Shenmue’s Anime Is a Triumph of Adaptation

Shenmue shuns conventional game design wisdom. The Shenmue anime aims to translate its unique identity into an entirely different medium. Can Shenmue's essence survive the transition?

Shenmue's Anime Is a Triumph of Adaptation

As Shenmue: The Animation wraps up, it struck me like a Counter Elbow Assault how vastly different it was from the video games. Much like the protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, the Shenmue anime studies techniques from others (in this case, the games) in order to forge its own path. This results in a distinctly enjoyable experience that works as an introduction for new fans and an satisfying supplement to the old. 

I wouldn’t say the anime replaces the games, but I also don’t think that’s a problem. That the show offers something different justifies its existence. It also makes sense that it turned out this way. By necessity, the anime cannot capture the same experience as the games. 

Defining Shenmue’s Essence

I warn you now that I’m one of those people. Shenmue greatly impacted how I understand and think about video games. Many credit Shenmue for being innovative and influential, yet the truth is that very few games approach being anything like Shenmue. While Shenmue was born before any open world foundations were established, these days it stands firmly in contrast to where game design went in the ensuing decades. What lessons other games did learn from the series were often misconstrued.

Shenmue does not utilize the open world structure in the same way games today do. In the modern open-world game, the world exists for you to play the game in – you travel across the map to find activities, the actual game, to play. In Shenmue, the open-world is the game. 

The fun comes from living in the world. Only by opening your heart to Shenmue’s world and absorbing everything around you will it become clear what exactly the game accomplishes. That’s not how video games are typically designed, both at the time and especially not now. To “get” Shenmue, you must sincerely interact with it. That’s what makes the games uniquely interesting experiences. 

Philosophical musings on the nature of the source material aside, a TV show simply can’t accomplish that same kind of connection. You can’t interact with the show yourself, no matter how hard you punch the TV. I knew that going into Shenmue: The Animation. My expectations were less about how the show can adapt what makes Shenmue special so much as how it can adapt elements of Shenmue into making an enjoyable show. 

Shenmue may best be described as revealing the essence of the world around you

Shenmue may best be described as revealing the essence of the world around you

The Shenmue anime may not be able to connect with someone in the same way a video game can, but obviously they can still connect with people. I’ve heard these “teevee” shows are pretty popular at any rate, so people must connect with them on some level. In a show, that connection forms primarily through narrative – how the show tells a story through its visuals, presentation, and performances. That poses an interesting challenge for Shenmue.

A narrative does exist in Shenmue, of course. On the whole the games tell a good story (for the story we have so far), but personally I always felt that narrative was secondary aspect of the games. If you boil Shenmue’s story down to its most basic, it explores Ryo’s coming-of-age arc and the cyclical, devastating nature of revenge. These concepts that are well-executed, yet not something I’d sell the games on alone. 

That’s only one way to think about Shenmue’s story, however. You could also see Shenmue as a story about learning. Ryo leaves home to learn the truth of his father’s past and the nature of the mysterious Lan Di. On the way, he learns from a myriad of martial artists, growing stronger mentally and physically. More important than any of that, Ryo also learns a little more about life from everywhere he goes and everyone he meets. The world itself teaches Ryo; that’s what makes interacting with the world of the games compelling in an emotional and mechanical sense.

Shenmue as an Anime

The Shenmue anime wisely recognizes this trait of the games by weaving it directly into the storytelling. Basically, the show structures itself around constant momentum. Whether it’s the next clue to Lan Di’s whereabouts or a new perspective on life, the next reveal is always right around the corner. 

Although this approach runs opposite to the pacing of the game, I’d say it’s one of the most successful ways the show takes advantage of the medium. The rapid-fire pacing recontextualizes the Shenmue experience from the games. It turns it into something more straightforward and action-packed without losing the core appreciation for life and learning the games aim to convey. 

Still, there are select moments that I wish the show’s pacing gave a little more time to breathe. Ryo’s motorcycle ride with Nozomi or walking through nature with Shenhua in the games are iconic moments in the games. They left an impression precisely because they gave you time to contemplate and soak in the moment. Unfortunately, the show sacrifices these quieter moments in order to fulfill its mission as a compact and briskly paced story.

Ryo and Nozomi's motorcyle ride in the anime is rather brief

Ryo and Nozomi’s motorcyle ride in the anime is rather brief

The switch to an approximately 20 minute format may appear to only hurt the experience, but it does bring some advantages, too. With its greater emphasis on traditional storytelling, the anime fills out aspects of Shenmue’s world. It expands on elements of Shenmue’s world by shining a bigger spotlight on them than the games provided. 

For example, I think most Shenmue fans enjoy characters like Mark the forklift operator. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much to him in the game itself. He likes forklifts, and he really likes racing them. The anime takes that admittedly tertiary character and shows new sides to him. The story involves him more directly and even gives him a semblance of a character arc. New twists like these among other little touches freshen up the story even for Shenmue veterans.

Little touches are extremely important to the Shenmue experience. They’re part of what makes the world of the games come alive, and the anime doesn’t forget that. The backgrounds are often filled with details that fans will appreciate but also just look fantastic on their own. Artistically speaking, the most faithful part of the show may be how it translates the 3D environments gracefully into a two dimensional show. Each location feels alive, like it jumped straight from the game to another plane of existence.

Of course, the number one way an animation brings things to life is through animating it. In this aspect, Shenmue: The Animation pulls its punches. It’s not a static show by any means, but it is subdued. That may be surprising, since fights occur nearly every episode. Despite that, this isn’t the kind of show that relies on over-the-top animation to make its point. Instead, it focuses on where it counts: selling the impact. Shenmue focuses a lot on martial arts, and it excels at demonstrating the motions and poses behind each technique. When Ryo lands a hit, you feel it, even if his enemies may not explode into a visually impressive flurry of light and smears. 

Final Reflections on the Shenmue Anime

Shenmue: The Animation accomplishes a surprising amount of feats. It compacts the Shenmue experience down to its most accessible form yet, faithfully translates the atmosphere and environments of the game into a different medium, and even offers some fun bonus additions for the diehards. Between this show’s future and a potential Shenmue 4 announcement imminent, it feels good to be a Shenmue fan right now. 

The Shenmue anime doesn’t replace the games. I sincerely hope that anyone who enjoyed the show also takes an interesting in playing Shenmue as well. They taught me to appreciate the world in a different light, and while the show reflects those teachings, they still have a lot to offer anyone who is open to giving them a shot. If the show taught me anything of its own, however, it’s that the essence of source material may be more fluid than you might expect. Shenmue’s core tenants shine through regardless of the medium. Regardless of whether you choose to enjoy Shenmue in anime or game form, there’s plenty to study and learn from.

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