A Very GLORIO 2022: Iro’s Meandering Thoughts on 2022’s Adaptations, adapted from electrical signals in his brain to the form of a blog post

When I whittled down this year’s list of watched shows down to smaller and smaller numbers, it turned out that almost everything on there was some kind of adaptation or reboot. Couple that with some of them being pretty high profile – even the people I know who are anime normies are all over Chainsaw Man – and it got the brain ticking a bit.

For years in the GLORIO backend, we’ve held the adage that any original anime series demands our attention for at least a couple episodes. The unspoken premise behind this is that most anime these days are adaptations of something else. This certainly isn’t a bad thing – just somewhat unique to Japan’s insular multimedia machine – but it does mean we ask certain questions quite often.

Such as: what does it even mean to adapt something – a game, a novel, a manga, anything – “properly”? Should an adaptation follow the story exactly, time constraints be damned? Is it important to directly portray things that might have been only implied in the original? Is it more important to create something that fits the new medium more effectively, or communicate the artistic intent of the original work?

I don’t think anyone’s expecting any given Marvel product to directly follow a comic line down to specific page layouts or dialogue, for example. A new Spider-Man movie isn’t going to use The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1, #400 as a literal storyboard. There’s an understanding it might take inspiration, sure, but we also know that there are far more cooks in the kitchen there managing the creative direction as part of a wider multimedia franchise. But an anime adaptation of something is often a direct adaptation, following the existing story as far as the funding allows.

Compared to mainstream western comics, manga is often written and drawn by a single creator, and usually isn’t part of a wider conglomerate in a narrative sense. Jump publishes dozens of series, but they don’t crossover into the proverbial Jump Cinematic Universe. At most, we expect a certain genre of tone and content, perhaps a certain baseline of quality control. It’s a publishing label, not a franchise. And despite being serialized narratives in a branded magazine, there’s a certain expectation that any given manga series will end one day, the story complete, whether intentionally or because the publisher pulled the plug.

Without a unifying franchise to keep them glued together, each individual series gets its own adaptation, handled by a different team even when those teams might be handled by the same wider studio. And Jump, who has leveraged their brand label internationally with mega-hits like Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece, often has some serious talent working on their adaptations.

I grew up in the 90s and 00s, so when I think about Shonen Jump anime I think about, well, all those shows I already mentioned. Dragon Ball, Naruto, YuYu Hakusho, Bleach, et cetera. Shows that aired every week for hundreds of episodes. One Piece is over a thousand episodes at this point and shows no signs of stopping; if anything, they’ve put more talent into it than in the old days.

These shows had a predictable sort of holding pattern. You’d get strings of “normal” episodes that ranged from looking fair to poor, moving the story along as dictated by the manga. Then, at particularly plot critical junctures (read: fights) , the show would pop off. They’d pull out the fabled “sakuga”, scenes of noticeably higher quality and technical execution. Think the Father-Son Kamehameha, the Dragon of the Darkness Flame, Hidden Lotus, Bankai.

This is also where you would get the much maligned anime-original filler. When the weekly television caught up to the weekly comic and you still needed something to air next Saturday, what option was there? Stretch it out; yep, they’re still on Namek, what’s that frog up to? Or make something up, like Bleach‘s Bount arc, which took a minor plot element and spun it out into an entire enemy faction that did not exist in the original story. The beloved exceptions like Goku getting a driver’s license or the quest to remove Kakashi’s mask were few and far between.

I couldn’t even really tell you if these shows were good, and certainly whether or not they were good adaptations; I don’t think I had enough media literacy when I watched them. The long-running forever show is just how it used to be, right? Or at least, how I remember it being. To an extent, it still happens with shows like Black Clover, Hunter X Hunter, and Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai (though each of these have since ended). But over the past several years there’s been a sort of shift, and it’s particularly visible in 2022 with a collection of high-profile Jump adaptations.

When JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure started in 2012 and My Hero Academia started in 2016, it felt genuinely surprising (to me) that they were going to follow a seasonal model, taking breaks of a year or more between batches of episodes. This is obviously preferable from a labor standpoint, but it also raised the bar for this type of series. They’re clearly putting more technical polish into these products than they were probably even capable of doing back in the day, even if only because the producers want a nicer-looking end result for their bottom line.

