Answering the one real question about manga.
Is it just a meme to always say “the manga was better?” Maybe so, but we’re taking this statement seriously anyway!
Anime fans have long joked about how “the manga was better” when talking about anime. It’s become such a well known meme that it has transcended far beyond the realm of anime, and that’s only scratching the surface. But as is the case with many jokes, there’s often a spec of truth at the center of it. Over 40% of modern anime is based on manga, including massive industry shakers like Dragonball Z and One Piece. To put that number into perspective, only 12.8% of anime isn’t derived from a separate source material.
In other words, 87.2% of anime is adapted from another source, and manga is the most prevalent inspiration.
Anime adaptations naturally succumb to the same pitfalls that all adaptations tend to. We’ve previously talked about why books are often better than their movies, and many of the same points apply here. That said, anime adaptations are so ubiquitous that they can’t be neatly summed up with blanket statements. Join us as we unpack why the anime industry is the way it is, as we’ll as look at the pros and cons of adapted anime vs. the original source material.
Why adaptations are prevalent in anime.
Here’s the thing about anime: it’s expensive.
The average cost of a 13-episode anime is approximately 2 million dollars. According to Shirobako director Takayuki Nagatani, the majority of anime can’t even recoup their production costs. Since animators are already ridiculously underpaid (The equivalent of $27,500 per year on average), anime studios can’t exactly cut corners. Heck, as it is, anime fans already bemoan cheaper looking animation in modern anime.
Adaptations are popular in anime because they guarantee a fanbase right off the bat. Though original shows like Cowboy Bebop can become hits, they add risk to an already risky situation. Meanwhile, basing an anime off of a manga, light novel, or video game helps alleviate some of that risk. Even if there’s only a 10% chance a show will make any profit, 10% is still a lot better than 1%.
Why manga makes for good anime.
The biggest problem with movie adaptations of books is how different the two mediums are. It’s not exactly easy to transform a long-form, non-visual story into a two-hour visual experience, after all. Meanwhile, manga doesn’t have nearly as many transitional pains when being converted into anime.
Both formats are linear, visual, and often episodic experiences. In some cases, you do have anime that drastically cut or change things from the manga. But in many cases, an anime series can hit the major story beats of a manga without butchering it. Heck, when you have series like One Piece that have over 800 episodes, you run into anime that need to fill time instead of cut it.
Finally, because adaptations are so common, the anime industry generally has experience in executing them well. There are notable exceptions, of course. But even mediocre adaptations still find niche audiences and expose new fans to the original story.
What’s the advantage of manga over anime?
As with all adaptation comparisons, the original format will (almost) always be the truest to the author’s original intention. Though manga is rarely a solo effort, there are still fewer hands involved in making it compared to anime. As a result, the story will more strictly adhere to a singular, coherent vision.
Furthermore, manga’s limited frames of animation allow for more deliberate set pieces and character expressions. Whereas a single scene in an anime could contain hundreds of unique frames, manga lets the reader linger on specific illustrations for much longer. This can really drive the nightmare fuel in horror stories, but it’s also effective for dramatic clashes of steel in fight scenes or that moment they finally kiss in romances.
And of course, readers can also enjoy manga on the go without an electronic device or an internet connection.
What’s the advantage of anime over manga?
Because anime contains so many frames of animation, it can bring clarity to otherwise muddy moments in manga. Fight scenes in particular can be hard to follow in manga, but anime lays out every second of action for the viewer to enjoy. This also allows for subtle, yet nuanced moments that might be difficult in manga, such as the way characters hold hands or a character’s stride when they run.
The added production value also morphs an anime to an experience distinct from the original manga. A musical score alone can completely transform the emotions a scene conveys to the audience. Furthermore, even if an anime departs from an author’s original intent, that may not always be a bad thing. For example, fans of the Death Note anime may have been enticed to watch Attack on Titan since both shows feature the same director. Alternatively, some who dislike a story or manga may come to like it when a new team takes the reigns on the project. The recent Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online series is an example of this: some critics like it because Reki Kawahara didn’t write it.
Anime also has the benefit of being enjoyable in a community setting. While it’s possible to have a manga party with all your friends, it’s easiest for everyone to share a story by watching it together.
Is the manga truly better?
As you’d probably guess, it’s all up to preference in the end. That said, if it weren’t for all these anime adaptations, it’s hard to say if western fans would even know these stories exist. Seriously, would you have gotten into Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon if you only knew them from the manga section of a book store? Hardcore fans might say yes, but I can virtually guarantee they wouldn’t be the cultural staples they are today.
In many cases, anime adaptations are a fine way to enjoy a story. Purists are perfectly entitled to their viewpoint, but it shouldn’t be always taken as gospel either. Unless you’re looking at one of the bad adaptations (which do exist, let me tell you), don’t let anyone guilt you into reading the manga if you don’t want to. And hey, if you want to relive a story again down the line, you always have the manga or anime you didn’t experience to put a new twist on an old classic.
I hope all budding otaku have found this article helpful. I know it looks like I just spent 1000 words addressing a meme, but… actually there’s no “but,” that is exactly what this was.