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BEASTARS Anime vs. Manga: The Art of Adaptation

Seeing one of your favorite stories get adapted, no matter the medium, is always a nerve-wracking prospect. There’s always the possibility that the source material could be ruined in the process, dragging the original story through the mud and discrediting it in the larger public eye. Fans of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson know this all too well. So when it was announced that Studio Orange would be heading up an adaptation of the BEASTARS manga by Paru Itagaki into an anime, I was in equal parts excited as I was nervous. Aside from the always-controversial usage of 3D animation, it was possible that a bad adaptation might end up ruining this manga that I hold quite near and dear to my heart.

Luckily, as I followed the series in my weekly reviews, I quickly discovered that the studio managed to do a great job. What follows is an examination of how the team managed to deal with the unique challenges presented to them by the original manga, and how they rose above them to create something truly great.

Problems Facing the BEASTARS Adaptation

One of the main reasons why I was so hesitant in getting fully on board with the idea of a BEASTARS anime adaptation was the flawed nature of its early chapters.

Anime studios are not known for their willingness to go off the beaten path. As a result, they often tend towards direct adaptations. This is, at least in part, because of the close affinity enjoyed between the mediums of anime and manga (the visual nature of Japanese comics allows them to be translated quite easily into moving pictures) but also because many studios are simply more interested in quantity over quality. If you’re doing four adaptations a year, or something close to that, you can’t exactly afford to take your time and consider what special considerations might need to be taken. You need to get the thing done, and as fast as humanly possible.

The thing is, heading up a BEASTARS adaptation would have required a lot of special considerations. It must be said the opening chapters of the manga (particularly those of the first arc) are haphazard in nature, drifting from location to location, between different times and places, and focusing on different characters at different times. There’s also a lack of visual consistency that makes the look of the opening chapters stand out in the long run.

Paru Itagaki did, however, made notable improvements in her writing and art as the manga went on, so this doesn’t affect the overall quality of the manga much as a result. This seems to suggest, in turn, that her relative inexperience at the beginning of the series was at fault.

But, that being said, series published in Weekly Shonen Champion do tend to lack the same kind of straightforward clarity and polish that many series published in publications such as Weekly Shonen Jump enjoy, at least at the beginning. Behind this unique aspect of Champion is publisher Akita Shoten’s more lax and forgiving editorial approach, which gives series more time to develop than the notoriously trigger-happy Jump.

In the case of BEASTARS, this clearly paid off as the series not only improved but went on to become a considerable commercial and critical success. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the opening chapters of the series would present considerable problems for Studio Orange, most notably in narrative focus and consistency. Special care and attention would be needed beyond what could be expected of a usual adaptational gig, lest the series suffer as a result.

Trimming the Fat

Luckily, the studio seemed to have recognized this. I noted in my review of episode 1 that it was almost like the team had read my previous articles, but on reflection, it seems more likely that they simply spent the nine months or so after the initial announcement closely studying the source material and preparing for the BEASTARS adaptation. The results speak for themselves.

If the main problem of the original manga was its haphazard narrative nature, then by far the studio’s most impressive attempt to tackle this came in the series’ opening episode. Back when it first aired, I was astounded by the way that it liberally adapted the opening chapters of the original manga, changing around the order of scenes and even entire chapters. It brought forward some elements, such as Haru’s involvement with the Gardening Club, as well as cutting some entirely: the introduction of all the members of the Drama Club, for one, but also Legosi’s other canine roommates.

BEASTARS episode 1

This had the net result of focusing the narrative on the journey of our main character, Legosi, as he transforms from a meek teenage boy into a more self-confident and self-aware young man. His presence was much more keenly felt in the opening episode than it was in the opening chapters, where he was often drowned out by the multitude of others that made their first appearance. Placing some of the earlier chapters at the beginning also foreshadowed events and plot developments that were to come later on.

This liberal approach to the BEASTARS anime adaptation continued into episode 2. The studio used the scene of Legosi awakening in his dorm much earlier on to serve as a hook for the reader, and by cutting a superfluous scene involving an anteater member of the Drama Club, the tension and drama surrounding Legosi and Haru’s first proper meeting was allowed to flow unimpeded.

Episode 3 also saw major revisions, such as its inclusion of the earlier omitted anteater scene and its bringing forward of the ‘Habitat Day’ scenario. In the manga, this feels like a disconnected piece of world-building, but in the anime it served as an effective coda to Legosi’s growing affection for Haru.