Just, I find myself asking different questions about these things, probably as much or more of a byproduct of my growing knowledge than necessarily any actual difference in production. You can expect a certain baseline of quality from a Jump adaptation these days, certainly nothing so supposedly crass as filler, but – and I certainly do not intend to denigrate the hard work put in by hundreds of animators over decades with this hackneyed metaphor – when these shows now give off the vibe of being crafted rather than extruded… I more thoroughly consider why they make certain choices.

Put another way, I’ve watched many adaptations this year – more than I’ll write about here – but do I think they’re good adaptations?

Take Spy X Family, the spy-themed family comedy. The anime makes few changes to the core strengths of the source material because it doesn’t need to. Its jokes still land in the new medium, and Wit Studio / Cloverworks can pump some extra animation flex in to make some moments arguably even funnier than in the manga. For example, while the whole “rent-a-castle” sequence exists in the original, the anime expands it into an episode-spanning action set piece. The base premise of the series is so solid that all of the anime-original content so far has felt true to the source. No notes.

On the flipside of sticking closely to the original vibe, Bleach made its return this year with Thousand-Year Blood War, intending to adapt the manga’s final arc on a seasonal model. The modern anime’s production is lavish and intentional in a way that Bleach rarely enjoyed in the past, genuinely attempting to adapt the manga’s stylized chiaroscuro even in flashbacks to archive footage. Personally, however, I don’t particularly like how TYBW looks. Stark contrast often works better in manga, as it’s an almost purely black-and-white medium. It feels like the show has some kind of correction filter applied at all times, which makes it feel samey instead of evoking striking differences in lighting.

In addition, as I’ve written previously, I simply don’t consider Bleach‘s final arc to be narratively satisfying. An “accurate” adaptation means retreading all of the same problems the manga went through a decade ago. Is that preferable to no adaptation at all? Would a “good” adaptation try to soften some of those peaks and valleys, manipulate scenes to achieve a different effect, or would that be considered too great of a change to the source material? As Thousand-Year Blood War is staying quite faithful, this is a hypothetical question, at what point would the essential value that makes Bleach feel like Bleach be lost in translation?

With Jump’s most noted anime lately, the ever-popular Chainsaw Man, this isn’t a mere hypothetical but a serious point of contention. We’ve spoken about this at length on the Fall 2022 podcasts, but MAPPA’s anime adaptation pursues a cinematic aesthetic reminiscent of western prestige television and arthouse film. Some consider this a brave departure from the expected limitations of animation as a medium, while some consider it a misunderstanding of the often absurd, cartoonish appeal of the source material.

The Chainsaw Man anime is undoubtedly an impressive feat constructed by many skilled individuals, making use of techniques like rotoscoping to achieve naturalistic movement not often seen in animation. The tone is broadly melancholic and introspective, with long sequences of silence as the characters go about their business. Exaggerated expressions are curtailed to be more realistic. It is, again, highly reminiscent of live action television and film. 

I’m not really a fan, honestly. The anime feels though it’s begging to be taken seriously. I only started reading Chainsaw Man after watching episode 10, and I was stricken by how much more I enjoyed it in comparison. There’s an underlying energy to proceedingsThe pacing is snappy. Jokes happen quickly. The slower, introspective bits are more effective by contrast. It’s fun.

The adaptation isn’t necessarily changing the narrative content of the original, but it’s got the feeling wrong. Tonally, the manga and anime feel like different series. In attempting to imitate film, it forgets the unique strengths of animation. Despite the undeniable craft that went into making it, despite being an impressive standalone product, despite its status as the hottest show of the year, Chainsaw Man is a poor adaptation. 

Obviously, this is a subjective opinion.

