Your Brain on Toons- Why The Promised Neverland is NOT the “New Death Note”

So I’m a really big fan of The Promised Neverland. It’s a pretty unconventional manga for something running in Shonen Jump, with its stellar artwork and equally strong storytelling making for an exciting read from week to week. However as it continues to grow in popularity and attract new readers, there’s been an ever increasing tendency to directly compare it with another unconventional Jump manga: Death Note. Given that Death Note is pretty much a cultural phenomenon at this point, and the manga is a series I still hold in pretty high regard (even if I don’t necessarily enjoy it for all the same reasons I did when I was 13) it’s not a totally unflattering comparison, but the deeper and deeper I get into Neverland’s run, the more it starts to feel like a pretty shallow one. Normally I’d just lay out the differences in genre and call it a day but that would be boring, so instead I’m here to talk about why TPN isn’t necessarily the “new Death Note” some people have claimed it is.

Before I start diving into the differences, it’s only fair that I point out some of the similarities first since it’s not like these comparisons are happening for no reason. Neverland’s writer, Kaiu Shirai has noted Death Note’s author, Tsugumi Ohba as one of his inspirations (alongside Naoki Urasawa of Monster fame, and Jojo’s Hirohiro Araki) and it’s pretty easy to see where that influence takes root. Both series employ “battles of wits” that are conveyed with all the intensity of a traditional battle manga, and both also share a love for being heavily detailed and analytical when it comes to conveying information. This gives both a pretty high level of appeal for those who are into those kinds of scripted layouts, as well as for anyone (like me) who prefers their shonen to have a clear sense of direction since the attention to detail means that both series have to be planned out pretty well in advance in order to work effectively. That however, is where the similarities end.

Thriller v.s. Thriller


We’ve already established that both series are “mind game” thrillers of a sort, but despite a few of the similarities I mentioned, the way in which they each choose the execute those elements is pretty different. Like I mentioned in a previous article where I briefly compared the two, Death Note starts out with Light having access to a notebook that can kill people, and by the time he comes across his rival L, he already has a pretty clear knowledge of how it works. This setup means that Light generally has to use his knowledge of the Death Note and it’s limitations to lure L and any of his other “opponents” into scenarios where he can easily dispose of them. Thus, most of the suspense in Death Note, comes from discovering just how far in advance, or how elaborately he or any of the other characters have planned ahead (all those “just according to keikaiku” memes exist for a reason after all).

Neverland in comparison, takes almost the exact opposite approach. Since it’s also a bit of a mystery series in addition to being a thriller, Emma and co, start off with almost zero knowledge of the rules and nature of their world. This means that rather than coming up with complex schemes, the characters are constantly on the search for new information and their wits are demonstrated not in how well they can plan ahead (though there are a couple of occasions where that factors in), but in how well they can piece together what they know, and how quickly they can learn from and adapt to unfavorable situations. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but as far as any direct comparisons go it means that whereas DN basically builds itself on long-term planning, Neverland is almost entirely unsuited to that approach, and is actually at it’s best as a thriller when the characters have to act from moment to moment.

Thriller v.s. Fantasy


I brought up the differences in genre earlier, and while it isn’t exactly the defining factor separating these two, it is a pretty big one. Death Note, in essence, is a thriller series with some horror and fantasy elements. The Promised Neverland on the other hand, is a dark fantasy/horror series with thriller elements. On the surface that might not seem like a particularly big contrast given that the same basic elements exist in both series, but that difference in priorities, makes them pretty different as stories.

In that respect, Death Note’s first and utmost priority is to be an entertaining thriller. While it does offer some musings regarding Japan’s views on capital punishment and vigilantism, most of that comes off as a byproduct how well constructed its thriller elements are rather than being the actual point. It’s also not particularly interested in exploring its fantasy elements either, as much of the lore surrounding the Shinigami realm from which the titular notebook originates is mostly just there to serve as a mechanic for how the rules of its thriller elements work, and matter so little to DN as a story that they could easily be swapped out for something else, and barely affect much of its goals. That heavy focus on thriller elements also carries over to how DN functions as an actual narrative since the basic setup for Light and L’s “battle” means that the story could only really end one of two ways (and made it pretty clear early on which of those two ways it leaned towards), so aside from having a couple of wrenches thrown in, the actual story of Death Note is more or less built on an inevitable outcome, and the most of the enjoyment comes from how crazy and elaborate each of its various setups are, rather then where they all ultimately lead.

