Is it possible to judge how good an adaptation is without having read the source material? I am not asking about judging the adaptation on its own merits, rather I am asking whether you can judge how faithful the adaptation was to the source material?
Before Fantasia 2009, I would have said: No, of course not. Now I am not so sure.
20th Century Boys aka 20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga (2008) Japan imdb Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Written by Yasushi Fukuda and Takashi Nagasaki and Naoki Urasawa and Yûsuke Watanabe, based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa.
20th Century Boys is based on the very popular manga about a group of kids who build a clubhouse together in the summer of 1969. Nearly three decades later, they reconnect during a school reunion. Their leader Kenji, once an aspiring Rock star, now runs his family's convenience store while baby-sitting his niece Kanna. When one of Kenji's childhood friends falls off a building, an apparent suicide, Kenji investigates - convinced that it is murder. Kenji (and his childhood friends) gradually come to realize that someone is recreating the doomsday scenario from a comic book that they wrote and drew as kids.
That someone is called Friend and he (or possibly she) is the masked leader of a doomsday cult, who instead of waiting for a predicted apocalypse are bringing one about. Their blueprint for the end of the world is the comic written by Kenji and his friends as children. In the comic-book, Kenji and his gang rose up as a kind of justice society to save the world from Armageddon. Now as middle-age failures can they be the heroes that they imagined as children that they would become?
The film is visually stunning. The acting is incredible. And the plot is imaginative, but there is so much of it and it feels like the filmmakers have a plot checklist that they feel they have to check-off and only so much time to do it in. The film (and its characters) rarely has a moment to breathe. And it's a shame because beyond its visual imagination, this is a smart story about ideas. One of the great lines of the film comes when Friend talking about the 1969 moon landings observes that (and I am paraphrasing here) we (humanity) are not Neil Armstrong, we are Michael Collins, the pilot who flew all the way to the Moon, but stayed in orbit and watched Armstrong and Aldrin actually land on the surface. In other words, humanity did not go to the moon, we just observed as a favoured few went.
As I hinted above, I have never read 20th Century Boys, so I have no real evidence how faithful this adaptation is, but the film certainly smugly believes that it is doing a fine job of an adaptation. The tell-tale signs are the scenes with a visual flourish where the film stops dead as if to announce, "See, it's a panel from the series! Aren't we doing a good job?" Like a comedian pausing for a laugh when only half the audience is in on the joke.
The ironic thing is that the story is about the dangers of adaptation. In role-playing games, when a game master forces a party down a certain path, he is railroading them. Kenji and his crew are trapped in a scenario that they devised years before, boxed-in on an adventure on rails that they wrote and drew and which the mysterious Friend is adapting.
There is one moment in the film when Kenji grabs his guitar, plays a chord and it seems like the film will be about the salvation, rebellious power and freedom of Rock and Roll. But the moment quickly passes. It is also incredibly fustrating that when Kenji finally stops acting like a wet blanket, and gets the childhood gang back together to try and stop their childhood apocalyptic vision... the film essentially ends with Kenji having a confrontation that reveals to him information that the audience won't get until the third film.
In a sense, the film is the Japanese version of Watchmen. It even has the same fractured time perspective as the film bounces from a mysterious and imprisoned narrator in 2015, back to 1969 and forward to the late 90s heading for the cataclysm at the end of the 20th Century. Like Watchmen, 20th Century Boys clearly does an excellent job of visually adapting its beloved source material, but, in both cases, the filmmakers obvious reverence for the original does more harm than good.
Unlike say Akira where the original creator (Katsuhiro Otomo) took apart his original work and reassembled a brilliant anime from his equally brilliant but completely different manga series.
In a sense, the filmmakers are trapped in that prison cell with their unseen and mysterious narrator, forced through their own reverence and artistic cowardice to tell their story in a visually stunning but sterile way.
20th Century Boys: Chapter Two - The Last Hope aka 20-seiki shônen: Dai 2 shô - Saigo no kibô (2009) Japan imdb Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Written by Yasushi Fukuda and Takashi Nagasaki and Yûsuke Watanabe, based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa.
