Let's Film This is an ongoing series where we explore the idea of adapting different anime as live-action productions: what it would take, which shows would make for the best adaptations, and what issues would be raised in the translation.

Two recent popular artists have, in their idiosyncratic ways, legitimized — or at least commodified — the macabre and the weird for Western audiences. One is David Lynch, mostly thanks to (or no thanks to) Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. The other is Tim Burton, and it's impossible to look at a property like Soul Eater and not feel his shadow hanging over it. But I do not say this in a bad way: if anything, the fact his bending sinister seems to have fed into the work makes it all the easier to make a case for creating a live-action version of it — even if Burton himself isn't the one in the director's chair.

I should not make it sound as if the Burtonesque style alone is what would make Soul Eater worth the while. Atsushi Ōkubo's story fuses a boilerplate academy-of-young-turks plot used by many shōnen manga with story elements reminiscent not only of Burton's films, but of many others that have arisen since in his wake and expanded on his original conceits in unexpected directions. It isn't "too weird" to work; in fact, it might be just weird enough.

The advanced class

Most every far-out conceit can be made palatable if it's given to us in a format, or with characters, that we can readily identify with. Soul Eater does both of those things. Set in a fantasy analogue of our world — where the place names remain the same but the details have been bent into gloriously macabre shapes — it is set in the "Death Weapon Meister Academy", or DWMA, where students who can transform themselves into living weaponry are placed into the hands of other students (the "meisters") and wielded against supernatural threats to humanity. There, two students — the titular Soul Eater and his meister, Maka Albarn — have botched a key exercise in their graduation. They've failed to collect the souls of ninety-nine evil people and one witch; the witch (whose name is "Blair", ha ha) turned out to be a shapeshifting cat. Now they have to begin again from absolute scratch.

Maka and Soul's subsequent adventures follow a few separate paths. On the one hand, they have to learn to work that much more closely together, and overcome the obstacles in their own lives that prevent them from doing so: Maka's problematic relationship with her father; and Soul's rather literal inner demons. On another, they also have to forge close collusions with highly competitive classmates like Black Star, the would-be super-assassin whose ambitious far outstrip his capabilities; or Death the Kid, the obsessively precise son of the DWMA's unnervingly cheerful overseer, Lord Death. And they also have to welcome in an outsider, the neurotic Crona, who might be little more than a front for forces that threaten to expose the real nature of the DWMA.

Given that I've talked before about how animation suspends our disbelief differently than how live action does, Soul Eater might seem an odd choice for a live-action adaptation. That's how I felt at first, anyway; I was originally tempted to lump Soul Eater in with titles like Bleach, which work because they're not constrained by the realities of the physical world, and thus not a good candidate for live action. What works when animated because it's animation just looks absurd and off-putting as live-action.

Then I thought a little more closely about the suspension of disbelief in terms of particular genres — fantasy versus science fiction, mainly. In SF, we expect physical laws to be the upper and lower bounds for what's possible, so we're doubly sensitive to gross violations of same. In fantasy, those things are freely ignored, but such freedom comes at yet another cost: it requires that the storytellers build a tight emotional bond between the audience and the characters. Fail at that, and everything becomes equally uninvolving. So in some ways a story like this is more difficult to tell, not less, than one with no fantastic elements, because there's always the temptations of letting the elements become the storytelling.

https://www.ganriki.org/media/2014/soul-eater-01.jpg https://www.ganriki.org/media/2014/soul-eater-02.jpg
Maka and Death the Kid: two of many characters worth doing justice to.

Don't make it real, make it credible

For Soul Eater to work as live-action, then, the primacy of storytelling and characterization has to be respected. If Soul and Maka and their friends aren't at the center of what goes on, and driving all that goes on, the whole thing degenerates into a sound-and-light show or a plot-puzzle quest. The original property goes a long way towards making everyone in it distinctive and intriguing; it's one of those franchises where even the second- and third-tier characters come off as memorable for reasons other than their visual design.

But then we circle back to another question: how do you take something like this and put it on the screen without it looking cartoonish, in the worst sense of the word? One thing I suspect won't work at all is just transposing everything as literally and directly as possible. That works in cosplay, where the replication of exaggerated features is part of the fun, but it looks awful on the screen. It's been said that the screen is also a magnifier, and that everything put up on it is automatically made many times larger than life. To that end, some things would have to be rejiggered or toned down: e.g., Lord Death's preposterously large hands. In the suspended-disbelief world of animation, they don't necessarily have to be literal; they're as much an abstraction and a representation as they are an actual thing. In live-action, they would have no choice but to look giant and klutzy — something that'll please the most inflexible fans of the material, but almost no one else.

Then there's the question of format, for which we have two possibilities: a live-action TV series, one where the details of the original story are preserved but the budget for the whole is lower; or a feature film, with a higher budget but more constraints on what kind of story can be told, at least in the course of a single installment. Both approaches could work, and in some ways a live-action TV production might wind up working out better precisely because of how much more room it would give to stretch out.

But I confess I also like the idea of a movie adaptation, which could work well as long as the story arc chosen for the movie is relatively self-contained. One way to do it would be to build it around the story of Crona's redemption and acceptance into the DWMA fold, with Soul's "Little Demon" storyline as the undercurrent for that. There's room enough with those materials to build a standalone episode and provide it with a conclusion just open-ended enough to set up future installments. (I'm setting aside my own aversion to sequels for the sake of this exercise; no one managing a property of this scale would be dumb enough to leave money on the table.)

The Burton / del Toro connection

I normally don't speculate about personnel in this article series, but since I've already mentioned Tim Burton I might as well mention another name, one whose influence on the fantastic in mainstream movies has been largely positive, and whose attitude towards his material is a model to emulate for how to approach Soul Eater: Guillermo del Toro. He's demonstrated time and again how to make the fantastic not only accessible but emotionally involving, whether through the multi-way pop-culture mash-up of Pacific Rim or through the European folktale nightmare of Pan's Labyrinth. Making a study of his material would be a good first step.

I have no doubts that most anything put on the screen (or page) in Soul Eater could somehow be transposed to live-action in a technical sense. The hard part is not presenting it, but making us care about it. Soul Eater comes equipped with all the pieces needed to make that happen, provided they can be seen for what they are.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.