Review by KC Carlson and Ed Sizemore
[A note from KC: When Johanna asked me to review the new Batman: Gotham Knight animated DVD, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in over my head. Although the history of American animation is kind of a hobby of mine, I have only a very limited scope of what is going on in the rapidly growing world of anime. Sadly, except for the end credits of the DVD, the talented directors and animation studios that are such a huge part of this video are not mentioned at all on the packaging, nor in the publicity material that was included with this release. Instead, focus falls on the screenwriters, many of whom have comic or cartoon connections, and the voice talent.
Knowing that the dedicated manga and anime followers of Comics Worth Reading expect us to do more than a cursory review of this important project, I quickly turned to our resident anime expert, Ed Sizemore, to help me with information regarding that portion of the DVD. Ed, being Ed, went above and beyond the call of duty and wrote a full-blown review, which appears here in its entirety. Check back with me at the end for notes on the American creators, additional credits, and information on the DVD extras. Now, here’s Ed.]
Similar to The Animatrix, which expanded the world of the Matrix films through Japanese animation, Batman: Gotham Knight allows anime companies to visually reinterpret Batman. DC comics has hired four of the leading anime studios to animate six stories penned by current and past Batman writers. The idea is for them to use the template created in Batman Begins as a reference for what Gotham looks like and what characters they can incorporate in their stories. The events of these six stories are supposed to take place between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
The first segment, “Have I Got A Story For You,” is done by Studio 4°C. They’re one of the newer studios, but they have made a name for themselves by aiming for the experimental edge of anime. They’re best known for the two-film anthology series Genius Party and the movie adaptation of Tekkonkinkreet. In fact, this story uses the animation style and director of Tekkonkinkreet in presenting our first look at an anime vision of Batman.
I’m not a fan of this animation style. I think the characters and backgrounds look flat. This segment is the most derivative in its storyline but most original in its re-envisioning of Batman. The story is similar to the Batman: The Animated Series episode, “Legends of the Dark Knight,” in which three kids tell of their encounters with Batman and how this shaped their understanding of who and what he is. Batman and foe come crashing into their hangout, and the fourth kid gets to form his own impressions. Studio 4°C draws on Japanese folktales and anime archetypes in the first three portrayals. The ‘real’ Batman at the end is based on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.
The second segment, “Crossfire,” is done by Production I.G. They’re my favorite anime studio, best known for animating all the incarnations of the Ghost in the Shell franchise as well as providing the animation segments in the Kill Bill movies. Here the style is similar to the Ghost in the Shell TV series, which works well for the story. This dynamic episode is about two cops who get literally caught in the crossfire between rival gang bosses, and Batman comes to their rescue. There are great shots of Arkham and the ghettos of Gotham. Batman here reminded me of Jim Lee’s drawings, but with a longer cape.
The third segment, “Field Test,” is done by Bee Train Production Inc. This studio has done all the animation work for the .hack franchise as well as the shows Noir and Madlax. I like their animation choices; here, they’re realistic with jet black shadows to give a nice moody feel to the piece. The studio also decided to design their own version of the Batman costume. It has smoother geometric surfaces and looked to me like an Art Deco version of a bat. In this story, Batman is trying out a new force field system that would make him bulletproof, but it has unforeseen side effects. The ending is a little obvious, but it’s still enjoyable. Also, this is a morally ambiguous take on Batman and his stopgap measures to handle crime in Gotham.
The fourth segment, “In Darkness Dwells,” is done by Madhouse. They’re one of the more prolific studios, having done animation for shows like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Nana, Beck, Trigun, Reign, and a host of others. American comic readers will know them most for animating both Hellboy cartoon movies. They use the Batman suit from Batman Begins, with two styles of animation. Above ground, the style is realistic with heavy shadows; below ground, it’s Mignola’s art brought to life. In fact, the sewer scenes are closer to the style of the Hellboy comics than the Hellboy cartoons are. In this vignette, Batman has to rescue Cardinal O’Fallon from Scarecrow and Killer Croc.
The fifth segment, “Working Through Pain,” is the second segment by Studio 4°C and my favorite story of the DVD. It’s mostly flashback to Bruce’s training under a female Hindu mystic who teaches him how to control and channel physical pain. The problem is that their training is cut short and she doesn’t show him how to control emotional pain. This is a very powerful story about the Batman’s psyche and how his past both fuels and binds him. The ending is an emotional smack in the face.
The animation style here is very different from their first segment. This is more realistic with beautiful, delicate linework. I really like how Bruce looks here, and the India scenes are stunning with lots of color and light. It makes a great contrast to the rest of episodes, which are done mostly in the shadows of Gotham. They seem to be inspired by Asamiya’s Batman, who in turn was inspired by Neal Adams.
