Batman in Feudal Japan: An Interview with the Cast and Crew of DC’s Batman Ninja

Batman Ninja

Ahead of Batman Ninja‘sU.S. digital release on April 24, WonderCon attendees got the first look at the world’s most interesting animation collaboration. After the first poster release in October 2017, Japanese and American Twitter users blew up over the dream team mashup of the Batman franchise with one of Japan’s most prolific animation studios. Well-known for Gatchaman Crowds, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Pop Team Epic, Kamikaze Douga took the animation world by storm with its groundbreaking style.

At WonderCon, APA heard from the creative teams of Kamikaze Douga and Warner Bros. Animation about the behind-the-scenes of this massive collaboration.

Junpei Mizusaki, Kazuki Nakashima, and Takashi Okazaki (Kamikaze Douga)

APA: What would you say comic fans have to look forward to in Batman Ninja? What do you think they’ll enjoy most?

Okazaki: For the comic fans out there, the loyalists, you can look forward to some Bob Kane interpretation. We designed that character specifically to pay homage to the original.

APA: From a Japanese animation standpoint, which characters are a good fit for the Japanese animation style?

Nakashima: There’s no character that we think is “fit” for anime, it’s purely characters we want to animate. We did Batman and now we hope we can work on Superman.

APA: What were the inspirations behind the story of Batman Ninja?

Nakashima: It was important to bring how Batman is known in the US to Japan. Ninjas are something that comes to mind when Western fans think of Japan. We tried to incorporate those two together and the process was very fluid for us.

APA: Can you talk about the change in animation style from CGI to the ink wash painting during the movie?

Mizusaki: In the first CGI sequence, we wanted to bring out this unfamiliarity. Everything is foreign to him, yet we wanted to stay true to Japan. In the transition with the water painting style, we wanted to portray this idea that Joker and Harley Quinn have been immersed in the Feudal Japan environment.

Leo Chu and Eric Garcia (English Screenwriters)

APA: How did you feel about this collaboration?

Chu: The inspiration for everything on this project was the visuals. Our job was to give the story themes and narrative to fit the visuals. I would say in the Japanese version, the dialogue is very different than the English one. I’m curious to see how people react.

APA: Are both versions going to be available?

Chu: I think we’re going to bundle them together.

Garcia: It’ll also be on the new streaming service. But going back to the previous question, there’s a language to anime. It was intimidating to put all the Robins together. We first started building story off the storyboards and making sense of what was going on.

Chu: What was difficult was the six pages of literal dialogue, which we didn’t understand but had to work with.

APA: Even though anime is incredibly popular, how did you feel about a Batman anime of this caliber?

Chu: Warner Bros. Japan explained to Warner Bros. that this would open up the door for people in Japan. Batman isn’t that popular; in fact, his personality is very different from what would be popular in Japan. He’s a loner and he’s a billionaire, which is very contrary to standard anime characters.

Garcia: It’s not seeing Japan through the eyes of Batman, rather seeing Batman through the lens of Japan. We think of ninja, samurai, and castles when we think of Japan, and turning those things into Batman Ninja is a very unique project.

APA: What were some of the most fun parts of screenwriting for the movie?

Chu: I love the villains and trying to capture the voices and re-localize it back into English was fun.

Garcia: There’s an episodic nature to it, and we wanted each villain to have a stand-alone moment but also have that all come together.

Batman Ninja

Roger Smith (Batman) and Fred Tatasciore (Grodd and Deathstroke)

APA: What led you to play the characters that you were casted?

Smith: Why wouldn’t you want to? It’s an honor for me.

Tatasciore: It’s a dream come true. The genius gorilla that has world domination plans? I love the idea of a bestial character that is going against the stereotype. He’s refined and it’s a mask over the pain he’s gone through in his life.

APA: Did you play your character differently when you saw their visuals?

Tatasciore: Deathstroke is like how I normally play him, but maybe a little more fired up than I made him. But Gorilla Grodd was already thoroughly done by the time I looked, it informed me as to how I was going to act. You normally don’t have that level of detail, but his face was so clear to me that I understood the animation acting behind it. It freed me up and I wanted to match the look he had in his eyes.

APA: People have a pretty set idea of what Batman is like, but how did you balance bringing yourself into that role while still maintaining expectations for it?

Smith: When people ask me how I put my own personal touch to it, I don’t. I listen to the director or the team behind the execution of the project. It’s not my place to tell them how to do their job. There’s opportunity for me to say when I feel out of character, but it’s never me thinking, “This is my version of Batman, and you’ll enjoy it.”

Tatasciore: There’s a certain goodness to Batman that he has, and there’s something about Batman’s frailty that Roger brings to it.

APA: What were your favorite scenes to the movie?

Tatasciore: The hot tub scene.Roger: Especially when you find out he knows Batman is right there watching him. Don’t need to see anything below the water.

Tatasciore: The opening sequence when Batman goes back in time, and the little jokes about him not being used to Feudal Japan.

Smith: I actually didn’t know that this was going to be an anime when I was cast. They really kept this under wraps and I was surprised. That’s why we rely on the team to guide us.

Tony Hale (Joker)

APA: Joker is a universal presence in the DC Universe. Can you please tell us about your personal spin on this version of Joker?

Hale: I typically play a passive, naïve characters, but Joker is a dark character. The outfit that he has makes him look like a ringleader. There’s a lot of screaming and I lost my voice at some point.