There’s certainly room for differences from the source, especially as we move away from the internationally-recognizable, high-budget Jump brand. We’ve praised shows in the past for taking heavy liberties with the original, such as Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, which took a grimdark isekai framework and focused on the mundane human element. In the right context, a deft adaptation can elevate the source material into something more appealing. Kyoto Animation has practically made doing this their entire wheelhouse with shows like K-On! and Sound! Euphonium

Bocchi the Rock! is a pertinent recent example, appearing as yet another bog standard “cute girls make a rock band” manga that we were content to ignore out of hand during season previews. Many of the same jokes are present in the manga, but the adaptation takes them to the next level with expressive and creative animation. Comparatively, the second season of Pop Team Epic is composed almost entirely of skits that weren’t in the manga, but they have the same shitposting spirit. I was excited to watch both shows every week because I wanted to see what kind of hilarious gags the anime teams would come up with.

Or take Mob Psycho 100, enjoying its third and final season as I write this. Creator ONE’s original art is infamously bare-bones and janky, but the anime maintains its essential charm while adding heaps of visual flair. The feelings behind the original still come through the adaptation, and studio Bones has the skill to elevate them with style. I’d say it’s well adapted, and I would have said the same about both previous seasons.

And certainly, sticking too close to the source material can bring its own problems. I’ve already spoken on Bleach, but some otherwise great shows this year faced struggle due to issues inherent to their manga originals. I’d probably call these good adaptations – they did their job admirably – but the problems were inherent to the original.

Ranking of Kings was the golden child during nearly its entire run, wowing me almost every week with the depth of its storytelling and Wit Studio’s embellishments on the manga’s simplistic art. But the series ran headlong into controversy with a certain unfortunate allegorical portrayal and a poorly considered ending. No amount of mind-blowing fight scenes could really save it at that point. It’s still one of the best shows this year, but it’ll forever be burdened with those footnotes.

Made in Abyss: The Golden City of the Scorching Sun had a similar content problem that was unavoidably core to the main story. Anyone who watched the first season understood that a gory horror story was the true face of Made in Abyss, but the greater degree of peril facing the characters in season 2 crossed a line. I consider myself to have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to morally questionable content, but I still found myself asking if the series really had to go that far. And the anime actually did remove some of the worst stuff!

These are unfortunate, but somewhat forgivable issues. They were still enjoyable shows that highlighted what made the original series compelling; we’re still talking about the good adaptations. Many shows aren’t quite so lucky. Golden Kamuy is steadily approaching its conclusion with a fourth season this year, having pulled itself into an adequate state somewhere along the line, but it might never live down its disastrous first showing in 2018. To Your Eternity put in a strong handful of episodes in its first season, but its return has proven to be a downward slide due to issues in both the source material and the anime version.

But none of these hurt more than Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, one of my personal favorite manga of all time. Finally getting an anime adaptation was a pie-in-the-sky dream, a thing I joked about while knowing it would never happen. It was never popular enough to warrant a lavish production like Chainsaw Man or arguably even a solidly workhorse adaptation like Ya Boy Kongming!, and that was part of the joke.  So when a Biscuit Hammer anime was announced, my heart dropped. I knew it wouldn’t be good.

And guess what? It fucking wasn’t!

I obviously don’t intend to denigrate the hard work of many people across the ocean who labor under unreasonable deadlines to make this stuff. But that doesn’t change that the Biscuit Hammer anime drowns the original’s appeal. Satoshi Mizukami’s art was never particularly impressive on a technical level, but he could at least imply movement and create dynamic poses. The anime makes heavy use of panning stills or simply dragging static poses across the screen (decidedly without the comical intent of a studio like Trigger). It makes bizarre color choices that end up making everything look bland and lifeless.

The manga’s tone relies on a sense of how everyday life plods along slowly yet inevitably. It places an emotional emphasis on how we must live in the present even as we are fettered by our traumatic pasts and overwhelmed by the frightening unknown future. This all gets trampled underneath the anime’s bullheaded pacing as it desperately crams the entire series into 24 episodes. The soundtrack is generic and forgettable, even though the series is named after a song by The Pillows.

Frankly, it’s a tragedy. How many people will read Chainsaw Man because they like the anime version? Certainly more than will read Biscuit Hammer because they don’t like its anime. First impressions matter quite a bit. Hundreds of people will forever remember Biscuit Hammer as that series that was presumably so shitty it didn’t even get a “proper” anime, or they’ll simply forget it entirely. It’s beneath notice, like how I considered Bocchi the Rock! to be before a strong adaptation changed my mind.

