Episode Number: 35
Original Air Date: October 26, 1992
Directed by: Kevin Altieri
Written by: Steve Perry
First Appearance(s): Kyodai Ken
Episode 35 gives us perhaps the first true villain and foe for Batman created just for television. Up until now, the made-for-TV rogues have mostly been mob bosses and white collar crooks like Rupert Thorne and Roland Daggett. Harley Quinn, is of course, the one character from this show that everyone knows now, but she’s been strictly a henchman so far. This episode introduces Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito), or simply The Ninja, who is the first villain who can actually go toe-to-toe with Batman that was created by the show. In doing some digging online I could not find a credit for who created the character. Steve Perry wrote the episode, but I don’t know that he created Kyodai. It’s possible it was just a collaborative effort from the likely many writing sessions and roundtables that took place during the planning stages of the series.
However Kyodai Ken came to be, it’s not surprising that he exists. Ninjas were pretty popular in the 80s and 90s as villains in cartoons and comic books. Always looking cool and possessing awesome abilities, the ninja character was often a fan-favorite whether he was a hero or a villain. Having a generic ninja character in Batman: The Animated Series helps to date the series, but in kind of a charming way. Kyodai Ken feels very “90s” as a result, but while he could have just been a simple physical foe for Batman, the show does add some depth via his past relationship with Bruce Wayne.
The episode opens with our new villain infiltrating a Wayne Industries building. Clad all in black, the apparent ninja sneaks his way past security and what little resistance he meets he deals with quickly and efficiently (but not lethally, since we’re talking about a kid’s show). We’ll learn via news broadcasts that this robbery is part of a string on Wayne Industries. Bruce learns of the latest during a sparring match with Dick in which we get a small tidbit of information that Bruce is a black belt in whatever discipline his choice is while Dick is a green belt. If the belts didn’t make it obvious, then the contest will as Bruce is clearly the better and Dick seems to take exception to how seriously Bruce takes everything. When Alfred informs them of what’s taken place, Bruce gets really irritated.
Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon) makes a return to the show in a more prominent role as a constant thorn in Bruce Wayne’s side. She’s there to ask him the tough questions about the robberies, and ornery old Bruce wants to hear none of it as he checks out the crime scene. She gets to do the cliche reporter trope of asking aloud if there’s more to Bruce than meets the eye, and even refers to him as The Bruce on one occasion. Apparently this was to suggest the tabloids had a cute name for him that thankfully didn’t stick as I don’t believe he’s ever called that in a later episode.
Never one to trust that the police can handle things, Batman is ready for the next target of The Ninja – Wayne Cosmetics. It’s a garish looking building with huge neon lips that the ninja has targeted, but this time instead of encountering a security detail he finds Batman waiting for him on the roof. The two square-off, and The Ninja is intrigued when Batman takes a martial arts stance. The two fight and The Ninja appears to have the upper hand until Robin shows up. As he makes a run for it, Robin nails him in the back with a shuriken exposing to Batman a demon tattoo on his back.
The tattoo means something to Batman, as we’ve been shown a series of flashbacks throughout the episode, with more to come. They’re all of Bruce Wayne’s training in Japan before he took on the Batman persona. There, Wayne was one of the star pupils but a rival by the name of Kyodai Ken proved to be his better on multiple occasions. Ken was rather cocky about it and seemed to resent Wayne for his rich upbringing (apparently the whole dead parents thing afforded him no sympathy). Sensei Yoru (Chao Li Chi) played peacemaker between the two, often being forced to admonish Ken for his dishonorable behavior. There’s more to the story though than just petty rivalry. One night, Ken tried to steal the Master’s prized blade – a weapon of considerable value. Wayne was there to catch him in the act, and Master Yoru interrupts their duel. Yoru banishes Ken from the dojo and he escapes further punishment, but Bruce never forgot the one man who could always beat him – the man with the demon tattoo on his back.
Batman is understandably irritated by the presence of Kyodai Ken in Gotham and he now knows that Ken is likely seeking retribution for Wayne’s role in getting him kicked out of the dojo all those years ago. Robin wants to accompany Batman in tracking him down, but Batman wants nothing to do with him. It becomes obvious that Batman is actually worried he can’t defeat this one (even though he’s got plenty of other tools beyond just his raw fighting ability, but whatever) and it’s taking a toll on his mood. Alfred fills in the details for Robin as he was there with Bruce to witness his many defeats at the hands of Ken.
