Okay. Maybe it’s not exactly the Avengers of anime adaptations, but it’s easily a Captain America – and at the very least a Thor – of anime adaptations.
So if you can’t guess from that claim, I kinda liked this movie. I think it stands up as a great example of a great adaptation and, for that matter, it’s just a good samurai movie. But this isn’t a review. This is an analysis.
And that means we’re going to have to do a little comparing and contrasting to really get to the heart of the matter.
So, lessee… if we were to compare an adaptation of a cartoon with a set number of episodes that show the progression of a small group of characters through a linear story… and one was done really well and the other was done really poorly… hmmm… what could we compare it to….
Oh, let’s just throw something out there (or, in other words, cast some stones) and look at where Rurouni Kenshin went right and The Last Airbender went so unfortunately wrong.
And now that I think back on it, I imagine that the American Dragonball adaptation would probably be an even better comparison, since they’re both based on a much longer series than The Last Airbender, so they’d be looking at more of the same problems. Airbender also has a much more distinct beginning-middle-end structure to each season, which may mean that there could be more perceived pressure to adapt it in a particular way.
But that, I will argue, is one of the things that makes the Rurouni adaptation even more interesting. So I’m sticking with Aang and Rurouni for this one.
(Besides, I haven’t actually seen the Dragonball live action movie yet. Mostly because I haven’t felt the need to jab myself in the eyes with my car keys, which, I have to assume, would be much the same experience. I’ll just sit here quietly excited for all the cool fan-made stuff going on.)
Adaptations in The Age of Avengers
Over the last decade (well, eight years-ish, depending on how you take your calendar measurement), Marvel has dominated Hollywood with an unprecedented string of massive hits. They took a major chance in those early days, committing to a continuing story across multiple properties, and building a world as they go.
Today, it’s easy to forget exactly how big of a risk it really was. Eight years later, Marvel can now take “risks” by releasing movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, just to prove that no one has to have read the comic for their movies to succeed.
So what is the lesson that everyone should have learned?
First, respect the source material.
Second, don’t be afraid to play it straight.
Third, don’t be afraid to play it stupid. (It’s okay to be fun.)
And Marvel isn’t the only company that can get it right.
Aang vs. Rurouni
Okay, so technically the Avengers got off a little easy because it has such a huge backlog of content on which it could draw. They only had to hint that: “Hey, this kinda thing happened in the comics once. Remember? No? Then you must not be a real fan.”
Rurouni Kenshin and Avatar: The Last Airbender, on the other hand, are both linear stories that are far more limited and scope and seem to completely lack a reboot or retcon every few years. In other words, there’s a set body of work that an adaptation needs to work within. (Remember the “Respect the source material rule.)
So let’s say you’re working with a set story that is much longer than the average comic book. How can you get all those important elements into the movie so it covers favorite episodes, establishes the world background, and takes you smoothly from part A all the way through part 87.2 or whatever?
Obviously, Rurouni wasn’t going to try anything like that. Not with over 140 episodes to deal with. Airbender had a slightly better chance, with only 20 episodes making up season one.
That, at least, gave Airbender a good stopping point. Rurouni had to arbitrarily pick an end point that would be satisfactory. Even then, they brought in elements that don’t actually appear in the anime for some time.
Episodic Movie vs. Movie Movie
This, in the end, is why I was so impressed with Rurouni Kenshin.
And also what I think was the overriding problem with Airbender.
Let me explain.
I believe that faced with the challenge of adapting 20 episodes into a single movie, the people behind Airbender chose to include everything they could, in roughly the same order. The story is, after all, basically a journey, so let’s just start in Place A and follow them to Place R. That leaves us with places B through Q, and if we tighten it all up, we can get in almost everything the fans of the series want to see. Right?
(Then what happened to Place E – the Kiyoshi Warriors? Ring a bell?)
Things just meld this way. The dragon spirit thing became the stand in for about five different characters (one being Avatar Roku, which would have seemed like the obvious choice to me, but whatever), and you have to resort to narration to fill in all the blanks.
But they wanted to get stuff in, and, to a point, they got it.
I just don’t think that was the right thing to do. It made the movie feel like the cliff notes for the show, which is why you just don’t have time to actually let the characters be the characters. You don’t even have time to tell a story because you’re too focused on the plot. You don’t get any personality because it’s too important to establish a character.
Rurouni also had to deal with an episodic, linear story, but the people behind the movie realized that they could pull the different plots together and actually make a real movie out of it.
The anime, you see, is not only episodic, but broken up into section. You have the story that introduces Rurouni and Kaoru, then a few episodes to bring in Yahiko. Another few to establish Sanosuke, and a few more for the Jinnei and Kanryu respectively.
The movie decided to go a different way though. Kanryu has a much larger influence over the entire plot structure, and Jinnei fills a couple different roles. The same sort of thing that happened in Airbender, but these changes were made, I think, to create a character that works better in the movie. This is especially true for Jinnei, who had so much more going for him in the movie than he did in the cartoon.
In other words, they chose to combine some things, skip other things, and assume some basic things because that made a better movie – not to keep it within a certain running time. This, I think, is the biggest difference between that episodic movie and a movie movie.
The most brilliant part, though, was moving the fight with Jinnei to the end. Not because it was the best sword fight to end on (which it was), but because the film makers understood that the real climax of the movie wasn’t the fight against the guy with a Gatling gun, a back yard full of unemployed samurai, or a psychopath with crazy eyes. It was about whether or not Rurouni could stay Rurouni no matter how hard things got.
It was the kind of scene that felt like it had real weight.
Airbender wasn’t even daring enough to give us the water-fish-monster. They couldn’t even let the ocean spirit have his right and proper revenge on the Zhao. They just killed him off with a couple nobody waterbenders. Spoiler alert.
Can You Capture the Character
Here’s an experiment. Count the number of times Aang smiles his great big awesome cheeser smile in a single episode of the cartoon. Now count the number of times anyone smiles in any M. Night Shayamalan move.
Which one comes out ahead?
Does that tell you that maybe he missed a HUGE part of his main character’s personality?
Now, to be fair, the cartoon Rurouni definitely is much more lighthearted than his live action counterpart, too. He’s willing to play the goof, and he’s willing to laugh.
Not a lot of laughing in the movie.
Still, I would argue that they found subtler ways to bring out his character. They showed you where he came from and why he is the way he is.
They also showed him finding joy in a quiet moment. They showed him willing to open up and be personable with Megumi. They showed why he’s so drawn to the philosophy of Kaoru’s school.
Was Kaoru as fun or as lively as her cartoon counterpart? Not really. But by showing us her personality, how she cares about her philosophy, how she actually cares about other people, the final emotional scene actually had real weight.
On the other hand, if you were to, for example, have the narrator tell us that Sokka and Princess Yue “immediately fell in love,” well, let’s just say a final “emotional” scene with her is going to fall flat.
Not saying that happened. You know. No spoilers or anything. Just a “what if” situation.
So let’s talk about the final fight scene again. Rurouni did a great job of building their characters, showing you their motivations, and giving you a reason to root for them. They chose to make the last scene one that was all about character rather than a blood-soaked battle scene. (Did I mention that the final sword fight is still freakin’ awesome, though?)
What I’m saying is, they made some great choices in this movie so that the characters mattered, the story worked, and it really felt like this is what Rurouni Kenshin was supposed to be.