Neverland, again, is pretty different in this respect as contrary to a lot of the buzz surrounding it: it’s a dark fantasy/horror first and a thriller second. The suspense thriller elements aren’t completely inconsequential, and they do add a lot to its appeal, but they primarily exist to move the story forward instead of being the actual point. Much like how Death Note’s fantasy elements barely affect any of what it actually does, Neverland’s “mind game” thriller elements mean so little to its long term goals, that it abandons them almost entirely after the first story arc, and it very frequently handles its big revelations in a way that would that would be detrimental if it were only interested in being a pure thriller, but make perfect sense in the service of telling a larger story. Instead its focus is on exploring its fantasy setting, and the nature of said setting is directly tied to it’s core themes regarding hope v.s. nihilism, which are ultimately at the heart of Neverland’s goals rather than just being subtext. The lesser focus on thriller elements also allows for Neverland’s story to have a broader sense of scope, and while it still has a pretty linear focus in spite of that, the extra flexibility gives it more room to go into the things it wants to say, and makes the story’s ultimate destination, a little harder to predict in the long run.

Emma v.s. Light 


And now we’re down to the last, and perhaps most definitive thing separating these two: their protagonists. While that may not seem like it’d be as big a deal as anything plot-related, the elements that define a protagonist often reflect the values and ideals of the stories they’re attached to, and its there where you can really see how DN and TPN contrast. As far as all that’s concerned, Emma and Light Yagami are basically polar opposites, and so much so that they’d probably loathe each other on sight.

The elements that define Light as a character are his intelligence, arrogance, the ability to manipulate others, and his belief that the world is better off without those who he views as a hindrance. Seeing as Light is technically the villain of Death Note, its easy to make the argument that we’re supposed to hate every aspect of his character, but while it pretty much goes without saying that three of those four traits are bad news, (unfortunately not enough for some, but that’s a whole other debate entirely) the audience is at the very least, meant to be in awe of his intelligence and how effectively he can prioritize logic over emotion. The appeal of those final elements more or less carries over to the majority of Death Note’s cast in general, as personality traits are largely secondary compared to how “cool and smart” the individual characters are, with those who prioritize rationality being the ones who pull ahead, while those who are more emotional are generally dunked on.

Emma on the other hand, is generally defined by her empathy, willpower, and her desire to never abandon the people she cares about, even when it would be considered the “smart” thing to do. She’s certainly no fool, and her ability to read people is generally considered to be an asset, but her sense of compassion is at the core of what makes her a compelling character. Under the same token, while the story isn’t shy about challenging her idealism, it’s also continually shown to be in favor of it, and Emma is very much at the heart of everything the series wants to convey. All of this more or less puts Emma in direct conflict with the things Death Note values, as her emotionally-driven behavior is the kind of thing it looks down upon. Of course, Light wouldn’t exactly be at home in Neverland either, as pure rationality and putting oneself ahead of others aren’t stances it’s in favor of, and so much so that the character whose world view most closely coincides with that ends up having to realize how shortsighted that sort of thinking is in the long run.

Final Thoughts

So…yeah Death Note and The Promised Neverland are two different beasts. Both share a love for battles of wit and being heavily detailed, but their overall execution, characters, and themes, put them in pretty stark contrast with each other. There’s definitely things to appreciate in both series (as well as things in DN I kind of wish people didn’t appreciate), but as far as any direct comparisons go, it’d be nice if people could find a better point of contrast for Neverland than Death Note, because in spite of what’s been said it isn’t really the “new” Death Note. If anything, it’s the anti-Death Note.

Your Brain on Toons- What Makes Anime Adaptions Work? (Part II)

When Does An Anime Adaption “Fail”?

                       phoenix_wright big_1457215413_image

Well we since we established in the previous article that an anime adaption succeeds when it’s a decent standalone product and pays some kind of tribute to its source material, then it’s safe to say that most anime adaptions fail when they don’t feel strong enough on their own and/or misunderstand what made the original material work in the first place. There’s a few ways adaptions can fail at that first one. While I said earlier that most anime adaptions wrapping up without much of an actual conclusion isn’t a negative in and of itself (they are meant to be commercials after all) being too inconclusive can result in the opposite of the desired effect, and turn people off from it. Summer 2015’s Gangsta for instance, ended right smack dab in the middle of a story arc without even attempting to give anime-only viewers a decent entry point to jump into the manga, instead simply coming to an abrupt stop and taking the reputation of the series with it. Pacing can be a big issue as well as going through the available material either too fast or too slow (and potentially resulting in “filler” for either scenario) can really take away from a show in the long run. Most notably however, is the issue of an adaption being plagued with bad production values and you need look no further than the negative reactions to the first season of Sailor Moon Crystal and more recently, Berserk 2016, to see how badly they can hurt even established franchises.

