[Editorial Tuesday] Should Anime Adaptations Follow Their Source Material?

If there’s one thing otaku are known for, it’s their unending enthusiasm towards the medium that best captures their respective interests. Whether it’s idol groups, game developers, a certain genre of anime, or serialized manga, once a true fan gets ahold of something, they almost never let go. While this sort of “brand loyalty” is usually a great thing for anime studios and manga publishers alike, the lines start to blur a little when it comes to adaptation from one medium to another. Which is exactly when we see the fans bare their fangs in defense of their preferred medium, in what I will politely call a “less than civil manner.”

So the big question today is this: should anime adaptations follow their source material? In order to better understand the question, we’ll explore several examples of adaptations and fans’ reactions, whether good or bad, and why that’s the case. As always, this is just my opinion on the subject, and I’ll try to be as thoughtful as possible while considering both sides of the issue. I’ll be discussing different shows and manga, but will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Let’s get into it!

A Fork in the Road

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As I’ve mentioned in previous articles comparing both mediums, it’s usually (though not always) the case that manga comes before an anime, for a wide variety of reasons. The development cycle is a bit slower and the production costs for manga are much cheaper (despite the insane hours worked by industry professionals), and because it’s such an inundated part of Japanese culture, which has a tendency to always be on the move, it’s consumed by a much wider audience on a much more regular basis.

So in a way, manga tests the waters. If a particular series is well received, it makes sense to adapt it into an anime. The reasons are twofold: an anime adaptation is likely to attract pre-established fans of the manga, while hopefully drawing in new fans who are more inclined to spend their time and money on shows instead of books, since fans are drawn to each medium for different reasons. Those responsible for adaptations have a very important decision to make. Should they faithfully adapt from the source material, which drew so many fans in the first place? Or should they use their professional judgement to take creative license and do what they think is best for adapting to an anime series?

Staying on the Beaten Path

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Let’s talk about some series’ that have been faithfully adapted, with minimal deviations in terms of overall plot, especially when it comes to the ending, and how fans reacted. Generally speaking, fans of the source material are appreciative of faithful adaptations, because that’s what reeled them in originally. Think long-running shows like One Piece, or adaptations of less lengthy, ongoing series’ like Gin no Saji. Faithful adaptations bring worlds and characters you love to life in ways you might not have been able to realize. Of course, there are exceptions.

The first series I wanted to mention was Monster, which I have written about at length in other articles on the site, and will admit is one of my favorite shows (and a series I hope to tackle, once I get through my constantly-expanding manga library). Fans of both the show and the manga agree that it is an incredibly faithful adaptation from the source material, in terms of overall plot arc (including the chilling, ambiguous ending), and character development that takes place throughout the series. As a viewer, I found the anime captivating; the music is haunting, the voice acting and art style suit the dark, almost nihilistic themes of the narrative, and the production values speak for themselves. But even I have to admit that there are times where scenes seem to drag, and fan consensus is that moments that felt perfectly at home in a more static medium felt cumbersome when translated to something more dynamic.

In manga, thoughts and exposition take place on the page in a way that makes sense, and manage to contain the same feeling of movement as more action packed scenes containing a lot of dialogue. Generally speaking, those same scenes end up feeling like fillers, even if they give valuable insight into character motivation, or potential plot developments, when included in anime. Think of things like voice overs in Dragonball while a character is charging for their deus ex machina-style ultimate attack, or the three-episode arc in Attack on Titan involving a startling revelation, Eren, and a boatload of cannons. It just doesn’t have the same narrative effect when translated from page to screen, and the same can be felt in some of the exchanges in Monster.

Then, of course, there’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which picked up the pieces left by the original run (more on that later). Devotees to the source material and the original run breathed a collective sigh of relief when the show was announced, and responded incredibly positively to that iteration of the series. By that point, the manga had finished and the show could more faithfully follow the plot, giving everyone much-needed closure for characters they had invested so much of themselves in.

Uncharted Waters

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I teased moments ago about the original run of Fullmetal Alchemist for a reason. Occasionally a manga series will be adapted before it has come to its natural conclusion. This can have problematic results when the production of a show catches up with (or even surpasses) the production of the source material. It’s a very big moment of truth for a series, because the author of the source material can divulge information about upcoming story developments to the production team of the show (at the risk of upsetting fans at the thought of “spoiling” the series…think HBO’s current situation with the insanely popular Game of Thrones series).

