Anime Question of the Week: What Makes a Good Adaptation?

In short: make it watchable!

Welcome to our next segment on AQOTW! This week, we’ll take a look at what makes an anime adaptation good with respect to its source material. Adapting a manga, light novel, or game into a visual television show, OVA, or movie, is tough. It involves taking a textual medium and turning it into a visual one. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So, when it *does* work, why does it?

Spoiler: We’re gonna talk about Steins;Gate for a bit

Most anime is an adaptation. It wouldn’t even be much of a stretch to say anime in general are just large, well funded, well produced advertisements for manga, light novels, and games. But just as though there are SOME commercials we enjoy, there are MANY anime adaptations we enjoy. “Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood” is often regarded as one of the best, if not the best, anime ever made, and it’s based on a manga. The same can be said for “Steins;Gate”(visual novel), “Demon Slayer”(manga), and “Rage of Bahamut”(mobile game). So why are these, and other adaptations, so good? Let’s take a look at, in my opinion, the reasons and some examples:

  1. They let the visuals do the storytelling

Let’s talk about each of these, starting with good visual storytelling.

Visuals and storytelling

Anime is a visual medium, like film. When we sit down on the couch or our desk chairs, or pull out our phones, we, well, watch it. An adaptation is strong when it translates static images and blocks of words into cinematic language with animation.

Okabe looks on as everything around him has suddenly changed. His friends look at him with a weird look since they have no idea what’s going on.
Moe culture is gone. An otaku shop is replaced by a fan shop.

As an example, let’s take a look at one of my favorite anime, Steins;Gate. In one particular scene, the character Okabe allows a character nicknamed Farris to send a text message back in time that drastically alters the landscape of Akihabara from an otaku paradise to simply another part of the city. When Okabe notices the change, he doesn’t monologue about the little differences. Instead the camera pans around and visually shows that the city is no longer what it used to be, and it spins as Okabe’s world (visually literally and figuratively) is being spun around by the d-mails (which the characters use ti change the past). The show doesn’t need to explain how everything is different. In that moment, you know how different it is. In a visual novel, you would get still images with explanations (which fits for the medium). But the moment is adapted to fit into a visual medium where the viewer can understand through moving images rather than dialogue.

Unique art style

Adding on to my previous point, when we watch anime, we don’t want to just sit back and watch. We want to look at something pretty! But animation quality has improved a lot over the years. The last decade has provided us with some very good looking anime. How does an adaptation stand out in this way? For this example, let’s move to the anime that won the Funimation Award for best animation of the decade: “Demon Slayer!”

There isn’t actually any water in this shot. It’s just a visualization of the water breathing technique.

I do think calling “Demon Slayer” the best animated anime of the decade is a bit much (I think there are many other candidates that do better, even some from the same studio, Ufotable), but I can see why it has such appeal, and it’s the beauty of the art work. The way the animators mix a classical Japanese art style seen in paintings with modern animation and flow makes the series from the original manga come alive. The way the series visualizes the various breathing techniques and styles is another way it takes advantage of its visual focus. Tanjiro’s water breathing techniques are probably the most often used because he’s the main character, but the others have some great looking moves too.

“Demon Slayer” is sometimes called overrated and maybe it’s too much to give it such high praise against the entire 2010s, but no matter how you slice it, the animation looks good. Just to throw a bone, here’s the moment that made it trend on Twitter:

From episode 19

Engaging plot

Promo image on Funimation

Finally, you need something to tie it all together, and that’s a good story, plain and simple. There are too many anime that are just nakedly posing as ads for their various source materials, so they either tease you with a larger universe, leave you hanging wanting more, or they just aren’t written well. There are plenty of cases where a 1:1 adaptation exists in terms of story (“Monster Musume,” for example), and some have made more unique versions with various twists and turns not in the original source (“Soul Eater,” Fullmetal Alchemist 2003"), so for this example, I want to name a series that essentially works from nothing and crafts almost an original story from scratch — “Rage of Bahamut: Genesis” which I just recently finished.

“Bahamut” is based on a mobile game by Cygames. I’ll preface this by saying I never played the mobile game, a digital card battle game with RPG elements. But looking into it, it seems the anime’s story is mostly original, fleshing out the world illustrated in the game as opposed to just adapting one particular story line or event. The premise involves how the gods and demons worked together to seal Bahamut, a powerful dragon that devastated the world 2000 years ago before he was sealed, and how some demons are hoping for Bahamut’s revival. The first season is 12 episodes long, but it takes a variety of twists and turns. It always keeps you guessing and engaged. It does what the best adaptations do; add to the world of the original source without straying too far from the original’s essence. If “Rage of Bahamut” is just an ad for a mobile game, it’s a pretty damn good one.

In an industry where most televised content is just gigantic ads for book and game publishers, the quality of that content matters. If they want to bring attention to their books and games, they need some pretty stellar directing, art and writing, like the three I mentioned today. It makes all the difference.

What do you think makes a good adaptation? What are some of your favorite adaptations? Let me know! Got any questions like these you want me to answer? Let me know those too!

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