Adapting manga as a Performer, not an Artist

July 22, 2009


Manga to anime adaptations usually are more vulnerable to criticisms than novel to anime adaptations when it comes to respecting source material, mostly because the animated representations are inferior to what the readers imagined in the manga (which are usually of much higher quality drawings). Although I believe that anime should be treated separately from its manga counterpart, there are some merits to their criticisms. An animator once said,

When adapting manga into anime, mangaka is the artist and animators are just performers.

I don’t deny that the considerable level of creativity is needed to create a good adaptation, but I can also relate to the above sentiment as someone who plays piano for leisure. Imagine a pianist performing his interpretation of one of Beethoven’s pieces. No doubt he would want to infuse the music with his own unique expressions, but a considerable level of skills is needed to preserve the spirit and intention of the composer. Sometimes there are musical elements (which work in harmony with other elements embedded in the piece) he must not forget to express, just as anime has to, if we are to view manga more or less as a storyboard for anime, express things that make its source material special.


please skip this paragraph if you have no interest in classical music

Take the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique for example. A very simple and slow piece that most players can hit all the notes with some practice, but not so easy to play a great performance of it. Although sluggish in tempo (Adagio), your right hand needs to consistently play two parts in  perfect control pretty much throughout the entire piece and it can prove very demanding to highlight the melody notes apart from its accompaniment, let alone with pathetique (sorrowful) expression. Some of you may also notice that from the fourth bar in the above picture, left hand too operate in the same fashion. This becomes really difficult from the 6th bar, as each hand must connect their respective melody notes smoothly (due to the presence of tie assembling them together), and the fingering order needed to achieve this makes it very challenging to highlight melody notes while each accompaniment flows gently like a river. What you would notice from amateurs is that the melody feels disconnected, while the inconsistent tone of accompaniment ruins the overall harmony of the piece. Needless to say this is only a tip of the iceberg and there are other endeavours in the piece that make it difficult, for me personally anyway, to perform with desired expression.


I don’t need to mention that performing a musical piece isn’t exactly same as animating a manga, but sometimes anime studios need to be more skilled performers than an artist. Monster is a text-book example of a great faithful performance of its manga source, as is Shigurui. Where Berserk and Blade of the Immortal failed to fully materialise drawings of such high calibre on silver screen, Shigurui does with excellent control of pacing, phasing in and out of normal/skeletal/muscle representations, attention to lighting and details in drawings, ultimately infusing the spirit of original material with its own uniquely intense expression.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to adapting manga to anime adaptations, as is evident from the discussion that took place from bateszi’s previous post on FMA: Brotherhood. How much freedom are animators allowed to enjoy? How loyal must the animators be to the source material? The obvious answer is finding the right balance. Having the  creative ability to freely express as an artist, but also to perform the original spirit and intention alive for us to indulge in with skilled execution.


If only Violinist of Hamelin had more budget tohoho -.-


9 Responses to “Adapting manga as a Performer, not an Artist”

  1. ghostlightning Says:

    Good stuff. Pathetique is a lovely tune. I submit Basilisk. I enjoyed the anime better than the manga. I know little about Segawa Masaki (mangaka), but Gonzo did a splendid job with the anime.

  2. Sorrow-kun Says:

    Manga is a tough one, since the adaptation from manga to anime isn’t as big a step as it is for other types of transitions, so there are generally more expectations from fans for loyalty, rightly or wrongly. You can get away with more when adapting novels/visual novels, etc, since there’s a little more ambiguity in the intended feel/atmosphere of an original work, and creativity is basically a necessity anyway, since novels don’t fit easily into anime without a bit of work. Still, I resent this idea that loyalty is a requirement, and that “source is sacred”. The implication is that it’s impossible for anyone to do anything better than the original, so there’s no point in bothering. It’s not really a mindset that’s susceptible to creativity.

  3. gaguri Says:


    Pathetique is lovely, but only under right hands. Unless played with considerable level of skills and feelings, it is bound to sound wooden and lifeless. In compamrison 1st movement of moonlight sonata, which is similar to 2nd mov. pathetique in tempo and tone is lot easier.

    After checking out several screenshots of Basilisk, mmm, what can I say. I don’t like how they’re using colours, and the drawings certainly don’t compare to the ones in Shigurui, but I suppose one needs to watch it on the screen to judge it better.