Something that often gets overlooked though, is when adaptions get a little too reliant on their source material, and end up isolating new viewers in the process. Video game adaptions tend to suffer the most from this kind of problem, such as the recent Tales of Zestria anime, making the decision to start off with a prologue that frankly wouldn’t make any kind of sense to those not already familiar with the game, and later pausing the story for a couple of episodes to promote the Tales of Bestria game, both of which felt pretty jarring. Even adaptions that mostly function well on their own can still run into this kind of problem, like the rather divisive ending to Clannad: After Story, which loses most of its impact (and frankly doesn’t make any sense) without the game mechanics from the visual novel that helped to lead up to it. While anime adaptions do primarily exist for the sake of promotion, ideally they should never feel like they’re punishing newcomers for not having already read/played whatever it’s based on, and while some can still manage a decent level of success regardless, it’s really hard to win audiences back once that line has been crossed.

7       berserk82

Worse than all of the above however, is running into an adaption that completely fails to highlight or understand its source material. Taken to its most extreme are things such as the OVA, Rurouni Kenshin: Reflections in which the director Kazuhiro Furuhashi created an epilogue to the original manga that not only negated the manga’s ending for Kenshin’s character arc and its subsequent view on redemption, but ran so thematically opposite of those things in favor of tragedy, that it almost feels like it couldn’t have possibly come from the same source and comes off as an utter betrayal of it. There’s also stuff like Rosario + Vampire and the original Negima anime whose manga counterparts both functioned as battle shonen/harem comedy hybrids while their respective anime adaptions removed nearly all aspects of the battle shonen components in favor of making them pure harem comedies, and thus limited some of their appeal as a result.

Although while it’s easy to point out the extreme examples, it’s just as important to note that even the “faithful” adaptions can sometimes run into this problem. The Toriko anime for example, was a pretty straight adaption of the manga, and paced well enough to avoid filler for most of its run, but in an effort to make it more kid friendly (and easier to air on children’s networks in western markets), Toei Animation censored and removed pretty much all of the 80’s style machismo and ultra-violence that comprised a big chunk of the manga. The result was an incredibly watered down product that failed to be as cool or fun as its manga counterpart, and it subsequently failed to reach the lofty expectations Toei and Shueisha had for it. A more recent and infamous example of this kind of thing though, would be last year’s Ace Attorney anime which also strived to be a fairly straight adaption of its source material but ultimately lacked much of the charm and Saturday morning cartoon style antics that made the games so fun (and the fact that it mostly looked like butt didn’t help things either) to the point where its best episodes were ironically the ones where it deviated the most from the games. No one really wins when it comes to these kinds of adaptions and while they aren’t always damaging enough to take the popularity of their source material down with them, they generally don’t enjoy much in the way of any long-term success, and can be pretty crippling in the long run.


Final Thoughts

                             8e9976f39e8af11ec0d2feac505129fd main-qimg-099a550b35b930743205c5e639903015-c

There’s a lot of anime adaptions out there, and a whole lot of good and bad that comes with them. The exact measures by which they can succeed or fail tend to vary depending on the circumstances surrounding them, and while I might have covered the broader aspects of those areas, there’s still a ton of other factors that have to be taken into account in determining how well an adaption will turn out. Still, I think that by taking a little bit of time to understand some of the things that can make these anime work, it’s a whole lot easier to appreciate the ones that actually succeed.

And that’s it for me on this subject. I’m glad I finally got around to writing about it and hopefully someone managed to get a little something out of this. Until next time, stay animated.

Your Brain on Toons- What Makes Anime Adaptions Work? (Part I)

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

                          a-younger-naruto  tas01

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”?

                                  katekyou_hitman_reborn_v09_c078_lj.reborn78_19      reborn

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.

7f72824aecb0ab56754c121b825c8cc3c3c6f246_hq   Mjkca7e

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).

fullmetal alchemist   maxresdefault

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.