APA: How was it to switch from the husky voice to the normal sounding voice in the middle?

Hale: They didn’t give us the script beforehand, and they would give us pieces of it when we were in the booth. They would guide us throughout the whole time.

APA: Did you feel pressure from the previous iterations of the Joker?

Hale: I think if I came to this before the weight that the other actors had brought to it, it would influence me too much. I wanted to come in with my take of it.

APA: Did you do any research into Feudal Japan before this?

Hale: No, they kept it secret. We had to match the lip synch and towards the end, Joker is getting very dark and I did my best to match that.

Yuri Lowenthal (Red Hood, Robin)

APA: Can you tell us a little about your characters?

Lowenthal: They’re definitely very different; Robin plays into that anime role really well with his high-pitched voice. It’s funny because he wears this helmet and I was revisiting a character I played in Afro Samurai, who has a bear thing on his head. When I was casted, they didn’t do it on purpose; it was fate. Bob, the designer who I became friends with on Afro Samurai, was thrilled when I told him I was cast as Red Hood. Actually, that scene where Red Hood confronts Joker, who also forgets that he’s the Joker–it was fun to play into the hardcore anime character and a more artistic vision during that painted scene.

APA: How familiar are you with both of the characters?

Lowenthal: I’m a big fan of the DC Universe, but I did fall out of the comics when multiple Robins started popping up. When I played Red Robin in another movie, I had to go research which version that was. I was an early Batman/Superman adopter. They used to have hardback comic book copies in the library when I was young.

APA: What do you do to make these characters your own?

Lowenthal: I used to obsess over characters who were previously casted, but now I’ve learned to trust the person who casted me. I trust that they saw something in me that worked for this particular project. I don’t do a lot of research into the past iterations for the character. Particularly for anime, when there’s a lot of visual already there, it’s hard to adlib. I’m not a huge adlibber, but I tried towards the end when Robin defeats Poison Ivy. I made a pruning joke rather than a cutting joke, but they didn’t go for that.

APA: What were some of your favorite scenes?

Lowenthal: I was joking earlier, I would have to say that part of the beginning to the end of the credits. The movie starts out crazy, but there was one point where I leaned over to Tony Hale, and told him, “Now here’s where it gets really weird.” I was nervous that the audience wasn’t going to come with us on this journey, but we were reassured when we heard the cheering and clapping.If you watch a lot of anime, it’s not so much stuff that you haven’t seen before; but you haven’t seen it with Batman. I didn’t even know I wanted this, and now I can’t imagine living without it.

Adam Croasdell (Alfred and Nightwing)

APA: What is it like to play two very different characters?

Croasdell: I was assigned to play Alfred, but they asked me to do some Nightwing as we got closer to production. I bought some comics to refresh my memory and took some notes. It’s an honor to be in multiple parts of that lore.

APA: Since you didn’t audition for Nightwing, how did you change your voice?

Croasdell: At the time, I was at the end of doing three years of voicing Ignis in FFXV. The voice of Prompto, played by Robbie Daymond, also voiced Spiderman. When it came time, I thought, “Who do I know who’s a young, sassy American man? Robbie Daymond!” I’m loosely basing Nightwing off of him.

APA: If not Nightwing, whom would you like to voice in Batverse?

Croasdell: Joker. There’s so much that can be done with him. I can’t imagine how much fun it would be to voice him.

APA: What was your favorite scene for both of your characters?

Croasdell: I like the surprise when Batman discovers Alfred is pouring his tea. Also, I enjoyed the reveal with the Batmobile and Alfred patting himself on the back for the miso fish recipe.

APA: Have you done any research into Japan in preparation for the project?

Croasdell: As a kid, I had a fascination with Japan. It served me very well with this project. When I arrived in the booth on the first day, they showed me some visuals. As Yuri said, jaw hit the deck because it was so beautiful.

APA: Did they have all the visuals done?

Croasdell: Thankfully, we did have some references. The visuals were coming in blocks, and everyone was juggling with the information that was coming in. There was a lot, and unfortunately some of the Japanese humor was being lost as it was translated into English.

APA: What kind of anime did you watch and did it influence your acting?

Croasdell: I don’t watch nearly enough. I know it’s a strange thing, but I don’t have a TV. I grew up with old school anime like Voltron, and to see these castles transform into this giant Voltron robot was amazing.

Tom Kenny (Penguin) and Eric Bauza (Two-Face)

APA: What was it like to voice these characters?

Kenny: I’ve played the Penguin before, but something I talked to Tony (Joker) about inheriting an iconic character with legacy, you have to embrace what’s come before and discard it all if you think too much about it. At least for the Penguin in The Batman, it was one of those auditions where they told me what they weren’t looking for. They told me they didn’t want me doing the ‘60s Adam West Penguin. We do several takes and I actually did what they told me not to do.

Bauza: I’ve seen the journey of Tom’s characters, but I think the overall goal of a voice performer is to do something that others will imitate down the road. To match how extreme the visuals were, we had to play up our characters.

APA: Were you all in the booth at the same time or separate?

Kenny: It was all done at different times. We were watching the finished animation and trying to match the lip flaps.

Bauza: It may not have been a language that we understand, but we wanted to match the energy and inflections of the characters.

Kenny: They establish the footprint and you try and fit that mold.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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