Carry On, My Wayward Animators: The Anime Supernatural

“I have a surprise,” Dave said. “It’s two things you enjoy separately, but put together.”

“Oh, you bought the Supernatural anime?”

“…You are very smart.”

When I first heard about Supernatural being adapted by Madhouse for the Japanese market, I was dubious. (And as someone who has always not-so-secretly wished that her own work would be animated, I was a teensy bit jealous.) But upon further consideration, I realized it made complete sense. After all, the live-action series has:

  • Ghosts, demons, angels, and other denizens of the fantasy menagerie
  • Hot guys (see above re: the fantasy menagerie)
  • Homoerotic tension and jokes about same
  • Action (though not of the homoerotic variety)
  • An episodic monster-of-the-week foreground plot with a long-term thematic arc background plot
  • Crying

All of these are staples from very popular anime. And while watching the adaptation, I realized that this is exacty how the pitch must have worked: an onmyodo anime about two brothers (with curiously different regional accents) who cleanse spirits and exorcise demons while on the road.

It’s this last bit that’s especially unique, because most stories about demon hunters in anime (and there are a lot) revolve around a stationary location. In Witch Hunter Robin, the agents of the STN-J track witches in Tokyo, but nowhere else. They go to work every day in an office. In Descendants of Darkness, the shinigami report back to a central location and wait for authorities to hand them an assignment. In Tokyo Babylon, another sibling pair casts spells to cleanse the city of occasional evil, like spiritual gardeners weeding out the baddies as they crop up. Even Bleach, that most epic and sweeping of urban fantasy manga, always takes care to focus on the “urban” part of the equation: protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki almost kills himself defending Karakura-cho, and he always returns there, even after extended forays to extra-dimentional cities like the Seireitei or Las Noches. Even if Ichigo has just killed a god, rescued a princess, or turned into a monster, he always comes home to the house he grew up in. It’s a small but powerful gesture that keeps his characer humble and reminds readers of his roots.

Sam and Dean Winchester have no such home to go back to. In fact, their childhood home is a place of terrible pain for both of them. Like Ichigo they have lost their mother, and the demons they fight (both personal and supernatural) use that loss to manipulate them. And unlike Ichigo, their dad is not a loveable, goofy guy who wants them to remain happy and carefree as possible — John Winchester keeps his sons on the move, training them to hunt evil at a young age at the expense of their education, their friendships, and their growth as people.

You may wonder why I’m comparing the animated Supernatural series to other anime series and not its live-action counterpart. The short answer is that Supernatural: The Animation simply does not stack up to its originator. Many of the animated episodes attempt to adapt 45-minute scripts into 22-minute episodes, and the compression is just too tight. The episodes focus far too much on the genre of the story (horror) than on what made the story great to begin with (the characters). Sam and Dean are just vehicles for the scare, here, with occasional dips into soft-focus emo flashbacks in place of real development. Many of the jokes are gone, and the ones left remaining do none of the work of differentiating Sam and Dean as characters. The core tensions that kept their relationship so fragile at the beginning of the live-action series are nowhere to be seen. And without the occasional fight, their partnership doesn’t resonate in the same way. Gone are the sacrifices. Gone is the love.

It pains me to write this, because while I love the original I loved anime first. I was already well accustomed to good, meaty stories told in a 22-minute format. More to the point, when people originally asked me to start watching Supernatural, I would frown and say: “What, you mean the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist?”

Fullmetal Alchemist is another story about two brothers cursed by personal tragedy and their own hubris, who spend the majority of their character arcs sacrificing themselves for each other despite deeply disagreeing on a lot of issues. It’s also a much better anime series, hands-down. It’s brighter and shinier and funnier and also a hell of a lot scarier. I’ve been frightened by anime before (Paranoia Agent really worked on me), and I’ve watched thoughtful animated depictions of real evil (Monster; Evangelion) and dark and brooding contemplations of physical and existential homelessness (Wolf’s Rain), so I know that anime as a medium can do these things. It’s just that Supernatural: The Animation didn’t quite do them for me.

So would I advise fans of the original series to pick this up? Maybe. If you’re a completist, or if you’ve secretly always wanted to know what the series would look like with even more violence (it really delivers the gore in a delightful way), more colour (I love Vancouver, but some pinks and golds are nice to see once in a while), or crazier plots and longer logic jumps (Sam seems to think that all cologne is meant to cover the stench of formalin). Or you could just pick up the other titles I mentioned here, and have a more enjoyable time.

Madeline Ashby should be working on her thesis. Her first novel, vN, will be available next summer.


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