Adapting a Medium

Adaptation is like translation… it’s hard.

If you’ve checked out any of Kaze’s articles on the topic, or perhaps tried translating anything yourself, you know that translating from one language to another is not as easy as it sounds. First, you must be aware of the nuances of the language itself, which are then further complicated by the language’s intrinsic link to the culture that created it. Idioms must be accounted for (e.g. “hot under the collar” or “hold your horses”) and cultural references understood. Sometimes you even run into the issue that the destination language has no concise way of communicating what the source language is trying to say! And let’s not forget those instances in which the destination language has too many ways of communicating the same message…

Case in point: it’s hard.

While a slightly different beast, adaptation struggles from similar issues. When converting a book to a movie, the director must decide what to keep, what to cut, what to modify, etc. In the rare case that a movie receives a proper novelization (not a junior novelization, which more or less tells a simplified version of the same story), the author must decide where to expand, which scenes to modify, and numerous other issues. These problems are not relegated to the relationship between books and movies, however: These problems are inherent to the very process of altering a story to fit a different medium.

From my very (very, very) biased perspective, I can think of no place where this process is more hotly debated than in the world of anime. Visual novels, light novels, manga, video games… While these can sometimes be, and in many cases are, the destination adaptation for a story (I’m not referring to spin-off sequels), more often than not they serve as the source for the marketing end-goal of “getting an anime.” Steins;Gate, Spice & Wolf, One Piece, God Eater, need I even continue?

…I would contend that one primary cause [for the failure of anime adaptations] is the ability of some studios and their directors to understand the fundamental differences between mediums and make changes appropriately.

With the prevalence of adaptations in the anime market, why is it that some succeed when others fail? There are innumerable reasons and theories for this, but I would contend that one primary cause is the ability of some studios and their directors to understand the fundamental differences between mediums and make changes appropriately:

Visual novels often focus on nonlinearity and lengthy dialogue. Light novels also tend to be heavy on dialogue, but are expressly linear. Manga have almost nothing but dialogue, relying on still frames to communicate motion. Video games have nearly endless possibilities, but almost necessitate repetition as a form of player/viewer interaction.

All of these can be told from the first person perspective, but visual novels are almost exclusively told this way (in fact, I can’t even think of one that isn’t as I’m writing this). Only two of these even have the option to include music, and all but one rely heavily on visuals, though some visual novels do succeed with barely any images at all.

Some of these are created almost entirely by one person, while others require large teams, resulting in writing by committee, often promoting overall quality while stifling creativity.

I think you get the point. While all of these mediums are intimately linked with anime, none are anime.

To get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to present the case of the Utawarerumono series, a recent fancy of mine.

Utawarerumono began its life as an R-18 visual novel/strategy RPG in 2002. In 2006, Aquaplus, the publisher, released an all-ages version of the game for PS2 and PSP which removed the entirely unnecessary hentai elements found in the original, and the game has since became a favorite of mine. Clocking in around thirty or so hours, the game is actually on the short side compared to many of its JRPG peers, but it is still not slouch, particularly considering that its visual novel side is about 80-90% of the playtime (this means that the majority of that 30+ hours is spent reading text).

utawarerumono screenshot
I’m actually a pretty big fan of the chibi sprites used in combat, used in conjunction with the realistic proportions used in the rest of the game.

All in all, this makes for a pretty easy anime adaptation. Unlike many visual novels, the length is manageable and the story is entirely linear… just like anime. So, a fan of the original game might go into the anime with moderately positive expectations, right?


Completely ignoring, for a moment, the possibility that the adaptation might make excessive story changes, rearrange events, and then storyboard in such a way that ruins many of the most impactful moments of the original story (of which Utawarerumono’s anime  offends on all counts), one must remember what can be achieved with what resources in each medium. While many video games tend to be expensive to create, visual novels require limited art assets and minimal animation, making them among the cheapest to produce. Thus, a visual novel can narrate a compelling scene with only a few pictures and a lot of words (and words are cheap!). An anime, on the other hand, requires each individual frame to be drawn or modeled on a computer. This can result in amazingly beautiful works that trump the originals in many ways simply by virtue of the medium… or, if they’re produced cheaply, they can look like this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.27.46 PM (1)
This is not an “in-between” (transition frame between movements). These guys had a conversation looking like this, unevenly sized, dead eyes and all.
Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.27.46 PM (2)
Nope, still not an “in-between.” This is before he turned..
Utawarerumono bad 3
…and this is after he finished turning.

And speaking of computer modeling, while it can be a great way to create numerous extras without the labor required to hand draw all of them, sometimes it can end up looking worse than a simple hand-drawn still shot. Just look at these for evidence of that:

Utawarerumono bad 4
This is my favorite.
Utawarerumono bad 5
Wait for it…
Utawarerumono bad 6
( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

If you ever get the chance to talk to me about Utawarerumono, you’ll know immediately that I am very vocal about how much I love it, but how poor my opinions are of the anime. Unfortunately, this is primarily due to the entire adaptation process, to which Utawarerumono fell victim in conjunction with its low production values.

utawarerumono itsuwari no kamen
Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen (Utawarerumono: The False Faces), the sequel game and anime of 2015-2016, share many of the same problems, but are even more exaggerated in certain areas. Namely, this game is more than twice the length of the original, clocking in around 60 hours. At a run time of somewhere around 7 hours, the 2-cour anime had to squeeze about 45 hours of talking and 15 hours of battling into just over 10% of the space. So this begs the question of how they did it. The answer?

