Anime-original content gets a bad rap. It’s understandable why; years of boring filler and awful original endings have poisoned the well, leaving anime fans suspicious of adaptations which aren’t panel-for-panel and word-for-word. But as understandable as the resistance to anime-original content is, it’s wrong-headed. Direct adaptations may be preferable to butchered, poorly written original material, but a truly tailored adaptation will be the best option any day of the week. Good creators can imbue their own touch into the material, making mediocre works great and strengthening already strong works.
Generally, the idea of a direct adaptation makes sense. Adding content to an anime will change the original work fundamentally, often for the worse. But it’s simply a fact that shifting mediums must lead to a shift in presentation. Panel-for-panel adaptations are appealing to fans because they include everything people like about the original work. But those types of adaptations never reach their true potential. The simple reason why is that an adaptation does not need to copy the exact details of the original work. Rather, a good adaptation will copy the spirit of another work while transforming it into its own, becoming something that can stand independently, without the original work looming over it.
KyoAni is a master at this. It’s well-known that KyoAni is a studio willing to change works to suit their needs, and it almost always pays off. Take for instance the example of K-On! Originally a fairly mediocre CGDCT 4-koma, K-On! was elevated by Yamada Naoko into one of the greatest works in the slice-of-life genre. According to this person on Reddit, more than 80% of K-On! is anime-original. That’s simply astounding, and it more than worked out. Almost none of the intricate characterization or deeply emotional moments show up in the manga, and it’s just a generally lesser work. Here, it’s clear that anime-original content was a good thing.
This is true for KyoAni’s other shows too, of course. Dragon Maid gained a lot from KyoAni, as we got better characterization and a shift in tone which led to a great reflection on family. The bulk of Dragon Maid’s stellar final episode was original, as were many other episodes. This remains true in Nichijou, in Hyouka, in Koe no Katachi, and in all of their works. KyoAni understands that anime is a different medium from light novels or manga, and so they adjust their shows accordingly, benefiting in the process.
And the people at KyoAni aren’t the only ones who understand the necessity of changing, and therefore elevating, an adaptation. Aria had a number of anime-original episodes and a number of episodes which further fleshed out existing stories, and this added a lot to our understanding of Neo-Venezia. Sae’s sister in Hidamari Sketch was wholly original before Ume Aoki liked her enough to put her in the manga. There are so many examples where small or large changes occur to the benefit of the adaptation, and it disappoints me that people clamor so heavily for direct adaptations.
As an example of where direct adaptations can go wrong, just look at this season’s Centaur no Nayami. Centaur is based on a manga I really like, but it’s one of the laziest adaptations I’ve ever seen. It’s panel-for-panel, but it makes no attempt to adapt itself to its new medium. This leads to awkward timing, stale jokes, and punchlines that just don’t land. Of course, this is basically the worst you can do when it comes to direct adaptation, but its key mistakes are duplicated by other shows that take the path, even if it’s to a lesser extent.
It’s probably clear from my examples that original content works better for slice-of-life shows. That’s true, since slice-of-life shows are less defined by their plot, and thus alterations have less impact on the future and pacing of the show. That said, this applies to other works as well. A good creator can integrate anime-original content with the adapted material, no matter the genre. Well-liked shows such as Monogatari and Mob Psycho 100 change little things here and there in order to better fit the animated medium, and that’s almost always a good thing. Just look at this season’s My Hero Academia to see how expanding material can help flesh out a show.
Ultimately, one thing is clear. An anime should try and be a good anime, not a good manga. The quality of the original work is, while not unimportant, far less vital than people seem to believe. What really matters is a good staff that knows how to make good anime. If you have that, the product should turn out well, whether it diverges from its source or not.