With Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ just around the corner, we take a look at a new Japanese animated anthology which bridges the gap between ‘Batman Begins’ and the upcoming blockbuster. Available to own from July 14th.
Bridging the gap between Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and its upcoming sequel The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight comes from the producers of said films and seeks to interpret The Caped Crusader in a new light. This collection of short stories, then, while being entirely U.S. funded, takes its cue from the successful partnership between American and Japanese studios as displayed in the similarly themed The Animatrix from 2003. In Batman’s almost seventy-year history he’s remained a staple part of American culture; his character has been greatly explored over the years, while seeing the man himself only really change cosmetically. Granted he had a bit of a camp moment during the sixties when the powers that be decided to satirise not only the comic books that bore him and other heroes, but so too the greater societal aspects of the current climate. For the most part, however, Batman is a dark and brooding figure; a scarred individual who has no real power in the traditional sense, but who harbours a great sense of justice as he seeks to save the innocent, whilst tackling his own inner demons.
It seems appropriate somehow that now Batman would find himself truly embraced by Japanese animators – those behind an art form that has literally taken the world by storm. Some of the greatest production houses in animation lend their talents in unmasking one of the most iconic creations of all time. Batman: Gotham Knight loosely interweaves six stories, each written by highly respected artists in their field, across a sleek run time of 75 minutes as Kevin Conroy returns to voice Gotham’s hero.
In ‘Have I Got a Story for You’ Screenwriter Josh Olson taps into the mythological side of Batman, which runs in tandem with the preconceptions of just who or what our hero is. The story centres on a group of children – skater kids – who each swear to having witnessed Batman’s heroics in the flesh. They sit and over-embellish as to his appearance and abilities, each story getting more elaborate than the last – until a surprise awaits them.
Directed by Shojiro Nishimi for Studio 4°C (The Animatrix, Tekkon Kinkreet) the episode is beautifully presented, offering a glorious amount of detail in relation to the Gotham cityscape, while successfully capturing the wonderment of the children’s fantastical tales as we see the crime fighter appear in various guises, from simple man in a suit, to frightening bat-creature and even a robot. There’s little faulting the studio’s work here, but while it certainly looks pretty the tale itself is somewhat cumbersome and uneventful, despite clearly seeing where Olsen is coming from and what his ultimate goal is. This opener is a bit of a double-edged sword really; it offers some interesting scenes and semi-violent encounters, but it doesn’t quite set the heart racing in terms of story telling.
Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell) under the supervision of Director Futoshi Higashide step up to the plate next with ‘Crossfire’, from a story by Greg Ruck and Jonah Nolan. This time we see Chief Commissioner Gordon instruct his detectives of the Major Crimes Unit Allen and Ramirez to escort a dangerous criminal – previously apprehended by Batman – to Arkham Asylum. But it’s a task that Allen begrudgingly accepts on account of his disliking of the mysterious crime fighter, who he sees as nothing more than a vigilante. To him the mission is small potatoes when compared to the larger threat out there of a Russian crime syndicate.
Following on from the previous episode, ‘Crossfire’ does very little to keep momentum going, spelling potentially early disaster for this little animated experiment. While fluidly animated it‘s all so very confined and doesn‘t provide enough diversity to make it aesthetically interesting; matters especially aren’t helped when it becomes another victim of a non-too-interesting set-up. Much of the episode consists of Allen banging on about how annoyed he is with Batman, which, while providing an aspect of distrust amongst the law enformencement community, inevitability conjures up some serious bouts of predictability and cliché, when who should ultimately turn up to save the day as the officers find themselves in a spot of bother? But it at least it throws in some recognisable material which connects it well to Batman Begins, such as the journey across ‘The Narrows’, not to mention the first appearance of Gordon. It also serves as a conduit to a later episode that furthers the Russian mafia sub-plot. So far, so very average I’m afraid.
In ‘Field Test’ things really start to pick up the pace as the anthology begins to start looking at the man himself – Bruce Wayne – in what becomes the first of several inner explorations as his character dishes out justice his own way. Written by Jordan Goldberg and directed by Hiroshi Morioka for Production I.G. once more, the story sees Lucius Fox developing a bullet-repelling device for Wayne to use on his armour. The wealthy entrepreneur is eager to put the device to the test, but must first attend a charity golf event in his honour. This is subsequently set to the backdrop of invading Russian mobsters, as it loosely picks up from where ’Crossfire’ left off.
This episode works particularly well because it makes efforts to examine its characters a little more closely. While its contestable that this may not seem entirely necessary given such a strict run time – and the movies themselves – it nonetheless adds some much needed depth at this crucial stage. Both sides of Bruce Wayne is seen, not just physically, but more so mentally. He’s shown up here for his fallible nature, which ultimately brings morality into the equation. It’s an episode in which Wayne actually learns something, providing a nice stepping stone for his character as he realises the limitations of just how far he can and should go to see justice delivered appropriately.
David S. Goyer pens, while Yasuhiro Aoki directs at Madhouse (Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent) for ‘In Darkness Dwells’. This sees Batman take to the Gotham sewers in the search for ‘Killer Croc’ – a genetically mutated thug – which soon leads Batman on the trail of ‘The Scarecrow’.
