How Anime Remakes Are Improving Classic Stories

Taking what works and changing what doesn't

In an oft misquoted interview, Hayao Miyazaki derisively dismissed the bulk of anime being created by the industry, calling out the “otaku” creators who pour their mistaken ideas of what the world is or should be like into their work. But inclusive, thoughtfully written anime is getting easier to find as creators look at past works and realize that they can do better. A string of recent remakes, reboots, and sequels highlights how the landscape is shifting, and movies like Dragon Ball Super: Broly, Yu-Gi-Oh: The Dark Side of Dimensions, and Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion show that creators are learning from the mistakes of the past.

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A Second Chance at a First Impression

Yu-Gi-Oh: Duel Monsters is perhaps best known for its terrible 4KidsTV dub, which Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series continues to parody mercilessly to this day. But the manga it’s based on has some profound issues that carried over into the anime adaptation. Aside from the copious amounts of fan service, the series doesn’t treat its brown antagonists kindly.

Malik Ishtar — the main antagonist of the Battle City arc — is an abused teenager raised in the Pharaoh’s tomb and made to carry the legacy of the Tombkeepers on his back. As a child, his father forces him to have the ritual secrets of the Pharaoh carved into his skin, and the trauma forges an alternate personality that later kills his father to free him and his siblings from their terrible situation. The narrative never acknowledges that the murder was necessary, with his sister Isis blaming herself and wishing she’d never shown Malik the outside world — the act that led him to rebel against his “role.” Malik almost loses his soul to his alternate personality, and only breaks free when he accepts his duty as a Tombkeeper.

Likewise, Thief King Bakura is a wronged teenager who never receives so much as an apology for his traumatic experiences at the hands of the Pharaoh’s family in Ancient Egypt. The royal family slaughters his village — women and children included —  in a mass sacrifice to create the Millennium Items upon which much of the show’s story hinges. Although Bakura survives, the trauma leads him to seek revenge on the throne. The narrative plays Thief King Bakura as a straight villain and is foggy regarding whether or not he deserves sympathy. He never receives closure, and while the Pharaoh is horrified by the slaughter of Bakura’s people when he learns the truth, he dies before he’s able to do or say anything. The continued use of the Millennium items is never examined or reflected on, and Thief King Bakura gets nothing in recompense for what happened to him and his people.

But in the most recent film, Yu-Gi-Oh: The Dark Side of Dimensions, Kazuki Takahashi saw an opportunity to try again. The movie replays both Malik and Thief King Bakura’s stories through the character of Diva, an Egyptian teen and the main antagonist. As a child, Diva’s mentor and father figure, Shadi, is murdered by a young, possessed, modern day Bakura. When Diva and his foster siblings end up in the care of an abusive man, Shadi’s spirit manifests and kills him in a moment of sympathy for the children. The narrative doesn’t treat this as an evil or even morally gray act, but deserved retribution. Although Diva is determined to get revenge on Bakura, he finds sympathy from the other characters in the cast when he reveals his traumatic backstory. The movie validates Diva’s feelings, and although his goals are ultimately misguided, Diva isn’t painted as a villain needing to atone for his actions, but a grieving child lacking guidance, stunted by his inability to process his emotions in a healthy way.

This stands out when contrasted with the original series, which trivializes and makes a joke out of male emotions and often treats sole female protagonist Anzu’s feelings like silly, girly things. The film also explores the grief and complex emotions that Yugi and his friends experience in the aftermath of the Pharaoh’s departure from their lives, validating their feelings as a normal part of moving on.

Rewriting the Past

Another major example of this kind of reexamination is the recent Dragon Ball Super: Broly film. In the original film introducing the character, Broly’s father Paragus is abusive and uses a painful diadem to control his son’s malevolent personality. Paragus’ abuse is justified by the narrative because without it, Broly’s powerful and sadistic personality would wreak havoc throughout the universe.

Thankfully, Broly’s origins receive a major overhaul in the new movie, which also redesigns him entirely. Broly was formerly pale and dressed in what can only be described as “Faux Egyptian Decadence.” Now, his skin is darker, his clothes are reflect his Saiyan soldier heritage, and his personality is softer, more innocent and sad. As a result, Paragus’s abuse is no longer justified. In lieu of the original movie’s ending in which Goku destroys Broly, the new film him to escape his abusive environment and, with Goku’s support, begin life anew with people who care about him and his well being. 

Letting the Story Shine Through

Sometimes a total story overhaul isn’t necessary. In Code Geass’ case, a fantastic story is buried under terrible, easily fixable plot decisions. With the release of the new Code Geass sequel film, the show was repackaged as a set of recap films to get audiences caught up with the story quickly. In retelling the story, the writing team removed several distracting elements without changing the broader story.

In the original anime, Nina Einstein is a Jewish-coded scientist obsessed with the dead princess Euphemie. She’s depicted as mentally unstable and determined to kill the entire Japanese population under the oppressive regime of Britannia. The recap films rework her character so that although she’s still visibly in love with the princess, her quest for revenge is singularly against Zero, the princess’ killer, rather than the whole of Japan. She’s no longer mentally unstable, and is portrayed as a misguided teenager in pain like many of the characters on the show.

Some people would argue that changes like this mean that these remakes are unfaithful to the originals. But remakes are an opportunity to revisit past works with the benefit of distance. Sometimes, that means ditching lazy characterizations and storytelling tropes which were actually weighing down the narrative. By taking what works and being willing to change what doesn’t, creators are refining their stories to create new versions that are actually truer to the spirit of the original, unburdened by the mistakes of the past.