Or the same production team can wander off the beaten path to flex their own narrative creativity, while attempting to remain true to what brought fans of the original in the first place. In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, both those that had migrated and those who were newly captured were baffled by the late-game shift in quality, especially when it came to integral moments between fan-favorite characters, and bizarre plot points. The results left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Fortunately, they had a second chance and could remedy it later, but that isn’t always the case.

As a counterpoint, the adaptation of Tokyo Ghoul manages to successfully walk the razor-thin line between faithful adaptation and artistic license. The show began after the manga ended, although a prequel manga series has started since then. It is a very successful reinterpretation, capturing the characters and drama with an appropriately slick art style, while deviating from the original in moderation, and at the right times. The source material has continued to expand the world in ways that future iterations of the show (fingers crossed) can use for inspiration and motivation, and fans of both are eager to see where the show might go next.

Stick the Landing

The number one complaint when it comes to adaptation is the quality of the ending. Realizing the original ending is always great, because it transforms moments of conclusion and catharsis (or thematically appropriate ambiguity and ennui) into something greater than they were before. Likewise, fans of source material have very little to complain about when a series manages to synthesize what made the original so special, but in a way that feels fresh and modern.

Take, for example, Death Note, which rocketed to the top of anime popularity polls when it was adapted after the manga had ended. It managed to capture the essence of the show and the dramatic themes that made it so compelling in a way that surprised longtime fans as much as newcomers. When interviewed in Newtype USA about the creative decisions made in the anime adaptation, director Tetsuro Araki stated that his goal was to convey aspects that “made the series interesting” instead of merely “focusing on morals or the concept of justice.” He felt comfortable playing with the events and chronology of the show because the development team approached it with appropriate finesse.

Other times, it isn’t received quite so well. Take, for example, the brutal, violent wonderland that is Gantz. While fans of the show have very little to complain about in terms of the actual quality of the product that was released, the show caught up to the source material and ended in a way that felt conclusive, but perhaps a bit premature. The series continued for over eight years after the anime was released, and continued to please crowds and critics alike, leaving rabid viewers scratching their heads and wistfully wondering what could have been. And don’t even get me started on shows like Ouran High School Host Club, which reached no conclusion (forced or otherwise), and leave everyone hanging.

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The Verdict

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Now that it’s finally time to weigh in on whether or not an adaptation has any sort of obligation when it comes to staying true to the source material, I feel conflicted. I think like most things in life, there isn’t any single golden rule that studios should adhere to, and that it makes a lot more sense to determine how you feel on a case by case basis. My answer is a tentative “yes, but it’s tricky, and creative liberties aren’t always a bad thing.”

It doesn’t make sense for a license to deviate so strongly from its source material that it becomes unrecognizable. If that were the case, why share the name at all? There’s a reason certain things are chosen for adaptation when others aren’t, and it’s important for studios to understand fan expectation, while still striving for creative freedom.

While it isn’t necessarily always the case with anime, some of my favorite movies and shows have deviated from their source material in significant and exciting ways. The Lord of the Rings films captured everything I loved about the books, and managed to keep the romanticism inherent in its setting and characters, while making it accessible enough for modern audiences.

Previously mentioned, Game of Thrones has kept all of the grit and heart-wrenching twists devotees came to expect, while giving screen time to understated or completely invented characters in a way that fleshed out the world, and made it feel even more authentic. That same approach can be just as effective when adapting manga. It just requires a robust creative team that pays a lot of attention to detail.


What do you think? Is it sacrilege to deviate from source material? Should an anime be evaluated independently from the manga that it’s based on? What are some of the most successful adaptations you’ve seen, and why? Sound off in the comments, and let us know what you think.

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Author: Nick Rich

Nick is, first and foremost, a nerd. Netflix on in the background, a drink in one hand, and a book in the other is how you'll find him most days after work. He currently works as an English teacher in Kawasaki, where he lives next to a graveyard with his girlfriend and his unnamed flying squirrel. He hopes to run into Kitaro, late one night.

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