The dangers of adaptation are ramped up a notch as Kanna and her Uncle's gang gradually come to realize that someone wrote a sequel to the gang's original comic and that sequel is now being adapted to the real world. Since they never had and never find a full copy of the sequel, they have no idea if their actions will help stop this adaptation or help it happen. While this might cause doubt and paralysis, it is instead oddly freeing, allowing them to pursue their own agenda without feeling like Fate's puppets.
The entire film feels free as the mysterious narrator escapes from his prison to rejoin the resistance. Even the filmmakers are freed: from comments on the imdb page, it seems like the second film takes more liberties with the original text. The only thing that handicaps the film is that you had to watch the first one for the second film to make any sense.
It would only be apparent to someone watching the sub-titled version, but the best symbol of the way that this more relaxed adaptation improves the film comes from an apparent error in translation. Early in the film, when the restaurant where Kanna works is endangered by a gang war, Kanna walks through a hail of bullets to yell the two gang leaders into a truce. One of the gang leader remarks about Kamma's ability to walk through a fusillade without being touched. In Japanese, he almost certainly says that Kanna has the ability to dodge bullets. In the subtitles, he says "Bullets dodge her!"
It's an accident, but even accidents have meaning. And there is something right and true about Kanna being so bad-ass that bullets avoid her in fear. And it's the kind of film magic that the first film in the trilogy would never allow to happen.
Fish Story aka Fisshu sutôrî (2009) Japan imdb Directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura, Screenplay by Yoshihiro Nakamura based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka.
The record that they end up listening to is "Fish Story" an obscure Japanese punk classic recorded in 1975, as the film remarks frequently, one year before the Sex Pistols formed. The argument that the men get into and the argument of the film is: Can a punk rock song save the world?
From there, Fish Story bounces back and forth through time telling the story of how the song came to be created and how the song influenced the lives of a wide variety of people. This includes a fantastic set-piece on a Japanese ferry that quotes the original Karate Kid and Steven Seagal's best film: Under Siege.
Everything that 20th Century Boys aspires to be, Fish Story simply is. Both films are about the salvation and freedom of Rock and Roll; both films have a fractured sense of time; both are about the dangers of predictions; both feature doomsday cults and the possible end of the world; both have unexpected bad-asses and both ultimately are about the dangers of too faithful of an adaptation and the benefits of being less reverential of the source material.
In the first few minutes, Fish Story references the Sex Pistol cover of My Way in an admiring tone. I am uncertain if the filmmakers knew that the original Frank Sinatra version of My Way was itself an adaptation by Paul Anka of a French song called Comme d'habitude. Or that Anka wrote the song's lyrics trying to fit words and phrases that he had heard Frank Sinatra use, again adapting those words and phrases to the song he was writing. This mirrors the way that the song Fish Story is created, the lyrics based on a Japanese translation of an American novel.
Fish Story is all about the glorious accidents that happen when works are adapted from one medium to another. It is impossible for me to tell how faithful an adaptation it is, but it seems impossible that the novellist Kotaro Isaka would insist that the filmmakers religiously recreate his novel.
To a certain extent it is unfair to compare Fish Story to 20th Century Boys, at least when it comes to arguing about the dangers of too literal an adaptation. Fish Story is based on a novel and the song that the novel is based on could only be imagined by its readers, but had to be created for the film. With no visuals, there is less for the filmmakers to be chained to. By the same token, it could be argued that one of the weaknesses of 20th Century Boys is that by including real cultural referents like the T. Rex song it limits the artistic choices available to the filmmakers.
This argument of adaptation reminds me of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyric from his song Anthem, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." It is my favourite Cohen line because it encapsulates everything that makes him great: the combination of sexual suggestion, religious spirituality, bitter cynicism and profound elegiac hope.
The filmmakers of 20th Century Boys are like the little Dutch boy hoping to plug the cracks with their finger, while the filmmakers of Fish Story celebrate the cracks knowing that that is how the light gets in.