Batman: The Animated Series, “Night of the Ninja.”

13May11

Going in, my memories of this episode were pretty basic: Batman fights a ninja, who’s also a person from his past. And that is an accurate description of what happens. Heck, you could even truncate that for an official blurb, so it’s just “Batman fights a ninja from his past.” Boom, advertising is done. If you like ninjas, you’ll love this. If you don’t like ninjas, then maybe Batman beating a ninja will appeal to you. But after watching it, I realized the episode has three unusual elements to it.

The episode opens with the titular ninja robbing the Wayne Cosmetics building, which just happens to have a safe full of money in its office, instead of deposited in a bank. This is pretty odd on the surface, but considering how often banks are robbed in Gotham, this may actually be the smarter choice. After demonstrating his amazing yet believable skills (well, mostly believable, anyway) on a security guard, the ninja escapes, and we’re reminded that the building is owned by Bruce Wayne…and it’s apparently the 7nth one robbed in quick succession. Wayne himself comes to visit the crime scene, and notices the throwing star that was used to disarm the guard, still pinned to a wall with the gun.

This is where we get to the first unusual thing about this episode, as the episode cuts to a flashback of Batman’s past, when he was training to become a crimefighter. This is to establish his personal connection with the thief, but it’s the first time the show has gone to this well so far-and from what I remember, it will only go there one more time, for the same reason. It’s a bit odd that such a rich well of stories isn’t touched on in the series, but I suppose it’s better than having the viewers go “Oh, it’s another ‘Young Batman’ episode.”

After walking away from Summer Gleeson’s attempt to get an interview, Batman heads out, denying Robin’s request to come along. This is the start of the second unusual element of the episode, though this is more a matter of timing than anything else. After Robin’s Reckoning so recently, it’s strange that an episode I’d mostly remembered as Batman versus a ninja says so much about Batman and Robin’s relationship, such as the fact that Robin has to save Batman from his first encounter with the ninja. It’s even thanks to Robin that Batman realizes he knows the ninja, a former student at his dojo in Japan, that he inadvertently exposed as a thief.

And this gets to the final unusual thing about the episode. Kyodai Ken was able to consistently defeat Wayne back in the dojo, and that feeds into the flashbacks Batman has throughout the episode. For once, he’s facing an enemy that can challenge him physically without some kind of outside enhancement or gadgetry. Most of Batman’s regular rogue’s gallery are either ‘normal’ people with only some tools and psychosis on their side, such as the Joker or the Penguin, or superhumans with mild enhancements and nothing else, such as Clayface and Killer Croc. The only one who regularly engages Batman in physical fights with just his fists is Two-face, and even he has henchmen to help him out. Kyodai Ken, on the other hand, bases his assault on his physical strength and skill. His tools are unusual, but otherwise mundane, and he can go toe to toe with Batman in martial arts….or at least has the potential to. That, combined with his historical dominance of Bruce Wayne, means that Batman is faced with a real crisis of confidence here. Of course, that gets compounded when Kyodai manages to kidnap both him and Summer Gleeson with a well done surprise attack.

Once Wayne wakes up, Kyodai confronts him about how he was ruined by being discovered, putting him firmly in the realm of Batman villains who blame Batman/Wayne for their own actions. Fortunately for him, Robin’s attempt to find Batman distracts Kyodai long enough for Wayne to get free…only for him to be forced to fight Kyodai while Gleeson is watching, meaning he has to do less than he can to preserve his civilian identity. At least, that’s the case until Robin (who wasn’t disposed of as Kyodai thought) intervenes to cover Gleeson, allowing Bruce to fight at full strength to decisively beat Kyodai, while Robin watches and lets him win on his own terms. Of course, before Kyodai can be knocked unconscious, he makes the pragmatic decision and escapes. But in the coda, Batman thanks Robin for his intervention, while admitting he probably couldn’t have beaten Kyodai if Summer had still been watching.

As I said, it’s an unusual episode on several levels. Fortunately, it’s still a good one. And it also features probably the best original villain the Animated series made, so I highly recommend it, even if it’s just to be acquainted with Kyodai when he reappears.

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