Part II >>

Your Brain on Toons- Death Note: Live Action TV Series V.S. Manga

So needless to say, I’m a pretty big Death Note fan. The manga was one of the first I ever really got into during middle school and its ability to deliver increasingly complex schemes appealed to me. Over the years though, there have been various retellings and side-stories about it, with everything from an anime, two-live action movies and multiple novels. The live-action series that just recently wrapped up its run is the latest incarnation, and while it’s narrative-wise pretty similar to the original series, thematically it’s quite different. So much so in fact, that I thought just doing a straight up review wouldn’t be enough so instead I thought it would be better to do a more direct comparison between it and the manga storyline.

Drama v.s. Thriller

Alright so let’s make this clear right off the bat: this version isn’t really a thriller like the original was. It certainly portrays the appearance of one and manages to be genuinely suspenseful every now and then (though it’s internal logic isn’t quite as polished as the original’s), but for the most part that’s not its real objective. In fact, it’s typically at its weakest whenever it’s playing the manga material straight, both because most viewers likely already know the end result, and because it doesn’t mesh too well with what this adaption’s trying to do.

Instead (in case the title Death Note: Drama didn’t didn’t make it obvious enough) this version goes more for well…straight-up drama. Particularly in that it’s much more interested in the moral implications of Light’s self-proclaimed crusade than anything else. In a lot of ways, I actually prefer this angle. The original manga story could be genuinely dramatic at times and occasionally insightful, but for the most part it was never seriously aspiring to be anything more than a well-written thriller. There’s nothing really wrong with that of course, but the amount of things that can be done with a more dramatic version of the story are pretty boundless, so it’s nice to see a version that seriously attempts to take on that. Now let’s get to the other obvious difference here: character portrayals. Though since Light’s is obviously the most significant, I’ll save talking about him for last.

Father and Son


One of the most immediate notable differences in this version as compared to the manga is its usage of Light’s father, Soichiro. In the manga, Soichiro more or less existed as a convenient way to realistically tie Light to the police department and thus make it  easier for him to play them from within. Due to that, the relationship between him and Light was never really touched on much, and whenever it did come up, he, much as any parent would, steadfastly believed in his son’s innocence throughout the entire story. Thanks to that, he was one of the few characters to die somewhat happily, as he remained blissfully unaware of the truth even in his final moments. The version of Soichiro in the drama however, isn’t quite so fortunate.

In this version, the two have a much more…complicated relationship to say the least. Growing up, Light admired his dad for his police work and wanted to be like him, but at the same time resents him for not being there when his mother passed away, causing a strain between them. Thus when this incarnation of Light becomes Kira, not only does Soichiro harbor more serious doubts about his son’s innocence, but he feels that he might have been responsible for Light’s transformation in the first place. Partially because he literally is (we’ll get into that later) and also because Light feels his brand of “justice” isn’t so different from Soichiro’s. This ultimately ends in tragedy as once he knows the truth for certain, Soichiro is unable to live with the guilt of causing his son to become a monster, and tries to use his death as a means to convince Light to turn away from the path he’s headed down. Though unfortunately for him, not only does he fail, but he actually ends up driving Light even further over the edge. The new take on this relationship is one of the strongest highlights of this adaption and it plays really well towards it’s more tragic perspective.

The Minions of Evil


Light’s relationship with his followers is also fairly different here, though it’s not quite as significant a change as you might expect. Like with a lot of things from the manga, Misa and Mikami’s backstories more or less just existed to give them a reasonable excuse to follow Light and didn’t really serve much to their characterization beyond that. It’s not a whole lot different here, but the connection at least feels a bit more personal.

This is especially so in Misa’s case as Light is much more directly involved in her path to becoming the second Kira in this version. Mikami less so, but by having him interact face-to-face with Light as opposed to their relationship in the manga where they only met at the end, his insane sense of loyalty feels a bit more believable and it’s partially thanks to it that his part in Light’s downfall is less of the deciding factor for it. On the downside though, this version of Misa is somehow even dumber than her manga counterpart if you can believe it, and it’s weird because this take on the story doesn’t really seem to carry anything similar to the authors’ transparent spite towards women otherwise (the other major female character is actually quite proactive in the last few episodes). Maybe they felt people would complain if she was too different? I don’t know, but this is one aspect where I definitely feel the drama could have done better differentiating itself.

