When I heard there was going to be an Animatrix-style anthology of Batman stories from anime directors, wild horses wouldn't have stopped me buying it. What did that was word of mouth. Everyone seemed to be saying that it looked good, but that the stories were dull. The animation studios are doing strong work, at the level of an OVA (which this is) rather than TV quality, but the problem is the scripts and they're written by Westerners.
Unfortunately the consensus is right. There are six stories here, of which I'd say about 25% could be described as worth watching. The most obvious problem is that it's set between Batman Begins
and The Dark Knight
, which means that the general tone is dour and lacking in the colour and fun that you might associate with Batman stories. Not only is the Batman himself boring, but his opponents are too. Half the time he's up against ordinary gangsters, thanks to a turf war between Maroni and the Russian. This is rubbish. These guys barely even count as opposition. It never occurs to you that they might stand a chance against the Batman and sure enough they don't, with only a lack of evidence stopping him from dumping them on Gordon's desk in a heartbeat.
If we're talking about proper Batman villains, then these stories have three. There's Killer Croc, who shows up for a sewer fight and is basically a wandering monster. There's Scarecrow, who's cool but only shows up towards the end of one of the six segments and never confronts Batman. He's pencilled in to return in The Dark Knight
, you see, and this kind of animated spin-off isn't allowed to tread on the toes of its live-action parent. No, the only one who's being allowed to be a proper Batman villain is... Deadshot. C'mon, you know Deadshot. The suicidal nutjob in John Ostrander's Suicide Squad? He's awesome when being written by Ostrander, but here he's a very different character and merely okay. His story's not particularly great, but it's the only one here that's clearly and unambiguously an old school Batman story and as such has been given the prized final position.
There's something odd about these stories, in fact. Sometimes they sideline the Batman, portraying him as a force of nature who sweeps out of the darkness rather than a person. That's fine, but it does rather depend on you being able to do something interesting with whatever incidental character you've chosen to focus on instead. However I do like the fact that they've brought back Kevin Conroy to voice him, who's the fan favourite choice and a clear improvement on the silly-sounding Christian Bale.
Going through the six stories in order:
1. HAVE I GOT A STORY FOR YOU (Studio 4C)
Apparently it's based on a 1973 Frank Robbins story called "The Batman Nobody Knows" from Batman #250, which had also been adapted for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Appropriately enough for the opening segment, it's quite good. Four skateboarders meet up to tell each other what it was like meeting Batman, which takes us into wild and wacky realms of unreliable reporting. It's a What-If. This story's fictional Batmen can dissolve into smoke, fly like Man-Bat and out-tech Iron Man
. The latter actually made me laugh.
That's all there is to the story, but it's quite fun anyway. See cool and silly Batmen, one of whom decapitates someone! The end.
2. CROSSFIRE (Production I.G)
Again in this one Batman is merely the beast in the shadows. Instead we're seeing the story through the eyes of two of Gordon's detectives, one of whom thinks Batman's a vigilante. Yes, it all turns out as predictably as you think it's going to. That I don't object to. What did make me roll my eyes was the way in which Allen and Ramirez stop their car between two groups of gangsters and then just sit and wait as the gangsters get out of their own cars, draw weapons, start shouting and open fire. Some people don't deserve to be saved, do they?
The Batman looks great, though. He's a colossus who walks through fire, while the art style is rich in all those anime shadows you never get in Western animation.
3. FIELD TEST (Bee Train)
Welcome to the most anime-ish character design for Bruce Wayne I've ever seen. You could put him in shoujo manga. On the upside, this is the first segment on the DVD to step closer to the Batman and let us see him talk and think. However on the downside, this is a story about a gadget, not a character point. Lucius Fox has invented something. Bruce talks to him about it in the lab. Bruce plays golf with a bad guy and uses the gadget. Bruce dresses up as Batman, fights bad guys and again uses the gadget, although yet again it's only gangsters he's up against. Bruce decides not to use the gadget again. Gee, I guess I just spoiled this thrill-packed adventure for you.
4. IN DARKNESS DWELLS (Madhouse)
This is the one with Killer Croc and the Scarecrow. I liked them, but I'd have liked them even more if the story hadn't been coming at them so slantwise. It's not a bad segment, though.
5. WORKING THROUGH PAIN (Studio 4C)
This is the episode that felt most like anime to me, thanks to the character work. I don't mean Batman, of course, but there's a spiritual woman in India who's teaching him how to use his pain. We see her in a flashback, which itself has further flashbacks. I liked her. She was good.
The story structure's as untraditional as anything else on the DVD, though. No villains. No mad schemes. Instead we have an injured Batman struggling through the sewers and having flashbacks to the days when he was doing volunteer work in a relief hospital in a warzone, or living in India to study with the fakirs. The story ends with Batman being unable to take Alfred's hand to get out of the sewer because his arms are full of all the guns he's been collecting, which I can appreciate as a piece of symbolism while also finding a bit dull as an ending to the story.
6. DEADSHOT (Madhouse)
This is the traditional one. That's a good thing, by the way. We have a villain, Deadshot, who's brilliant at killing people. He comes to Gotham. You can fill in the rest yourself. I quite liked this one, with my only caveats being the characterisation of Deadshot and the rather obvious afterword in which Batman muses about his parents' deaths, saying "maybe I've been trying to stop these two bullets all my life."
Overall I wouldn't recommend these. There's so much Batman stuff out there that you could keep going for quite a while without having to go near these six segments, while the main selling point of "anime Batman" didn't turn out to be much of a thrill after all. The animation looks impressive, yes, but there's been no coordination on getting the recurring characters (e.g. Allen and Ramirez) to look like each other and I occasionally disagreed with the animators' choices on the dialogue scenes. Maybe it's a translation issue. I don't know. If they ever try something like this again, I'd be much more interested if they threw the ball to some Japanese anime scriptwriters and let them go as batshit crazy as they liked. That would have been a project worth watching.
Personally I'd have preferred it in Japanese as well, although that's probably just me. Anime should always be in Japanese. That's just the law.