Bruce Wayne is to attend a a charities reception and he goes alone. As he makes his way out of the event, Gleeson chases after him and hops into his car with him badgering him about the robberies. Bruce offers little and when the valet wishes him a good night Bruce realizes it’s Ken in disguise – too late though as Ken hits the pair with some kind of knock-out gas and jumps into the car. When Bruce awakens he finds his hands are bound and Gleeson is with him. They’re at some kind of textile plant, I would guess, since there’s rolled up carpeting behind them. Ken is happy to reveal himself to Bruce and boast about his massive plan to electronically drain all of Wayne’s accounts and wire the money to his own. Bruce tries to play to his ego, as does Gleeson calling him a crook, for abandoning the way of the samurai in favor of being a ninja. Ken doesn’t seem to care about their judgements.
Luckily for Bruce, Robin did not heed his advice and has located them thanks to a tracking device in Bruce’s car. He’s not the stealthiest vigilante as he trips Ken’s alarm and is forced to face him on the rooftop. Robin holds his own, but Ken is able to slash out the supports of a water tower (in classic anime fashion where the splitting of the supports only occurs after Ken sheaths his blade) spilling the contents onto the roof taking Robin with it. During their confrontation, Bruce was able to get free of the bindings Ken had used and is ready for a fight when Ken returns. Kyodai mocks Bruce and taunts him that he could never best him, and that appears to be true. Bruce gets knocked around while Robin sneaks into the building, much more successfully than before. He realizes that Bruce is holding back due to the presence of Summer looking on. He’s able to tamper with the carpeting rolled up along the wall to get one roll to unfold over Gleeson, obstructing her view of the fight. At that point Bruce is able to let go and he soon proves the better fighter. Recognizing his defeat, Kyodai Ken flees diving into the nearby river, but not before informing Bruce that this isn’t over.
After the police arrive, Bruce is able to thank Robin for his help. This small victory for Robin is enough to erase the frustration he felt earlier in the episode (and in “Robin’s Reckoning”) and he seems quite tickled to be praised by his mentor. Bruce also reveals that he told Gleeson Batman showed up to deal with Ken, which apparently was enough to get that reporter off his back (you would think she’d want to know more about the obvious past relationship between he and Kyodai Ken – some reporter she turned out to be) and put a nice bow on things, but with the obvious weight in the air suggesting that this rivalry is unsettled.
As this episode doesn’t feature a villain from the comics, it has a B-level feel throughout that even shows in the episode’s production. There’s some sparse shots here and there and a few instances of characters looking a bit off. There’s one close-up of Gleeson that makes her look kind of frightening when she’s shoving a mic in Bruce’s face. The opening scene of Kyodai infiltrating the Wayne Industries building also has a worker character seated at a computer where only his arms are animated. Everything is very static, including his coffee which the illustrators gave the appearance of a rippling liquid but no one animated it further just making it look weird. Ken is also really simple being a ninja dressed from head to toe in all black with just his eyes exposed. He sports a red sash for his sword, but that’s it. The artists also resisted any temptation to add shading to Kyodai Ken so he is strictly black. Often times in cartoons you’ll see similarly colored outfits shaded with blue or a lighter color to add definition and depth to the image. Ken basically looks like a shadow, but since this show had a pretty substantial budget I like to think this was a stylistic choice as opposed to a cost one.
“Night of the Ninja” is unofficially part one of a two-part story focusing on Batman and Kyodai Ken, so it feels a bit odd to judge it alone. By itself, it’s a solid episode and Ken is given a reason to exist in this universe by being Batman’s better. Their fight at the episode’s climax feels a bit brief, but perhaps that’s due to the follow-up episode having a more robust encounter. We’ll have to wait and see for their true showdown, but the simple fact that we’re left wanting more is a pretty good indication of the episode’s success at getting the audience to buy into a villain they’ve never seen before. It was also fun to get a glimpse of a Batman who’s confidence has been shaken. We’ve only seen a little of this side of Batman before, primarily when he first encountered The Scarecrow many episodes ago. That episode was more about an internal conflict of Batman vs his fears while this one presented a true physical foe that Batman was unsure if he could handle. We’ve seen plenty of bad guys go toe-to-toe with the caped crusader at this point, some more than holding their own, but we’ve never really been given any indication that Batman could possibly come up short in a fight. For that reason, Kyodai Ken fulfills a role and making him a character unique to this series means he’s not hampered by anything from the comics and the writers are free to do with him as they please. The episode ends up being probably better than most would assume if they heard it featured a villain created for television and I think it fits quite solidly into that tier of Batman episodes that’s pretty good, not great, but a better than average.