L’s Successor(s)


Going back to big changes, another of the larger ones is in the characterization of Near and Mello. Well saying Near AND Mello isn’t exactly being accurate in this instance since they’re one in the same here. Quite literally so in fact as Mello is nothing more than Near’s split personality in this version, with the most you ever see of his original character design being Near’s actual puppet (the meta-jokes you could make here are endless). In the original story they were introduced as last minute stand-ins for L after his death, (though exactly how last minute is rather debatable since I’ve never really believed that whole thing you hear in forums about the editors pushing those characters on the authors) which was something that was met with a lot of…backlash to say the least.

Thankfully this incarnation avoids that issue by introducing them right off the bat weaving them into L’s endgame relatively quickly. The core basics of their personalities remain the same with Near being calm and rational v.s. Mello being impulsive and brash, though by combining them into one entity, it makes their actions a bit harder to predict, and most notably so during the show’s final gambit. Sadly though, for as much as it’s built up the show never really does too much with the split personality thing aside from suspense, but what it does do well is the one thing the manga couldn’t: giving Near an actual relationship with L. It makes his investment in avenging L’s death feel way more genuine because we actually get to see first hand how much he respects him and thus his defeat of Light feels a lot more satisfying as far as his character’s concerned, even if it’s more L’s victory than his

The Two Faces of L


Speaking of L, it’s time to start digging into our two poster boys for this franchise (well three if you count Ryuk). When I first came into this adaption, I was pretty intrigued about the interpretation of L it decided to take. In the manga, L generally comes off as something of an enigma. He’s very good at analyzing people on a rational level, but it’s difficult to ever get a read on how he ever truly feels about anything because he keeps up almost as much of a facade about them as Light does. Even his supposed “friendship” with Light was as much a deception on his part as it was on the latter as he was always scheming to have him exposed  and thus made for an interesting parallel between the two.

In comparison, this version is a lot more flamboyant and brutally honest about his thoughts, which ironically enough, actually makes him seem more villainous. He’s much more openly manipulative of others than his manga counterpart, and a better planner to the point where he ends up being the actual mastermind of the show (I don’t think manga-L would have literally had things worked out from beyond the grave). However it’s that same bluntness that makes his relationship with Light more interesting since there actually is some genuine sentiment behind that friendship proposal.

While he still pretty clearly suspects Light and tries to apprehend him, he also really wants to believe that Light is as good a guy as he seems to be. It makes both their final scene together and the actual final scene of the series particularly poignant, as he carried that wish right through to the end in spite of its unlikelihood and the fact that it literally destroys him. Unfortunately while I like the idea, I can’t say the execution behind this perspective is as smooth as I’d have liked, as making L’s less noble traits more transparent also means that its a little harder to feel like he means it when he says he respects Light, even if the narrative is seriously pointing things that way. In truth, I’d almost have an easier time believing manga-L on it since he was a lot better about giving off that image even when you knew he was lying through his teeth. Can certainly give this a few points for trying though since it mostly does the job, and if nothing else, L trolling from beyond the grave at least makes for some good entertainment.

The Tragedy of Light Yagami


At last we arrive at our protagonist, and to no one’s surprise, his changes are definitely the biggest attraction of this adaption. You see, for years I’ve heard the argument that “Light Yagami is a tragic character” as a way to somehow sympathize with his madness and frankly its always been  a load of baloney to me. While there’s no disputing he was corrupted by the Death Note, Light never really came off as anything more than an unrepentant monster in the original story. From the moment we first meet the guy, he’s something of a sociopath, and what little good intentions he started out gave way to his ego and insatiable desire for godhood almost immediately. As such, by the time we get to Light’s downfall at the end of the manga, it’s extremely satisfying because we’ve spent so much time seeing what monstrous lengths he’ll go to in order to ensure his reign and it’s so downright karmic that any ambiguity as to if you should be rooting for him to meet a horrible end or not is pretty much non-existent. The Light of this story however, may in fact be the best attempt at making that tragedy argument actually work.

Unlike the manga where he’s Kira almost right off the bat, we spend quite a bit of time with Light in the live-action series before he begins his mission. His actual start in this version is also notably different as he doesn’t just test the notebook on a couple of people before deciding to go right off the deep end and start a worldwide crusade. Instead he’s put in a few situations where he actually has to use the notebook to save people, and most notably his father. Thanks to that, despite his initial turmoil over the moral implications of becoming a murderer, he has a much more steadfast belief in his cause than his manga counterpart and that’s fueled further the more he continues doing it. To be honest, this more “heroic” portrayal of his character had me as worried as it did intrigued at first, since I was afraid this version might back out of actually condemning Light for his crimes in favor of a more traditional anti-hero angle. Thankfully though, it turns out to be quite the opposite.