The sixth segment, “Deadshot,” is the second segment commissioned to Madhouse, but they actually outsourced to the Korean studio Dongwoo Animation Co. Ltd. Dongwoo is the company animating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward, currently airing on Kids’ WB. What’s interesting is that Dongwoo used a very distinctive style of anime that Madhouse made famous in the movies Ninja Scrolls, Wicked City, and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. I like it. It’s realistic with no grey tone — all shadows and shading are done in jet black. Here Batman and Commissioner Gordon are targets for Deadshot. It’s a great story with amazing action sequences and a wonderful way to end the DVD.
Overall, I really enjoyed the DVD, and I didn’t think there were any weak segments. It was interesting to see all the different visual interpretations of Batman and his costume. I think DC picked some great anime studios. I do wish that, instead of having two studios do two segments, WB would have had no duplication in studios. I would have loved to see Studio Bones’ (Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Wolf’s Rain) and Gainax’s (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nadia, FLCL) take on Batman. If there’s a third Batman film, maybe these studios and others can be included in a second anime DVD.
I also enjoyed the commentary track by Gregory Noveck (Senior VP – Creative Affairs from DC Comics), Denny O’Neil (famous Batman writer/editor), and Kevin Conroy (the voice actor for Batman since 1992). They had some interesting discussion on how to understand Batman, what makes him such an archetypical figure, and what makes a great Batman story.
[KC — And now I’m back with credits and additional notes.]
Overview DVD credits:
Story by Jordan Goldberg (associate producer: The Dark Knight)
Executive Producers: Benjamin Melniker, Emma Thomas, Bruce W. Timm, and Michael E. Uslan
Batman: Kevin Conroy
Crispus Allen: Gary Dourdan
Alfred Pennyworth: David McCallum
Cassandra: Parminder Nagra
Anna Ramirez: Ana Ortiz (A new character, partner of Crispus Allen, who will be featured in The Dark Knight)
Scarecrow/The Russian: Cory Burton
“Have I Got a Story for You” Screenplay by Josh Olson (screenplay: A History of Violence), Directed by Shojiro Nishimi
“Crossfire” Screenplay by Greg Rucka (author: Atticus Kodiak series, Gotham Central), Directed by Futoshi Higashide
“Field Test” Screenplay by Jason Goldberg, Directed by Hiroshi Morioka
“In Darkness Dwells” Screenplay by David Goyer (Blade movies, Batman Begins), Directed by Yasuhiro Aoki
“Working Through Pain” Screenplay by Brian Azzarello (Batman: Broken City, 100 Bullets), Directed by Toshiyuki Kubooka
“Deadshot” Screenplay by Alan Burnett (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman), Directed by Jong-Sik Nam
An earlier inspiration for the “Have I Got a Story for You” sequence is the comic book story “The Batman Nobody Knows,” written by Frank Robbins and drawn by Dick Giordano. It appeared in Batman #250 in 1973 and was reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (at least in the original edition, hope it made the cut for the recent reissue).
As Ed mentioned above, there is a commentary track. Denny, as usual, has some amazing insights into the Batman characters, and Kevin Conroy has many great anecdotes, including a discussion of the differences in voice acting between anime and western animation. His story about being in post-9/11 NYC is wonderful and moving.
The deluxe version of the DVD comes with a second disc, featuring two fairly lengthy documentaries, as well as Bruce Timm’s choices of four episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. All are appropriate companions for the feature, as well as being some of the best episodes of the series. The episodes are “Heart of Ice,” “I Am the Night,” “Legends of the Dark Knight,” and “Over the Edge.”
“Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story” presents the life of this over-the-top personality in an appropriately over-the-top documentary, revolving around a Citizen Kane-like motif. Through surviving footage of what appears to be some public access cable talk show, we are treated to actual footage and voiceover from Kane himself, much of which is put into proper perspective by author and biographer Tom Andrae, actor Mark Hamill, Kane’s widow Elizabeth Kane, Jerry Robinson, Stan Lee, Michael Uslan, and DC Executive Paul Levitz. Most of the testimonials are from the world of Hollywood (where Kane spent most of his time), rather than from members of the comics community. A fascinating documentary, not only for what is said, but for what isn’t. Destined to be a cult camp classic!
I’m sure that “A Mirror for the Bat,” the second documentary and a look at Batman’s villains, probably had a lot of interesting things to say (or maybe not), but I was too busy being distracted by the awful lighting, odd camera angles, and excessively strident music, which had the effect of making Batman’s creators look more frightening than the villains they were talking about. Paul Levitz in real life: Warm and friendly. Paul Levitz in HD under bad lights: Scarier than the Joker.
Overall, Batman fans and anime fans will both find plenty to enjoy in this original animation DVD. (A complimentary copy of this DVD was provided by the studio.) Find out more at the official website.