Having been an anime fan for some 13 odd years now, I’ve seen a lot of stuff. This also means that for better or worse, I’ve sat through a lot of anime adaptions and the various debates that come with them. I’ve seen many an argument between how X-anime compares to Y-manga and what it did or didn’t do, with such discussions continuing on as fiercely today as they did when I was a teenager. As for me, my perspective’s shifted quite a bit compared to my earlier days of fandom, and as I’ve started learning more about how the industry at large tends to function, I’ve also found myself pondering a certain question: Just what the heck qualifies as a “good” anime adaption? The answer is a complicated one, and one that I have quite a bit to say about so I’ve decided to do a pair of articles on it. We’re going to be taking a look at some of the key factors in an adaption, and what does or doesn’t work for them so with that in mind, let’s get started.
The Purpose of an Adaption
When looking at the basics of anime adaptions as a whole, it’s first important to point out some of the fundamental differences between them and most adaptions in western media from Hollywood or on U.S. TV. For the most part, when an adaption is made in the west, it’s designed to be its own product. This means for instance that while Batman: The Animated Series and the numerous Batman comics in existence may both have Batman in the title, their overall success is largely independent of each other, and will have little, if any, material properly tying them together. In fact, in some cases the success of said animated version could lead to it having its own entirely different line of comics or merchandise, and its overall survival is dependent on how well it stands on its own.
Anime on the other hand, works pretty differently. Whereas most western adaptions are designed to be mostly separate entities to their source material, anime adaptions are often made with the explicit intent of drawing attention to said source material, with the publishers of the original work usually having a pretty direct hand in the production. This means that anime adaptions in effect, generally serve as a “commercial” of sorts for whatever anime, game, novel, etc. that they were based on with one of the primary goals being to help sell more of it. However it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that anime adaptions aren’t meant to do well by themselves, and under ideal circumstances, their success should result in selling lots of shiny discs and merchandise, the same as any anime-original work would be expected to do. What it does do though, is place slightly less of a burden on the adaption to sell itself, and in turn, lowers the risk of it being a total financial failure. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but the important thing to understand here is that anime adaptions are almost never designed to be standalone works in regards to their source material. With that established it’s time to move onto the biggest question:
So What Makes an Anime Adaption “Good”?
This is the million dollar question when it comes to anime and it’s something I’ve pondered a lot over the years. There are a variety of factors that affect the quality of an adaption from timing to the production staff and it’s hard to get into specifics about all of them, but in terms of broad strokes, it mostly boils down to two key points:
*Being a decent standalone product
*Highlighting the strengths of the source material
Now that first one might seem contradictory given that earlier I mentioned that anime adaptions are pretty much never meant to be completely standalone works, but that’s only under the strictest definition of the term. Most anime adaptions won’t give you a complete story, but giving audiences something of a thematic resolution, or offering a good enough stopping point that you aren’t overtly pressured to seek out the source material usually works out pretty well. A good example of these would be something like winter 2016’s Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, which chose to center the anime around the theme of loss, and while it doesn’t even begin to resolve the long term mysteries surrounding it’s world and how the characters got there, it resolves said theme well enough that while it certainly invites audiences seek out the original novels in order to know what happens next, it also does enough to be more than satisfying on its own. Being a good standalone product can also mean something as basic as having a really polished looking production. The recent adaptions of One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 are both pretty strong instances of this, and while both stories feel like they’ve only tapped the surface of what’s available to them, those shows are so much of a visual spectacle that they’re worth giving a peek regardless, and they’ve both proven successful in attracting an large audience. In short, the basic idea is that while an anime adaption doesn’t exactly need a definitive ending to be successful, at the very least there needs to be enough on display that anyone not already familiar with the original work won’t feel blatantly shortchanged by checking it out.
The second criteria of “highlighting the strengths of the source material” is where things get more complicated. Many hardcore manga/light novel fans (and I’ve been guilty of this myself quite a few times) tend to take that as meaning that an anime should stick as close to its source material as possible, but that kind of thinking is a bit misguided. Anime is its own medium, and as such changes are pretty much inevitable when translating it over from the original medium of the source material. This also ignores the fact that much like the original authors themselves, anime staff members are creatives too if not more so (something of which gets lost when adaptions are often judged by the studio that worked on them rather than the individuals), and their own influences and biases are bound to affect the material in some way. Even anime adaptions that have been praised for how closely they stick to the manga like the 2011 version of Hunter x Hunter still included a few notable deviations, such as the late introduction of a key character, as well as many of the events in the back half of the Chimera Ant arc being re-arranged to be more cohesive.
That said, being as 1:1 with the source material as possible is usually the safest method for anime adaptions to take in regards to highlighting what works about it, and it’s the one that most tend to go for more often than not. Of course, it’s important to highlight that it may typically be the safest option, it’s not without its own share of risks. It can sometimes result in something that feels like its playing things a bit too safe and can subsequently keep an adaption from reaching its full potential. Some examples would be things such as the infamous first season of Sailor Moon Crystal which felt so slavishly faithful to the manga that it came off as an outdated mess, or more recently, spring 2016’s My Hero Academia, whose sluggish pacing worked well for the first few episodes as it gave more time to the protagonist, Deku’s origin story, but ultimately came back to hurt it for its last third as its first major battle slows to a crawl.
Besides the usual 1:1 method though, there are still a couple of other ways anime adaptions can achieve the goal of highlighting what works. One other way is through the anime staff re-arranging or cutting material in other to focus on the strongest parts of the original work. The most notable example of this in recent years would be the first season of Tokyo Ghoul in which the director Shuhei Morita decided to remove most of the manga’s worldbuilding in favor of focusing primarily on the conflict between humans and ghouls, and Kaneki’s eventual breakdown from being caught in the middle of those opposing sides. While this didn’t exactly go over too well with manga fans who were angry about what got cut out, it provided newcomers with a more cinematic experience that better suited the needs of the medium, and served as pretty effective commercial for drawing new people towards the manga as its sales have gone up dramatically (unfortunately the second season, Root A couldn’t quite follow up on that approach but the less said about that the better).
Taken to an even larger extreme though, it’s also possible for an anime adaption to forsake the story of its original material almost entirely and still be relatively true to its source by sticking to its core themes, bringing it more in line with western expectations of how adaptions work. As I said before, anime tends to avoid this almost entirely, but there’s a few examples, such as the Gungrave anime taking a by-the-numbers revenge story for a third-person shooter game and turning it into a compelling mafia drama, or more famously, the 2003 version of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime which diverges from the manga’s storyline in favor of its own while still paying tribute to its themes regarding sacrifice and humanity (albeit with very different conclusions on those points).
Having consumed more manga than I’d care to admit, I used to typically lean towards the adaptions that stuck closely to what I first read, but in recent years I’ve gained a lot more appreciation for the ones that go the extra mile in trying to create something that stands out, and I honestly kind of wish more would take on those kinds of risks, if only because those are the ones that tend to be more memorable for better or worse. Of course the success of such adaptions usually requires extremely capable staff members and a smooth production cycle, both of which are luxuries most anime aren’t granted with, and the aforementioned risk of potentially isolating the fans of the original work means that most production committees will steer clear of that approach. Still, it’s important to understand that an anime adaption doesn’t have to necessarily be an exact recreation of its source material to work, and that there’s a few ways to succeed in that area.
And with that we’re done for now. I’ll have the second half up next week where we go into the more painful side of things: when anime adaptions fail.