While his start is different, it doesn’t take too long for live-action Light to “evolve”  into his original characterization, and when he does it makes for a much starker contrast between who he started out as v.s. what he eventually became (though admittedly not as smoothly a transition as I would have liked). When we revisit Light’s “normal” persona in this version’s Yotsuba arc, there actually is a notable difference in personality between that and his Kira one (as opposed to the manga where aside from not being overtly sexist and openly willing to act on mass murder, he was pretty much the same) and it makes his return to the Kira persona all the more horrifying because the Death Note’s corruption of his soul is much clearer.

As time goes on, Light abandons his morality more and more in order to achieve his goals, eventually culminating in him causing his father’s death, despite his initial motivation being to prevent that in first place. While manga-Light reached the point of no return extremely early on in the story, for him in this version, this is the point where any sense of heroism he might have had is completely thrown out the window, and it makes his eventual fate(which coincidentally is even more brutal in this adaption) actually somewhat sad, because we get a much stronger sense of just how far he’s fallen. In this story, Light doesn’t start as a monster, he becomes one(which Ryuk is kind enough to highlight in case anyone somehow misses the message), and that for me makes a much stronger argument of the tragedy angle while also making it fairly clear that it was, in fact, the primary goal of this version all along.

Final Thoughts

So which version works better overall? Well it’s kind of hard to compare a tightly scripted thriller, to a solid, if relatively flawed, tragedy so it partially depends on how forgiving you’re willing to be about said flaws for the latter. Especially since while it certainly takes several opportunities to address some of the manga’s occasional leaps in logic (sorry Light, no FBI agents dumb enough to give you a real ID this time) it also makes a few of it’s own that are hard to ignore and doesn’t quite have the genuine level of camp the original does to give them an easier pass. Still, if you’re willing to overlook that in favor of getting a more emotionally insightful story then it’s certainly worth a look. I’m not sure how much I can outright recommend this version on it’s own since I’m too intimately familiar with the manga not to have some sense of bias towards it, but at the very least this makes for an interesting companion piece to the original story, and one that offers a take I think the franchise ultimately needed.

Your Brain on Toons- Steven Universe: It Takes Two To Fuse

Well I never did get around to making a season 1 review of this show so instead I decided to do a lengthy write-up/essay about it in a new segment called “Your Brain on Toons” where I’ll be doing these kinds of analytical writings. Though I imagine this isn’t something I’ll be doing very often since there aren’t too many shows I could see myself doing this for, and the fact that  this was honestly almost soul-crushingly difficult to write. Anyway, enjoy




I said this before when I talked about the show on my recommendations list, but Steven Universe is a show with a strong emotional core. It knows how to consistently deliver on heartwarming moments (or severely traumatizing ones) and is very much sincere in that respect in a way a lot of other shows aren’t. Though lately I’ve noticed that in addition to all that, it also excels in one very specific area pertaining to it. Specifically in having a very deep understanding of relationships.

Fusing Together

One of the most interesting aspects of the show for me has been in regards to how it treats the concept of fusion. Generally when you think of “fusion” in most fictional media (or just ya know, anime) you’d imagine two characters merging together to become someone stronger ala Dragonball Z with Goten and Trunks becoming Gotenks. While that aspect of it certainly exists in this show, it’s much more interested in looking at it as a metaphor for stability in relationships. Of course the word “relationship” doesn’t pertain only sexual or romantic ones, though that certainly is a big part to fusion here as it’s…pretty hard to ignore what some of those dances are going for. Rather it extends to relationships of varying degrees and each one requiring a certain degree of balance. For the sake of consistency though, we’ll largely just stick to the romantic aspect.


 Stronger As One

Given the whole “fusion as a relationship” metaphor, it’s fitting that the most stable relationship in the show is in fact a fusion. While we haven’t seen much of Ruby and Sapphire themselves yet (and most likely won’t going forward, given that speaks for itself), it’s easy to see the strength of their relationship within Garnet. She takes pride in being the literal product of a healthy relationship, and honors it by choosing to stay fused as much as possible. As such, she offers some pretty sound advise in that area, and encourages some of the other characters to seek out those kinds of relationships. Most notably in her reaction to Steven and Connie fusing for the first time (not in THAT way you sickos)  in the episode “Alone Together”  as she understands the significance in it being representative of a deep level of affection.

