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Anime Adaptations: Which Sources are Being Adapted into Anime and Why
Anime adaptation is the act of picking an existing artistic source that is not an anime and turning it into one. Strictly speaking the only source that cannot be adapted into anime is anime. For example: turning a full anime series into a feature film is not an adaptation but a remake. Furthermore since anime is versatile it can convey an immense range of subjects. There really is no limit to what you can adapt into anime as long it is an artistic source. You can create an anime adaptation from an old English play (William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was adapted into Romeo x Juliet), from mythological stories (Ah My Goddess! is based on Norse mythology) and even from religious sources (Buddha – an anime film about Buddha ran in Japanese theatres in 2011).
But just because anime can be derived from many art forms doesn't mean it equally relies on all of them. Truth be told animation studios in Japan usually focus on very few formats when choosing what source to adapt into an anime. Let's have a look at the formats that are almost always adapted into anime, and why they are the ones being preferred.
Manga are by far the most diverse and common consumed media in Japan. They not only have a wealth of ideas animation studios can build on - they are also similar to anime in direction and flow. In most cases manga flows from panel to panel and make use of different "camera" angles and panning to give us the illusion of movement. Manga is also the base of all the art style used in anime. As the precursor to anime manga is the ideal format for adaptations. Anime adaptations of manga boost manga sales by exposing it to new crowds. From the animation studios' perspective the popular manga they are adapting has already proved itself as a printed medium and so it's an "easy cash-in" to create an anime adaptation of it.
Light novels are novels for teens. They usually are written in a dialect register and one story can continue across two, five or even twenty such books. Light novels were not always popular anime adaptation materials, but in the beginning of the aughts a movement in light novel to mimic anime was set in motion. This caused authors of light novels to be more inclined to include situations, conversation and character types that adhere to anime standards. Most light novels also contain illustrations done by manga artists, helping the readers envision the story as an anime in their minds. The economic logic behind adapting light novels into anime is similar to that of manga: an anime adaptation of a light novel will boost its sales, while fans of the novel will most likely support the anime.
Visual novels are computer games that take the light novel concept to the next step. They tell a story, but also visually show it unfolds with anime-style drawings, albeit in limited animation. Although visual novels have been the source of anime adaptations from as early as the 80s visual novels today have become more elaborate and impressive. They now boast more animated sequences, high quality visuals and occasionally a complete soundtrack that includes both background music and character voices.
The leap of fate from visual novel to anime, however, is not as economically safe as the one from manga or light novels. Visual novels are a niche of video gaming in Japan. They have a strong fan base, but are still far from being popular or massive seller. This means that an anime based on a visual novel will likely have a smaller predated fan base prior to it airing compared to an anime based on a manga or light novel. The percentage of people who watch the anime and then go out to buy the visual novel it was based on is also fairly limited. Instead visual novel companies use anime to promote affiliated products that are related to the game (figures, shirts, mugs etc.). Throughout the years there have been several acclaimed anime based on visual novels, such as in the case of Fate/Stay Night, Shakugan no Shana and The Twelve Kingdoms. These helped visual novels become a somewhat more approachable source material for anime. However, the vast majority of visual novel adaptations are still badly executed and result in lukewarm sales and bad reviews.
Video games are still adapted into anime, but not as frequently as you might think. Video games used to be a no-brainer for animation studios. The past is littered with anime series about Japanese video games: Mario, Sonic, Megaman, The Legend of Zelda, the Tales Of series and more. These anime series all share a common trait: they were terrible. As it turns out it's mighty hard to turn an excellent game into an excellent anime. And a game that is easier to adapt won't necessarily prove more popular. Case in point: Valkyrie Chronicles was oozing with anime potential when it came out on the PS3. However when the promised anime adaptation did arrive it flopped majestically in Japan. Making profit from an anime based on a video game is a hard and unpredictable affair. Although everyone worldwide can easily point at one particular video game series that became an anime phenomenon (Pokemon) most video game adaptations tend to have such a low profit margins that game companies rarely chose to invest in an anime. You still have a bigger chance to see your favorite Japanese video game turned into anime then, say, an American drama show, but not by that large a margin. Today it is more common to see a short anime film (OVA) included with a game's limited edition as a bonus than to see a fully-fledged anime about that game.
That concludes our brief introduction to the four most prominent sources for anime adaptations. Next time you watch an anime you like try searching the web for information about its source material. Sometimes you might be surprised by what you'll find.