The expectations you bring into something can have a huge effect on whether or not you enjoy it. On that subject, manga is not the only kind of media that gets adapted into anime. There are scores of anime based on light novels that I’m content to ignore unless word of mouth convinces me otherwise, because I’ve seen enough of their preferred genres to know that I’m almost never interested. Video game adaptations are perhaps an even harder sell, because there’s an entire vector of interaction with games that’s difficult to reproduce in a passive medium like television. Even when a game has an excellent narrative, isn’t the charm of something like Nier: Automata (anime adaptation coming 2023!) that I’m the one performing complex combos against the machine lifeforms?

Arknights: Prelude to Dawn is the anime adaptation of the first few story chapters of the popular Arknights mobile game. I no longer play gacha games myself, but for those who do, part of the core appeal is collecting a cadre of comely characters who have their own mechanical specialties in battle. While not all of them are necessarily active in the story at any given time, it’s common practice in gacha adaptations to have various characters hanging out in the background or otherwise making cameos.

Yostar Pictures does admirable work in making the show visually appealing, and existing fans seem to consider it an excellent adaptation. Arknights has a distinctive aesthetic and if the goal of the anime is to get me to ask, “what does that character do?”, it’s doing its job well. The issue is that it doesn’t really answer that question, because it wants me to install the app to find out. I watched the show alongside fellow GLORIO crew member Gee, who does play Arknights, and he kept having to answer for them: “Well, in the game…”

Prelude to Dawn moves from plot beat to plot beat, often bridging them with brief action sequences where animal-eared girls in tactical vests knock out a couple faceless goons. Extremely brief. In the game, you’re playing these segments. You’re running multiple missions with perhaps dozens of characters, using their special attacks and unique abilities over and over. Growing attached, learning about these characters. Without that gameplay texture, about all that’s left in any given video game adaptation is an aesthetic, a vibe, and that’s usually not enough to hold my attention.

Well, unless you’re Trigger. Their Cyberpunk: Edgerunners anime dropped on Netflix in September 2022, a tie-in to CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077 video game. While not a direct adaptation of 2077Edgerunners takes heavy inspiration, using the game’s plot as a loose guideline and recognizably using backdrops, items, and mechanics. And, funnily enough, Edgerunners probably understands cyberpunk (the genre) better than 2077 does.

Sex and violence at mach speed in a neon cyberpunk city already click with Trigger’s house style. Without being tied to directly adapting missions, they can establish a fresh cast and tell a new story that also click with that style. Toss in a few UI elements ripped straight from 2077, include references to a couple plot threads, and that’s enough to get me to say “heh, yeah, that’s that thing from the game!”, and drop any expectation of Trigger directly adapting it. I can enjoy Edgerunners on its own terms despite it being an “adaptation”.

Arguably, when it comes to games, taking inspiration and having an original story is a far more effective method of making a satisfying adaptation than any direct transfer. Hell, the Pokemon anime has been going nonstop for 25 years and over 1200 episodes, following anime-original characters Ash and Pikachu the whole time, and it remains popular to this day. Early games had narratives simplistic enough where Ash could be used as a player cipher with minimal differences, and the huge number of one-off episodic adventures recreated the texture of simply playing Pokemon while between plot beats.

As the games became more complex, the anime settled into a comfortable niche. It still took inspiration from the game plots, using roughly the same events, but changed to fit the tone of the show; it began to include more recognizable game mechanics, such as limiting Pokemon to only four special attacks; and it began rotating its cast to include popular new characters (old favorites from the late-1900s still show up from time to time, as a treat). For example, the GLORIO-beloved Sun & Moon arc changes a major villain from dangerously antagonistic to simply absent-minded, allowing them to be a recurring friendly character. However, during the segment of the plot where they were confronted directly in the games, they are still driven to the brink and the heroes must still battle them, just for slightly different reasons.

Of course, literally while I was working on this post, I learned that Ash and Pikachu are going to be retired in 2023, while the anime will continue with an (apparently) more direct adaptation of Pokemon Scarlet/Violet. I’m cautiously optimistic: Ash ran his course as a character ages ago, but his eternal presence was comforting in a way only a long-running franchise can achieve. A fresh cast every few years has potential to bring some real narrative freshness into Pokemon, but it is still a children’s show at the end of the day; I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much.

