Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON Partnership Is off to a Scrappy Start

Fruits of Crunchyroll's WEBTOON partnership

With the finale of both Tower of God and The God of High School out of the way, the first real test of Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON partnership has come to an end.

Of course, there are still plenty of Crunchyroll Originals to come – Noblesse next season, and EX-ARM the season after that – but Tower of God and The God of High School were undoubtedly some of the most highly anticipated from the WEBTOON catalog.

After all, fans had been calling for years for these long running, still ongoing Korean manhwa to get the proper attention that they deserve, and anime adaptations have certainly brought them that. But how have they fared overall? And how has Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON partnership worked out in practice?

Tower of God: Surprisingly Controversial

If you’d have told me at the beginning of this year that Tower of God by SIU would be at the center of a ferocious internet debate regarding the depiction of women in media, then I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

Stemming from Anime Feminist’s initial coverage of episode 1, this was later echoed by such outlets as Anime News Network and summed up brilliantly in a piece by Olive St. Sauver that incorporates some elements from future developments in the manhwa. (Safe to say that there are some heavy spoilers in that link, so read at your own peril.)

Such bad press doesn’t bode well for the first fruit of Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON partnership. The thing is, though, Rachel is just one small part of Tower of God – there are many other different characters and themes that make up the appeal of this series. Take Khun, for example: no one was displeased with how he was presented, not least of which his die-hard fans.

Tower of God Episode 2

No one is denying the fact that SIU’s writing is far from perfect, and that some of the memes floating around the fanbase have some uncomfortable connotations. Still, to have Tower of God overshadowed by this debate seems unfair: as I explained at the time, the structure of the anime means that Rachel’s actions are very much front and center, while they do pass by to a certain extent in the manhwa.

Furthermore, as a fan of the original series, I have to say that I was nothing but impressed: not only did TMS Entertainment manage to adapt SIU’s story very well, but create something that almost transcends it.

It is no secret that the early chapters of Tower of God are pretty rough. While any series inevitably improves as it goes along, the first major arc of SIU’s story is riddled with low quality art, overly complex writing, and just plain pales in comparison to what comes after. In this sense, there is some merit to the annoying argument that “it gets better.”

Tower of God Episode 12

Nevertheless, TMS Entertainment handled the defects of the source material rather well. By trimming some of the fat from SIU’s original story – particularly meaningless flavor text – the studio managed to create a leaner version of the story that careened towards its better parts with relative ease. And special mention must go to Kevin Penkin, who created what will most likely turn out to be the best soundtrack of the year for the show, only rivalled by Arisa Okehazama’s work on The God of High School.

As a result, the Tower of God anime stands very well on its two feet. In fact, I might be tempted to recommend this adaptation over the first arc of the original manhwa – especially if someone wants to get to the good stuff a little faster.

The God of High School: Adaptation, Adaptation, Adaptation

In this sense, the first fruit of Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON partnership turned out rather well. The God of High School, on the other hand, is a little more mixed.

Among the Crunchyroll Originals line-up and as the second thing to come out of the Crunchyroll/WEBTOON partnership, it undoubtedly stands as one of the more visually accomplished shows out there – Studio MAPPA definitely brought their A-game when bringing this one to the screen.

Nevertheless, several aspects of its adaptation have me worried that Crunchyroll’s production system might not fare so well for other WEBTOON properties in the future.

The God of High School Episode 9

Before we begin, I should say that I am much less familiar with The God of High School than I am with Tower of God. Before watching the latter, I read the original manhwa and thoroughly enjoyed comparing the two in my reviews.

At one point, I also planned to do the same for Sonje Park’s series, but time got the better of me. Besides, I thought, wouldn’t it be good to experience an adaptation through the eyes of an anime-only for once?

Even with that limited vision and knowledge, however, even I could very quickly tell that some things were off. In episode 1, events proceeded at such a lightning pace that it almost gave me motion sickness. Episode 2, meanwhile, was bafflingly structured in such a way that made the story’s own rules seem redundant. Episode 3 was a little better, but episode 4 was laughable in the way that it attempted to rely on the relationships that had been built between the characters up until that point.

The God of High School Episode 8

The problem is, those relationships didn’t really exist; neither did audience investment in said relationships. As I said at the time, it felt like a bizarre break in the story that didn’t really ultimately matter in the long-term – as it turns out, this may have more to do with the format than the quality of the story.

Again, I haven’t read the original WEBTOON, so I could be wrong on this. But a lot of the discussion between fans that I have witnessed online seems to suggest that Studio MAPPA crammed a lot of material into a very short space of time, leading to episodes such as “marriage/bonds” that don’t really have their intended effect.

Unfortunately, this brings to mind some of the limitations of Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON partnership and the Originals project.

As of the time of writing, Crunchyroll has yet to back any project longer than 13 episodes, which seems to suggest that this is the company’s strategy going forward: short, sharp adaptations of popular WEBTOON properties that fill the gap in each anime season and get fans of the original on board. Whether or not they’ll change that strategy for potential continuations remains to be seen, but adaptations such as The God of High School undoubtedly suffer as a result.

Crunchyroll’s WEBTOON Partnership Could Be so Much More

In order to evaluate whether or not these first two products of the Crunchyroll/WEBTOON partnership have succeeded, we have to ask the question: what exactly did we want from this partnership in the first place?

If we just wanted adaptations of our favorite properties, then the partnership has undoubtedly succeeded. As a fan of Tower of God, seeing such characters as Bam and Khun move and speak on screen was like a dream come true, and I have to imagine that a God of High School fan gets the same sort of feeling. Heck, even I was pretty hyped when the big plot reveals dropped, which shows that the story has some potential.

Even so, is that all we really want? Is the bar really set that low? Do we not want the anime industry as a whole to move forward, finding bright new frontiers?

Crunchyroll WEBTOON partnership

When Crunchyroll’s partnership with WEBTOON was first announced, that was my hope. I hoped that this would not only bring cool new stories to the medium, but also inject it with some originality stemming from a different culture and a different medium – I’m not one of these people who thinks that “anime bad now,”’ but I do like seeing exciting new things.

Tower of God and The God of High School are good, but they are not entirely revolutionary. There are hundreds more exciting WEBTOONS out there that deserve more attention, some of which were even spotlighted by Crunchyroll themselves. And while there are inherent differences and advantages to each medium that should be respected, getting an anime adaptation does undoubtedly bring a lot of prestige to a given property.

With this in mind, I won’t be watching Noblesse next season. Nothing I’ve seen so far has me convinced that it will be radically different from Tower of God and The God of High School, even if it does partly take place in a school setting. I’m sure that this Crunchyroll/WEBTOON partnership can be so much more – both companies just have to find out what exactly that is.

Tower of God and The God of High School are streaming exclusively via Crunchyroll.

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