Ironically, this episode takes place mostly at night.
It’s February 23, 1993, a day before “See No Evil,” so see that entry for charts and news. In Batman the Animated Series news, we have a sequel to “Night of the Ninja.” This time, instead of traveling to Gotham, Kyodai Ken draws Batman to Japan by kidnapping Kairi, the star pupil of their old teacher Yoru.
What follows wants very badly to be an examination of the moral complexity of Batman’s role. A contrast is drawn between the samurai, which is here acquainted with honor, honesty, and goodness, and the ninja, which is equated to sneakiness, deception, and evil. It’s all very reductive and orientalist, but ultimately it’s just trying to unpack the notion of “the Dark Knight,” trying to figure out where Dark ends and Knight begins. The episode’s title, along with Yoru’s final statement to Bruce Wayne (whom he pretty obviously knows is Batman) that Batman’s use of ninja-like techniques does not change that he is, at heart, a samurai, both suggest that the conclusion the episode reaches is that Batman is ultimately a positive figure.
But the episode repeatedly belies itself in this assertion. First, there is the simplistic equation of samurai to goodness and ninjas to evil; the samurai had a strict code of honor, yes, but they also drew their power from the hierarchical class system which they enforced. When that hierarchy began to fall apart in the transition from the Edo period to the Meiji period, so too did much of the samurai culture and associated code. The comparison of Batman to a samurai is, in other words, not without merit: like them, he is bound to defend the status quo and powerless without it. Despite positioning himself as a force for good, he can only oppose evil when it seeks change; the evil that already exists as an inherent part of Gotham’s culture and economy is as much under his protection as the good.
Second, there is the problem of Kairi. Her story in this episode seems curiously curtailed: she serves as a damsel in distress to get Batman initially involved, but has an unusual amount of both combat ability and dialogue for that role. After her rescue, she seems fascinated with Batman, referring to him as “the spirit of the Bat” on the night of her rescue, and asking Bruce Wayne if he thinks Batman will fight Kyodai Ken the next day. She then immediately vanishes from the episode. One keeps expecting her to show up in Batman’s fight with Ken, hopefully in a way that helps him, but with this show’s track record, she’s equally likely just to be taken hostage again. However, neither occurs; Kairi is not seen again until years later (both in and out of story) in the Batman Beyond episode “Curse of the Kobra.”
Her absence makes the final fight scene, dramatic as it is given its backdrop of an erupting volcano, feel rather disconnected to the rest of the episode. Batman figures out a fairly straightforward solution to the problem of Ken’s “death touch” (armor), and then in classic Batman-villain fashion Ken (apparently) dies due to a stubborn refusal to let Batman rescue him.
But Kairi does serve a purpose, limited though her role may be. I mentioned earlier that Yoru clearly knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but nowhere in the episode does he ever actually say this. Instead, he communicates through what he doesn’t say: he never says that Wayne is Batman, but he also never asks Wayne to call in Batman, either. He just acknowledges that there is a connection between them early in the episode, and then at the end gives Wayne the speech about having the “heart of a samurai” that Batman needs to hear.
Kairi’s role is similar. She is impressed with Batman, yes, but more than that: she calls him the spirit of the Bat. She recognizes him as being essentially nonhuman, an animal in spirit, much as recent episodes have dealt with cat-men and wolf-men. Ken recognizes it as well, observing that he and Batman are both creatures of the night, more at home sneaking around in the darkness than dueling openly in the light. And Batman is, in many ways, as close as Western characters come to being a ninja: he is stealthy to a nigh-magical degree, always shrouded in darkness, ruthless, canny, able to throw blades with stunning accuracy, and possessed of gadgets that could look (as we saw in “P.O.V.” and “See No Evil”) like flight or summoning fire to the unprepared onlooker.
When Yoru says that he is a samurai, which is to say that he is a defender of the social order and the status quo, he says this to Wayne, not Batman. Indeed, he never speaks to or sees Batman in costume; his interactions are all with Wayne as Wayne, and always have been. That colors his view, because it is Wayne the businessowner, the heir to a fortune, the rich boy, that is the origin of this part of Batman. The spirit of the Bat that Kairi saw is a spirit of vengeance and rage, a dark and violent force that Ken recognizes as being essentially the same as himself. Wayne, however, has something to lose, and therefore something to protect. It is Wayne who contains the Bat, constrains it, channels it toward the arguably positive ends of defending society from destructive forces of change.
But the Bat cannot be contained forever. Neil Gaiman once wrote that the reward for being Batman is “You get to be Batman.” The reverse is true, too: the price of being Batman is that you have to be Batman. The price is that you never get to be just a samurai or just a ninja, just a man or just a bat, just dark or just light. Batman is a creature of the shadows and the in-between places, a dweller in caves and on rooftops, at once just like Ken and deserving of the admiration of Kairi and Yoru.
The circle is closing. We began with an apocalyptic vision of red skies, and followed it with our introduction to the Bat. Most of the time since has been spent with the man; but now we return again to apocalyptic images, as the ground melts away and consumes Kyodai Ken in its volcanic flames. What could be next, but another visit from the Bat?
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