    Unlike pathetique (which is very sacred…), I think we can play around a little with adaptations. But I think mangas are, in some ways, like music compositions in that there are parts that should be respected/not changed. The reason is that those elements are the heart and essence of the work, integrated into the work as a whole, and changing them will usually not mean good for anime. For example, if Madhouse wanted to re-interprete Monster by inserting more humour to make the overall mood lighter, and tell a portion of story from Johan’s point of view to give more insight into his motivation/state of mind, would it have worked? My answer is no. That brooding atmosphere, mystery and suspense of our inability to fully comprehend the unpredictable and terrifying character of Johan…Madhouse are free to express these in their own ways but not respecting them will more than likely result in catastrophic results.

    Similarly, one simply can’t choose to disconnect the melody notes in pathetique because he his interpretation was more lifeless and disconnected (at the cost of affecting the entire piece in bad way). That’s why I feel choosing what to respect, how to respect, with what kind of unique expression, is almost like performing a musical piece.

    But you are right in that source isn’t always the blueprint that we must all cherish like bible, and you probably know where I stand in regards to Gankutsuou. In the case of Gankutsuou though, the director changed nearly everything (from the setting, characters, story, etc…). So if you’re going to change something, then it’d help to re-work other things in the manga as well to make it work for anime too, for the anime to be taken as a separate work, and not a bad copy of the original, if not for the sake of the quality of anime itself.

  4. introspect Says:

    I submit that if you were to attempt the Adagio sostenuto according to Beethoven’s own pedal directions (or whatever 20th century upgrade thereof), you would be in much tougher than anything Adagio cantabile can send your way. There is literally less to work with in the former, and so less to paper over any mistakes in voice balancing.

  5. kadian1364 Says:

    On the topic of good adaptions, of the three CLAMP original works I’ve both read the manga and seen the anime, Card Captors Sakura, Angelic Layer, and Chobits, I believe all the anime versions are superior. These challenge the folly of “believing no one can do anything better than the original.” CLAMP seems to overflow with wild and imaginative ideas, but the adaptions added more character depth, improved pacing, and a certain polish I think the CLAMP team lacked in their manga, yet the adaptions still remained true to the essence of the original. These examples weren’t just carbon copies, but noticeably improved on the stories they were based on.

    Examples of the opposite, of adaptions gone wrong, are always at the tips of people’s tongues, ready to lash out against those with a different take on the material, but it does work sometimes.

  6. gaguri Says:


    You can be assured that I don’t intend to play 1st mov under his exact direction 😀

    What I observed though is that less people notice the dissonance and those ‘unclean’ sounds, but mostly because I play mostly for myself and people I know, not on stage.


    That is a folly indeed, plenty of adaptations have surpassed their originals in the past. I have not seen ANgelic Layer, but I loved Card Captor Sakura. Well, upto episode 40 anyway. After that my opinion of it sort of went down a little -___-

    And Chobits was unbearable, but that probably has more to do with my lack of tolerance.

  7. kadian1364 Says:

    Oh, I’m certainly not saying something like Chobits is great by any measure, just better. Though I really do like Angelic Layer, within the confines of shounen formula.

    Another adaption I thought of was Alien Nine. Though only animating about half of the original manga, what it did adapt made enormous improvments to characterization and the dream sequence additions focused the unpolished story.

    Yet, there’s that word again, unpolished. It’s obvious to say pieces in need of improvement can be improved upon, but maybe there is a case to be made that an already excellent story need not be messed with or touched up at all.

    The first season of Genshiken was great because it played it straight from the manga, yet I felt the second season was inferior to the manga material, even though I saw the anime first. And how about Haruhi Suzumiya? By all accounts the first anime is nearly word-for-word exactly the same as the novel, yet when the anime deviates, like making 70 episodes out of 30 pages of Endless Eight, it’s clear they should’ve stuck to the playbook.

  8. Martin Says:

    Adapting manga is a tricky thing. There’s the usual problem associated with ANY adaptation, namely pleasing fans of the original material and moving the subject matter from one medium to another, but some things work better in one format than the other.

    I think of animation adapted from manga in the same way as a cover version of another songwriter’s piece – there’s a point where you have to move away from perfectly recreating the experience and putting your own mark on it. With a bit of luck the cover version might show it in a new light.

  9. gaguri Says:


    I actually like 1st season of Haruhi better as anime than novel. i.e. think of that concert episode and the beautifully rendered battle between Yuki and Ryoko. Much more thrilling than what I imagined in the novel. Second season on the other hand…


    Ah that’s another interesting analogy, probably much a better one than mine. What I originally wanted to express was my feeling of watching Shigurui, how it beautifully translated those manga drawings (where other anime like Berserk and BotI failed), almost like performing a beautiful pathetique. But I suppose I went too far with the analogy in this case, haha. Oh well, you learn from your mistakes.

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