The collection hits its stride as Batman now takes on some of the bigger and better known villains of the Batman universe. Goyer’s script is pace-y and he succeeds in keeping interests afloat as it portrays a vulnerable Batman falling prey to Scarecrow’s hallucinogenic toxin after a vicious confrontation with Killer Croc, while the grim and grainy visuals provide a suitably foreboding atmosphere. It does well again to link itself to Batman Begins, shedding light on Scarecrow’s escape, but whether or not that fits in so well with The Dark Knight remains to be seen (though we know he does return). Madhouse come up with the most visually alluring episode so far and prove to be masters of their craft; there are a few neat touches littered throughout which compliment one of the best episodes on the disc.
Studio 4°C return, and like Production I.G. come up with a better episode for their second attempt. ‘Working Through the Pain’ shows Director Toshiyuki Kubooka working from a story by Brian Azzarello as Batman finds himself badly injured, with nothing but his past to guide him.
Another strong entry in the collection, this episode delves more into the philosophical and spiritual side of Bruce Wayne’s being. His life practically flashes before his eyes as he recalls his time working as a field medic in the ‘Relief Effort’. This leads on to him travelling to India where he meets a woman by the name of Cassandra. It is she who would guide him on a spiritual journey as he learns to harness his physical strength through better judgement. This proves to be another nice companion piece to Batman Begins as it was during that film that most of the time was spent with Wayne learning the way of martial arts, while here it’s his entire mindset at play and how it is meant to correlate with his skills as a fighter. A more contemplative episode, then, ‘Working Through the Pain’ has very little to offer in terms of fast, excessive visuals, but more to give in relation to what kind of man Bruce Wayne was and eventually became.
Alan Burnett’s story concludes Batman: Gotham Knight as Madhouse returns, this time under the guidance of Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Batman finds himself up against one of his toughest foes when an ace marksman by the name of ‘Deadshot’ systematically bumps off major political figures. Of course Batman is next on his “To do” list.
Madhouse hits another ball out of the park with the final episode here. ‘Deadshot’ is a luscious production, featuring some excellent animation that places it right up there with ‘In Darkness Dwells’ for exciting set-pieces. The storyline moves swiftly, leading up to a very entertaining face-off between hero and villain. It displays more of Batman’s vulnerability, which humanises him a great deal, while making Deadshot an almost genuine threat to his life. Moreover it also does well to touch upon Bruce Wayne’s past, with the constant reliving of his parent’s death – the driving force behind his alter ego no less. ‘Deadshot’, then, ends the series with a bang, more than making up for its whimper of a start.
As I only received a check disc for the purpose of this review I can’t tell you anything about the ‘Limited Edition Gotham Knight Booklet’. This disc or packaging is also supposed to contain a ‘Wonder Woman Sneak Peek’, but I see no sign of that either.
I’m floored by how fantastic Batman: Gotham Knight looks here. If I didn’t know any better I’d have no trouble believing that this was a HD presentation – it really is, under no exaggeration, a stunning transfer. Presented anamorphically at around 1.78:1, this has a lot of fluid and fast animation and pleasingly there isn’t a single bit of artefacting in sight. It’s been compressed amazingly well; detail is phenomenal; colours are rich and vibrant; contrast is spot on. I could continue fawning over it but I think I get the point across. If I were going to make any negative criticisms then it would be over a very minor (compared to most anime I see these days) amount of digital grading. While I’m at it I should point out that episode 4 ’In Darkness Dwells’ has a deliberately grainy and murky look, just so buyers don’t think they’ve stumbled upon a defect. I’m really tempted to give this full marks, but I’m now left wondering just how much better the Blu-Ray release can possibly look.
The most prominent soundtrack on the disc is the English DD5.1 Surround offering. While it’s not as jaw-dropping as the visual department it does offer enough bang for buck. Naturally though it’s a somewhat scattered affair; half the episodes are very dialogue driven and therefore rely little on ambient effects and the like, while some key action sequences in a couple of tales such as ‘In Darkness Dwells’ and ‘Deadshot’ benefit greatly from the surround mix, with strong directionality. Still, it’s a perfectly clear track through and through, with nicely balanced dialogue and no noticeable errors to speak of.
Voice actor Kevin Conroy is joined by Senior VP of Creative Affairs at DC Comics Gregory Noveck and comic writer Dennis O’Neil, or “Denny” as he refers to himself. The trio manage to cover a fair bit of ground and do their best in addressing particular aspects of each episode. Of course there’s only so much they can comment on individual pieces where the animators and writers might do better, but they come up with some of their own analogies while they spend plenty of time talking about Batman as a mythological figure and how he’s ripe for interpretation. Kevin Conroy proves to be the most entertaining speaker on account of a couple of personal stories to tell, not to mention his rich history in having voiced Batman for the past fifteen years or so. He’s also prompted by his fellow contributors to discuss his approach to the character, upon where we learn some of his preferred methods. The group discuss Batman with a lot of respect and clearly appreciate this new direction he’s headed in. Toward the end of the commentary things slow down every so slightly with a few pauses indicating that they’ve said just about all they can. But they stick to the task well and this proves to be a pleasant addition overall.
There is also a trailer for the rather excellent-looking Lego Batman which precedes the main menu screen.
Batman: Gotham Knight is a solid entry into the DC canon. While it kicks of rather sluggishly it manages to pick up the pace and deliver several highly entertaining episodes. What’s more it’s respectful of the character and the universe that Christopher Nolan has sculpted so well. It’s dark, brooding and violent; this transition should do well to keep fans happy in the run-up to the highly anticipated The Dark Knight on July 25th.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum