[Script] How NOT to Ruin Your Anime Remakes

Modernizations and re-adaptations are fast becoming a dominant force in anime, much as in other sectors of the culture industry. While many conclusions can be drawn from that — the need for capital to play it safe so as to ensure profit, the socioeconomic hardship which pushes audiences further into nostalgia, the harmful belief that old things need to be “updated” — the area I’m most interested in investigating is how these new versions of old works adapt to the present climate, specifically, the present political climate. To examine this, I want to take a look at Lupin III Part 5 and 2018’s Gegege no Kitaro. Ironically, these are both shows which have had entries for every one of the last 6 decades but they still serve to paint a great picture of how to do this right.

First, it’s important to look at what modernizing an anime actually entails. For some works, it simply means updating elements on a surface-level. Parasyte and Banana Fish change themselves to be set in the present rather than the period where they were originally written but this is skin-deep at best. Items and events are simply swapped out, to the point that some anachronistic tendencies begin to appear. Watching Banana Fish, it’s so blatant that it’s meant to be foregrounded in a politics of Vietnam and Watergate, a period we’ve totally passed. Faith in government may be gone in America, but the particulars of why that’s the case have changed dramatically. I’m not saying Banana Fish needed to add Trump to be realistic or anything, I’m simply stating that considerations need to be given to the actual shifts in social dynamics for a show to truly modernize itself, rather than tossing a trendy set of clothes on a frankly decrepit body. Either stick that thing in a museum where it belongs, remaining in its original time period, or envision a truly new iteration upon the past formula, you can’t do both.

Anyway, this is a real problem with reimaginings and remakes in anime. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Sailor Moon Crystal, Clear Card, all of these fall into this same trap. It doesn’t fundamentally doom these shows to being disasters, I like quite a few of them, but it is jarring and fails to adequately deal with the way society is actually moving in the present. When modernizing or readapting a work the most important thing is to preserve the spirit of the original while tailoring its themes and messages to accurately apply to a contemporary setting. Banana Fish’s messages about abuse, same-sex relationships, and the ways in which those with power exploit those without are, no doubt, strikingly resonant today, perhaps to a greater degree than at any point before. But it could be so. Much. Stronger. If more time had been put into really examining modern American society, looking at the specific tensions in the populace, at the specific ways people are distrustful of politicians and the plutocrats, at the developments in queer culture, a truly wondrous work could have been made. We already have the manga for a picture of the 80s; gives us something truly of the late 2010s.

Fortunately, not every work fails at this. Devilman Crybaby, for instance, got things just right. Updating the delinquents into a modern rap-lead Greek Chorus was not just an enjoyable move but a genius one, allowing issues of discrimination to be tackled in a way that’s strong in Japan and even stronger abroad, where American tensions between racial minorities and the cops who gun them down continue to play a prominent role in the minds of the broader populace, particularly with the younger, lefter generations. Politics do have similarities across time periods — capitalism hasn’t fallen since these works first came out, after all — so it isn’t impossible to update the politics of a work alongside the technology. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to update technology without politics, given their inherent connection but we can put that to the side for today. Elements like a nuclear war with the USSR, present in the original story, can easily be turned into a war with Russia because it actually works and maintains the real fear present back in the 70s, if to a reduced degree. The internet is smoothly integrated and the focus on the Devilmen being “othered” by society is taken to its natural extreme, not just being used as a parallel for queerness but in many cases accompanying queerness, turning an interesting but somewhat problematic metaphor into a direct showcasing of the pain that heteronormative society causes to all of its many victims and the horrifying outcomes that bigotry will inevitably lead to. Simply put, Devilman Crybaby’s focus on careful updating of every element is what more series of this type should strive for. Damn, this show is good.

Anyway, I said a bit ago that I would focus on Lupin and Kitaro, so, let’s get to those. First, it’s important to understand that these shows are political by their very nature. Of course, all works are, as I discussed last time, but it shouldn’t take particularly deep analysis to discover the overtones here. Lupin, as a thief, is an enemy of capital and the state designed to protect it. He’s a criminal, yes, but he’s heroic. In this, he serves a key role. The working classes, consigned as they are to their lot in life, are able to watch master thieves like Lupin and wish that they, too, could turn the robber barons into the robbed barons. He serves as an effective way to vent; the vast majority of people won’t go around stealing things, both due to the morality they’ve been brought up in and the serious threat of imprisonment or death if they were to try. You can’t exactly call this role revolutionary — and Lupin himself makes no attempt to change the system, only using it to his own, less-than-legal ends — but it serves, if you pardon my paraphrasing here, as an opiate of the masses. And, hey, not many shows can get away with presenting the cops as the antagonists, no matter how goofy or likable they may be.

Kitaro, on the other hand, is a horror anime. It’s quite well-known that nothing in horror is horrifying independent of social features; the monsters and scenarios all represent societal fears of some sort, be they reactionary fears like those of the unknown, or progressive fears like those of harmful social systems. Kitaro’s author, Shigeru Mizuki, was more than aware of this, and actively introduced political themes into the work, a feature which remains in its most recent adaptation. In this, its fears tend to err on the more progressive end of things. Again, it’s not exactly revolutionary; Kitaro’s role is to help people, often from the excesses of harmful systems, but never does he attempt to strike these systems down wholesale. For both of these works, politics have been blatant from the start, so it was only natural that the 2018 renditions would take a look as to how being set in the modern day would affect the messages of the works and what sorts of changes would need to arise as a result.

Lupin III Part V is not a show that can be said to shy away from its politics. Not only does the show make a number of surprisingly “woke” statements — just look at what it has to say about American imperialism — it looks at how these developments would fundamentally affect Lupin’s role. The first arc of the series focuses on how the mass proliferation of information on the internet could turn Lupin himself into an online celebrity, diving into how this could make his life harder. Already political, right? Well, this series bookends itself with arcs focused directly on technology, ending off with a story about a new social networking site that doubles as a repository for all information on any given person. A mass invasion of privacy, to be sure, but one that the show recognizes. Something like this could happen in the near future and a person like Lupin would certainly be threatened by it. While some may be skeptical of “technology is bad” plots due to their over-proliferation, it’s important to remember that it can be harmful, especially at the whims of corporations and governments. To back this up, it explores how nations themselves might enable such a company’s attack on the public before turning tail as soon as their own secrets are at risk. Along the way, it’s constantly explored how near-future developments could not only affect Lupin but the world at large. This is a show with a far-right French politician who tries to fake terrorist attacks in order to boost his support. Oh, and he’s opposed by a gay cop who used to work as a thief, “buying in” to upper society both in his job and in his sexuality. It’s a show where the CIA tries to back a coup in a South Asian country in order to install a puppet government. Move over Black Panther, the CIA operative abandons his position here, we’ve got a new work to stan. This is not a series that holds back with its pointed critiques of what is going on.

And that would be great on its own. I’m a leftist, I like when media explicitly aims itself at me, I don’t get such a thing often and I don’t expect to, given that it’s against capital’s interest to support art that’s critical of it. But by doing all of this, the characters are able to be explored in new ways. Lupin himself has gone through any number of trying situations in his time, but can he make it out of these new ones? Does a heroic criminal who serves an escapist role for the mass still have a place when new opiates have arisen, opiates which challenge capital to a lesser degree? Master thieves haven’t always existed and they probably won’t always exist. Modes of production change, legal systems shift, Lupin may be able to get out of any pinch but can he escape Father Time himself? This is a question that the series investigates in extreme depth. The same applies to Fujiko, to Jigen, to Goemon, and even to Zenigata. These characters are shockingly similar to their original selves, made over 50 years ago now, they certainly can’t last forever. This could absolutely be explored without truly grappling with changes in modern society. But it gains so much from doing so that it would be a shame to do otherwise. Not ever Lupin update needs to do this — part 4 certainly didn’t — and in having served this role, I don’t think another examination on this scale is necessary for another two decades, at least, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a great decision, one that painted the characters in new but familiar light while delivering a strong thesis on where our society is going and what we should do about it. Quite a lot for an anime about a lecherous thief in a blue jacket but hey, you shouldn’t sell any work short like that.

Kitaro employs many similar tricks in its updates but takes a markedly different approach overall. It’s certainly got original episodes but it primarily draws from past stories, many of which were political in the first place. What makes it work is that these are fundamentally shifted such that they feel like they could’ve been first written yesterday. Alongside this, it asks a similar question to Lupin: with everything that’s happened in the last 50 years, what is the role of yokai in modern society? Few believe in them, many know little-to-nothing about them, how should we confront this? And, obviously, this serves as a cipher for a broader question: how should we relate to tradition in light of various powerful influences and major advancements?

The answer the show tries to present, as one that it’s maintained since way back when it first began, is one of balance. A balance needs to be struck between the world of the yokai and the world of humans, between tradition and progress. However, it refuses a reactionary valorization of tradition above all else. Honor your ancestors, honor the past, certainly, this is a series that begins by mocking Logan Paul, made at a time where the wounds of his disgusting antics were still quite fresh. But don’t, under any circumstances, deny the problems of history, such as, oh, Japanese war crimes during the Second World War.

As a series that emerged from the 60s, a time of high labor activity in Japan, it bears some many marks of anti-capitalist influence. Companies are often the cause of problems and it’s Nezumi-Otoko’s greed that frequently compels him to do things like, say, haul in a bunch of refugees and immigrants and then literally murder them to turn into diamonds. This could be seen as anachronistic; after all, labor activity is low in modern Japan, as it is in most post-industrial nations. But the problems of capital hardly fade just because manual labor is pushed into foreign countries and onto heavily marginalized bodies. Workers are still exploited, as they always will be, and the show is quite aware of this, even if it doesn’t take this realization into a revolutionary place. While yokai frequently help with this focus on profit, it’s clear that this is, in many ways, a manner of getting by; capitalism has pushed many traditions, including those of spirits, to the margins and those older forms must simply adapt to the new systems in order to eke out an existence, even if it destroys their essence in the process. It’s hard shit to deal with when you spend some time thinking about it but hey, what’d I say about horror?

Hell, it’s even got a lot of messages unrelated to capital. One episode frankly deals with the nature of despising your own appearance, as a girl who was bullied for being ugly refuses the love of the patronizing man who promised to care about her for who she was, grasping beauty for herself even if it hurts. Telling people to love their own bodies isn’t wrong but what is wrong is making a man’s love more important than someone’s self-image and Kitaro is perhaps the first time I’ve seen that be tackled. It could’ve been a simple anti-plastic surgery episode and yet it was able to become so much more because the themes of the show were truly integrated into each and every entry. The series isn’t content to admonish the way that capitalism, as a hierarchy, hurts people and nature alike — it does this to any hierarchy that proves problematic. In this, it becomes a greater work.

Both these shows tackle things that have a historical grounding in past eras. The CIA hardly began toppling governments recently. Capital didn’t start exploiting labor just yesterday. Politics, as I said, has some fundamental commonalities across time even as change occurs. But remembering that change does occur is key. Lupin and Kitaro still feel like Lupin and Kitaro and yet they also feel like they were made in 2018. Both are fairly leftist attempts at updating works that were already of political interest so that the important bits remained while also being even more relevant to the modern-day. That other shows fail to do this is a real shame. Am I saying every anime should be leftist? Well, I mean, yeah, I am, but even ignoring that, this deeper-seated reckoning with the development in politics is all too rare, so I can only praise it when it does occur.

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