It might feel like this comes as a direct sequel to my essay on the original Fullmetal Alchemist. There, I defined the merits of a series that played fast and loose with its source material. However, this question is bigger than Fullmetal Alchemist, and I’d say even bigger than the relatively small world of anime and manga. Maybe my line of questioning would be put more precisely as, “Is it important to stay true to your source material?”
This applies to books, film, television, and gaming, just as much and if not ore than anime. However, most of the content I consume is anime, and that’s the centerpiece of this blog, so I’m trying to filter it through that lens as much as possible. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t been on my mind lately because of anime, because we usually get strictly faithful adaptations, or those who toss their manga out to the trash. However, it’s a question that’s been on my mind for a long time.
When I first had that thought, it was not long after seeing the fantastic and utterly unfaithful Guardians of the Galaxy. I didn’t have a blog at the time to air the dirty laundry of my brain, and I doubt my teenage self had many ideas worth sharing. In short, I didn’t have an avenue to explore my thoughts on concepts like this. Now that I do, I have the proper opportunity to ask, is being faithful to the manga even important?
We’re pretty blessed nowadays. Manga adaptations, especially big name shonen titles, are usually 1:1 with their source material. Anime doesn’t get produced perpetually anymore, or it’s the exception and not the rule. Seasonal anime has allowed for better paced adaptations that go through their source material at a much more manageable rate.
It also means that we get a higher quality of anime across the board. Compare the animation of seasonal shows like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia to the tighter schedules of One Piece or Boruto. That’s not taking a dig at the latter two; they have their merits and plenty of sakuga, but the average quality of their work is higher in a seasonal anime. When a production team has a better schedule, they can produce better work.
This came when production committees realized it was generally in their best financial interest to switch over to the seasonal model. Perpetual anime is great for brand relevance, but in the age of the internet, the most valuable commodity is hype built up around your property. Season premiers and finales mean there’s a lot more discussion generated around your anime, and that corresponds to merchandise sales.
The Pokemon Company made the highest-grossing media franchise ever by carefully scheduling the anime arcs around the release of new games and TCG tie-ins. It’s just better business sense to coordinate your release schedule carefully, which isn’t possible with ongoing anime.
And with no shortage on source material (with exceptions being made for premature adaptations like Attack on Titan and Re:Zero, made before authors had the time to get ahead), filler has become obsolete. There’s no pressing financial interest to keep a series airing constantly, as long as you manage to get a new season out every other year. Plus, there’s the precedent of series like Naruto being encumbered by filler, so there’s not just no incentive to create filler, there’s a deterrent.
There are anime that diverge from their manga well, and those that don’t. The ones who flop become a lot more well-known than the good ones, and perhaps one of the best (or worst) and most recent examples is Tokyo Ghoul. I plan on talking about the manga at length in a future essay, especially considering the speed at which I read it, but for now I’ll only touch upon the anime’s notorious second season, Root A.
It feels like the creators were completely divorced from the vision of the mangaka. I mean, I don’t know why they felt the need to fabricate most of the plot for season two, considering the manga was already finished by the time the second season aired. You had perfectly good material right there, and you chose not to use it; I just can’t understand that. The first season was something of a sloppy adaptation, but it was mostly faithful, and it’s biggest problem was they were trying to cram too much into a measly 12 episodes.
Then, you have series that invent their own content to much better reception. My Hero Academia has turned filler into one of its greatest strengths; every time they need to pad out an arc and give it room to breathe, the series will turn its attention to Deku’s classmates. We get to see much more of Class A and their individual fights in the Sports Festival, the USJ invasion, and the Provisional License Test. Rather than use filler just for padding, My Hero Academia is the rare anime that uses non-canon content to build the world and provide much needed characterization for the large cast.
We get stuck thinking that anime has to be perfectly accurate to the manga in order to be good, but that’s because they so often create an inferior product when they do diverge. We accept that changes have to be made when a book is adapted into a movie, it’s necessary because they’re two distinct media. A movie that incorporates all of the internal monologue and narration of a book sounds incredibly tedious, but we don’t seem to accept that anime original additions can be helpful.
I would say that we should listen to a mangaka if they wanted to add anything in the anime, but that comes with its own baggage. The Promised Neverland author Kaiu Shirai allegedly gave input on how the anime can handle original content in the anime, though the extent of their involvement is vague. This was likely due to the poor reception towards the manga’s ending, but it turned a poorly-received ending into one of the worst turns in quality in anime.
The Promised Neverland was a shocking thrill ride in its first season, and while the manga ending was unpopular, the arcs leading up to it had real merit. Still, the production committee failed to note a gas leak in the building until the anime wrapped, and turned one of Shonen Jump’s most interesting prospects into a flaming dumpster. It was like they saw the ending of Game of Thrones and thought, “we can do that in half the time.”
The truth is that anime has a real opportunity to build upon the manga, and I mean more than just adding color and fleshing out fight scenes. There’s a whole world of possibility outside of filler stories without consequence and characters you’ll never see again. Take that time to develop your characters who need more screen time, to elaborate on the different uses of your power and magic systems, or just to round out scenes that feel short or choppy.
Pacing is difficult to grasp, it’s subjective but considering that anime and manga simply have different structures that can’t be forced to correspond, it’s silly to keep trying. You have a mangaka and screenwriter whose entire job is to make this story work, so take full advantage of that. You can stretch your story out with original content, but you just have to do it organically, with the story’s best interest in mind.
This is one of those essays I have just felt strongly about for awhile, and though I know my personal opinions don’t matter too much to the executives deciding this sort of thing, it does matter that we make noise about it. Twenty years ago, even ten, no company producing anime thought twice about the western market. Now Crunchyroll, the largest anime streaming service that caters heavily to the west, got bought by a Japanese company for more than a billion dollars. The western anime fan is becoming a bigger share of the market with each passing day.
So as ineffective as it feels to provoke discussion about how the anime industry can change, it does have a noted impact. When we say that animators and studios deserve better treatment and pay, and then we support studios that do exactly that, it makes a differences. I hate to end this on a sappy message of, “we can do it,” but considering this is generally a community of people who generally want the best for anime, both the people who make it and the people who consume it, yeah, anime can get better.
If you have any examples of original content that worked well in anime, I would love to hear your comments, whether they’re here or over on Twitter, where you can see me @ExhibitionOtaku. If you enjoy these sort of meta essays and would like to see them more often, the best way to let me know is all those little metrics of engagement, likes and comments and so on. They might seem pointless, but for some reason, watching all the numbers and pretty lights move makes my brain shoot happy juice, so keep on doing it. Until next time, thanks for reading.