Pokemon and other “forever shows” are in a category of their own, though. What if you wanted to sell a brand that hasn’t had fresh material in a while? A few shows this year had the distinction of being re-adapted for modern audiences, decades after they were originally released. It’s easy to consider this a cynical marketing ploy using a known property (I mean, isn’t this what all adaptations are, fundamentally?) but in fairness, it’s a big hurdle to expect an average person to be interested in a show from over 20 years ago.

Urusei Yatsura is probably the one in 2022, adapted from the 1980s Rumiko Takahashi manga. It had a popular anime during the 80s that ran for nearly five years and had multiple films, including the famous Beautiful Dreamer by Mamoru Oshii. Though it’s not for me – I have little interest in horndog sex comedies – the revival is notable enough that I watched the first episode, and that did get me thinking a bit. If I, personally, was going to watch Urusei Yatsura, why wouldn’t I watch the 80s version instead?

This is not necessarily to say “reject modernity, embrace tradition” or anything, though I do love the look of cel animation. Neither do I have firsthand knowledge on if either version is more or less accurate to the original manga. It’s just simply that when a work has multiple adaptations, they’re just begging to be compared against each other.

Take Fullmetal Alchemist, which had a partial anime adaptation with an original ending in 2003 and a full adaptation (titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) in 2009. There are arguments to this day about which version is “better”, even though one version is indisputably truer to the source material. Then again, as we’ve discussed, is being truer to the source necessarily a marker of quality?

It ought be noted that as much as I’m spewing onto this page about adaptations, these points often aren’t relevant to the viewer. Plenty of people watch these shows as stand-alone products, and the quality of their source material – comparative or otherwise – is unimportant to their enjoyment of the anime. It often isn’t viable for an English-speaking Western fan to experience a given piece of media, even with a particularly robust translation/localization pipeline in both official and unofficial capacities. And when they do, an entire fandom’s perception can be colored by a particular version.

We did an entire multi-year podcast about watching the legendary 1988 science-fiction OVA Legend of the Galactic Heroes for the first time, after the ongoing remake – Die Neue These – had already begun. Why didn’t we focus on the new version? Surely it’s more relevant these days, right? Or, if I’m so obsessed with how well something’s adapted, why didn’t I track down the original novels and read those first? Well, the old one is the famous one. It’s the version that people have spoken of with reverence for decades, and we wanted to understand why that was.

Within our limited sphere of perception, the 1988 OVA is the way to experience Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Now, when we watch fresh new episodes of Die Neue These, we can’t help but compare them to what we’ve seen. In some ways, it’s unfair to judge the remake in such a way, but it also allows us to appreciate its unique strengths compared to the OVA.  Modern technology and a greater budget allows it to accomplish things that weren’t possible in the late 1900s, and there’s an element of excitement in anticipating how certain characters or plot elements will be portrayed in a new light.

Hell, I’ve heard that in some ways DNT is more accurate to the novels, and I believe it. Even so, if someone wanted to experience Legend of the Galactic Heroes, I’d tell them to watch the OVA. If they refused to watch a 35-year-old show, I wouldn’t blame them. The remake, while not as good as the OVA, is a completely acceptable version of that story (so far), based on my subjective opinion. I don’t have all the context. Even if I did, I couldn’t be “objective”; I have my own thoughts and preferences.

And that’s what it always comes down to, doesn’t it? Certainly, there’s nuance to media criticism and literacy gained from experience, and I don’t necessarily want to shit on people whom I disagree with when it comes to a fucking cartoon. But ultimately, whether we consider something “good” or not comes down to our personal sensibilities, and it only gets muddier when multiple versions of the same story get placed side-by-side. When Osamu Tezuka directed the anime version of his very own Astro Boy manga, did he consider it an inferior expression of that story? Which form is the truest version? Is there one?

Any medium is always an imperfect translation of what the creator intends to express. The fact that I can use the written version of the English language to create even a facsimile of my invisible, incorporeal thoughts on watching so many anime adaptations this year within the brain of you, the reader, is a miracle of our own making.

Won’t stop me from bitching about it, though. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.