Garnet’s relationship literally speaks for itself

 Though much as Garnet is an ideal in regards to most relationships, as a solid level of stability can be difficult to achieve, it’s also not one that glosses over the amount of effort involved. Garnet herself states in the episode “Love Letters” when turning down a guy trying to hit on her, since she’s not interested (and is also ya know, literally made of lesbians) , that the concept of love at first sight isn’t something that really exists. A real relationship is a process and one that requires a lot of communication in order to work since you well…have to actually get to know and understand the other person involved. While the show seemingly betrays this notion in the episode “Story For Steven” where we see Greg giving up his current life to be with Rose just from being attracted to her, it’s ultimately reinforced in a later episode “We Need To Talk”. While attraction at first sight is very much a real thing, the two realize that it’s not much to build a relationship on and that they really rushed into things. It isn’t until they decide to actually talk about their differences (which in this case are pretty extreme given how literally different they are) and attempt to better understand each other that the relationship really takes off and becomes something more meaningful. The strongest relationships we have in life are forged of those kinds of honest attempts at communication, and SU really gets that.

A Really Bad Match

Of course for every positive there’s a negative and so while SU knows the importance of healthy relationships, it also has a very clear understanding of unhealthy relationships. In regards to how that’s portrayed in fusion, this is best scene in ones like Malachite (Lapis + Jasper), being indicative of relationships that are about desperation or dominance over the other person. Neither of these can hold themselves together for very long and it’s displayed pretty well by the actual fusion itself and Lapis’s struggle to maintain control over it. Though obviously those aren’t the only kinds of unhealthy relationships that exist between people, as even genuine affection can become unbalanced when taken to certain extremes. While the exact extent to which Rose ever returned her feelings is , currently ambiguous, and it’s probably for the best it stays that way, Pearl’s feelings towards her aren’t(which to be honest, I’m sort of surprised hasn’t gotten a lot more attention, given how much people on the internet lost their minds over Korra’s ending) and intensely so. Although rather than any sense of balance, her sense of devotion has been shown to be much more obsessive than romantic, leading her towards self-destructive behavior in order to convey it. With the source of that obsession now gone, however, she instead projects that same desire on to Rose’s son, Steven.

Slipped up a bit there, Pearl

Similarly to Garnet, she takes pride in having that kind of relationship, and is very much wiling to push others towards it, as can be seen in the episode “Sworn to the Sword” with how she convinces Connie to utterly devote herself to Steven’s existence. The unhealthiness of it is of course, acknowledged, and it’s largely portrayed as her greatest character flaw. Though at the same time, the show also understands the importance of not outright denying those feelings, as doing so would mean denying any sense of sincerity in them, and it’s a lot smarter than that. Instead the solution here seems to be Pearl gradually coming to acknowledge Steven for who he is (though not in any kind of romantic sense because…duh) rather than just Rose’s extension as well as finding her own sense of self-worth, but it’s a process that will obviously take some time before it fully develops.

“I think you’re pretty great”


To Fuse or Not to Fuse

Having touched on both stability and instability in relationships, there’s one other important aspect that the show also covers: that relationships should generally be a choice. How much say a person has in choosing to begin a relationship bears a lot of significance in how well it’s maintained, and forced relationships are ones that typically end in disaster for those involved. In terms of fusion, this is most clearly displayed with the abomination from the episode “Keeping It Together” that’s composed of several shattered gems being forcibly merged together into a monstrosity. Garnet’s reaction to seeing it is appropriately a disturbed one as she has the best understanding of a strong relationship out of the cast, and doesn’t even feel it should be acknowledged as a fusion. Real relationships, even unhealthy ones, come from willing attempts at connection, or at the very least, a genuine desire to be with the other person. When that element is taken out of the equation, it’s not really a relationship and it’s something I’m glad the show presented as it’s an important element in driving home the whole theme of fusion.

Yeah, this really is just downright wrong

In Conclusion

So these are some of the various ways in which Steven Universe takes a look at relationships. Truth be told though, I only really scratched the surface here as there are various other platonic and familial relationships that it approaches very well. While that’s not particularly groundbreaking for fiction, the extent to which it’s portrayed here really stands out among a lot of other media, and especially for a kid’s show. It’s just one of the many components that fuse together to make SU such a compelling little show, and one that continues to excel.