They didn’t.

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen is a fine anime. It stands well on its own, which is, frankly, what it has to do. It is simply not the original, nor does it even seem to try to be in various ways. Many of the interactions in the original story were entirely scrapped for time. Entire plot points left out. Characters removed. Personalities altered. Events pieced together in ways they were not intended. Music repurposed. Everything is different.

So what does all of this really mean? What does it all come down to?

Just as a language is intrinsically tied to its culture, so a story is intrinsically tied to its medium. Even when an adaptation is superior to its origin (I’ve often claimed the Clannad anime to be superior to the Clannad visual novel, though I suppose that’s up for debate), both productions are themselves and nothing more. As much as I’m frustrated that the Utawarerumono name is attached to two productions of vastly different quality, in the end, the game tells its story while the anime tells its story.

Just as a language is intrinsically tied to its culture, so a story is intrinsically tied to its medium.

Mediums both bind a story and set it free. The next time you find yourself absorbing an adapted story, whether it’s simple fiction, something spiritual, or anything in between, consider how it is being conveyed. Then, consider why that medium was selected to convey it in that way. Perhaps it’s something as simple as practicality: The creator didn’t have access to expensive tools, or the publishes was just looking to make a quick buck. Maybe, though, this medium offers something unique that the original simply couldn’t.

Granted, if Utawarerumono is an indication of anything, chances of that are pretty slim, heh.

10 thoughts on “Adapting a Medium

  1. “At a run time of somewhere around 7 hours, the 2-cour anime had to squeeze about 45 hours of talking and 15 hours of battling into just over 10% of the space. So this begs the question of how they did it. The answer? They didn’t.”

    This is why I opt for visual novels over their anime adaptations, where possible. Compression (or omission) of content is all but inevitable, and I like to get the full package.

    Anyway, nice analysis! I have actually never watched an anime based on a VN, so it would be interesting to see sometime how the good ones handle the source material.

    1. I’m surprised you haven’t seen an anime based on a VN! There are quite a few of them, so if you watch a lot of anime (I don’t know if you do), chances are you probably have and you just didn’t realize it 😛

      In any case, like I mentioned in the article, Clannad is an excellent example of adaptation done right. So right, in fact, I actually believe the anime to be better than the source in many ways (this is the only VN-Anime adaptation for which I can say this). Of course, it had piles of money thrown at it and 50 episodes to tell the story, among other things.

      1. Truth be told, though I know of many anime, I don’t watch much. VNs tell similar kinds of stories, but with an emphasis on reading, which I love, while still retaining visuals and music (unlike light novels). Plus, I love the choices and multiple endings!

        I recently finished Fruit of Grisaia, and am currently going through Clannad. Maybe someday I’ll get around to seeing how some of the anime adaptations compare, especially if Clannad’s comes recommended.

      2. Stein’s Gate the anime might actually be better than the original game as well, mainly because it cuts down on the length of the game’s rambling expository dialogue. I suspect Robotics; Notes is better as a visual novel, but I have no way of finding that out. V__V

        1. By far the worst anime adaptation of a visual novel I’ve personally seen is Danganrompa. The flavor of it just wasn’t…right…at all, and they changed everyone’s voices for apparently no reason. The show also didn’t have enough run time to develop the characters.

        2. I think Steins;Gate is pretty dicey in terms of which version is superior. The original VN includes several conclusions that are great in their own rights, but would have been impossible to include in the anime. As you implied, however, many VNs are simply too long for their own good, which is often remedied in the adaptation process.

        3. Steins; Gate is based on a game? I know of a game they have of it, but didn’t know the game came first….interesting. The anime is one of my favorites.

  2. Interesting and apt points. When going from one genre to another with a story, things often need to be adapted because the new medium is not the same. One of my favorite examples is a western film – The Princess Bride.

    If you have ever seen the movie, you know it’s a lot of fun. Grandpa is telling a story to a sick grandchild about adventure…oh and some kissing. Now, if you read the book – it still has the same fun, but it’s very, very different. I would recommend the book. No really, highly I would recommend the book, but it is different. In both cases, though, it works. The overall plot is similar. The characters are similar, but what works in a novel won’t work on the screen and vice versa. It helped that the book author also wrote the sceenplay, so was able to adapt his vision to the screen. Great points.

    1. Well to a certain extent the book version of the Princess Bride (Which as he’s pointed out is GREAT by the way) is a multi-level joke on: (a). Ancient stories and modern audiences, and how sometimes the author’s true intent ruins what a possible audience could get from the story through a simpler adaptation. (b). Adaptations and just how hard it is to adapt a story into a new context and culture. (c). How pretentious scholars or gigantic fans of something can demean those with a more casual interest to both’s detriment. So it really does pertain to this in a lot of ways! :33

      That’s a joke which doesn’t work as well in movie format, because the movie only has a certain amount of run time. But with that said, the story of adventure that both versions tell is fantastic and full of musings on beauty, fantasy, and Meaning. And dudes with six fingers. And swashbuckling. 😉

  3. I have never heard of this game, nor am I interested in it nor the anime to be honest. When you said that most of the game is reading text….my switch just got turned off haha. I would prefer more fighting than text, or at least a balance of the two. I’ve tried a couple VN games on Steam that I once got for free, and that genre is not for me. I can’t stand reading that so much.

    But yes, adapting media to video games for one can get some interesting censors happen, like some that happened in Final Fantasy 7 and other RPG’s mainly. It’s funny the type of things that America will censor.

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