman, though, they’re all eager to work with the character again. “If the offer came, we’d be more than willing,” said Nakashima.

Mizusaki offered a more bullish response. “I’ve just debuted in the area of depicting Batman/[the] DC universe. And I am hoping to continue so that the style our team created will become a part of the universe,” he told ComicsVerse. “Not only our team. But I hope that there will be more American comic-based animations created by Japanese production[s] and/or creators.”

BATMAN NINJA is now available in digital and physical formats.

The interviews here have been edited for clarity and concision. All images via Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The title of the article has been updated.

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