BEASTARS Episode 3

Nevertheless, the BEASTARS anime never did attempt to repeat the same level of revisionism as it did during its opening episode. In fact, it drifted towards a more and more direct adaptation as time dragged on. But this was to be expected, given the changing quality of the manga and the pressures of anime production. Even so, there were important revisions in later episodes that do deserve some consideration: episode 7’s reconfiguration of the incredible egg vignette and episode 6’s numerous location changes, for example.

What all of these adaptational changes amounted to was an anime adaptation that was able to overcome the limitations of its source material with flying colors. Almost all of the changes serve to firm up the narrative and give it renewed focus, as distinct from the haphazard nature of the original, and the only real downside to these changes would be the loss of detail in some case: the removal of a surprising scene that foreshadows Louis’ hidden darkness in episode 8, for one, but also the overtly sexual nature of Louis and Haru’s relationship in episode 6.

But these changes are only noticeable when placing the BEASTARS anime adaptation in direct comparison with the original manga, and don’t detract from the quality of the adaptation as a whole. It is, after all, the job of an adaptation to bring a story to another medium in the best way possible. If that means cutting some content, then so be it. As they say, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Going Beyond

Yet, it is also the duty of an adaptation to be more than simply another version of a story. There has to be a reason to engage with this particular version above all others, and while lesser studios would just slap on some animation on some character designs and voice acting and call it a day, Studio Orange went further; unlocking the potential of some of the manga’s most poignant moments, making their adaptation arguably the best version of the story so far.

For starters, Orange’s trademark 3DCG animation did wonders for the cinematic potential of Paru Itagaki’s story. Several key moments, such as Legosi and Bill’s fight in episode 4 and the raid on the Shishigumi in episode 10, were made that much more dramatic and impactful in the anime adaptation thanks to the addition of animation. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on how much you can tolerate 3DCG (some people just can’t get out of the uncanny valley), but I, for one, think that the choice of 3D was a wise one.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps ironic to note that some of the BEASTARS anime adaptation’s most impressive moments came in the form of traditional 2D animation. Perhaps that speaks to our unconscious bias towards the future of animation, or simply the technological limitations that hold the medium back from matching up to the potential of more traditional methods. But the fact of the matter is that the BEASTARS anime features just as much impressive 2D animation as it does 3D animation.

By far the most important and widely lauded examples of this were two key scenes in episodes 7 and 8, respectively. Episode 7 featured a gorgeous, hand-drawn sequence of Haru making her way through a dense, purple forest before being swallowed by a dense body of water, which perfectly captured the conflicted feelings of Haru at that moment. It also cleverly invoked some visual parallels with Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which matches up in more ways than one.

Episode 8, in turn, utilized the stylistic trappings of shadow puppet theater to tell us the tragic story of Louis’ past. This gave it an oppressive tone and dark atmosphere which, along with the smart color design, made for a sequence that more than made up for its flaws.

Of course, if we’re talking about impressive animation, then it’d be criminal for me to leave out the opening sequence, which was animated entirely with handmade puppets. But this OP has already received due attention and doesn’t play a part in the events of the story nor the adaptation of BEASTARS itself, so I’ll leave it at that. Feel free to just watch it again, however, because it’s so good that you only need a very thin excuse to do so.

BEASTARS: The Art of Adaptation

To summarise, Studio Orange did much, much more than simply address the flaws of the original manga in their BEASTARS adaptation. The team also went above and beyond in making their version of the story as best as it could possibly be with inventive original sequences and character animation. The team’s passion and creativity in this regard really shines through in our interview with Kiyotaka Waki, Shinichi Matsumi, and Eiji Inomoto, which you can check out now.

When taking this alongside the structural changes, it’s clear to me that the BEASTARS adaptation was a roaring success. Seeing one of your favorite stories adapted to another medium is never a worry-free prospect, but if all anime studios were as talented and conscientious as Studio Orange, then we’d be looking at a very different popular culture landscape.

Whether or not the BEASTARS anime adaptation will forever hold the crown of best adaptation remains to be seen (the newly-announced stage play looks quite promising, and season two is on the way) but, safe to say, the bar has been set very high.

You can watch BEASTARS on Netflix.

Toho Animation via Netflix
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