By now, it should be more or less common knowledge that Netflix has picked up a Season One for a “super violent” animated series of Castlevania for 2017 and a season two in 2018. Here’s a quote from the official press release.
Inspired by the classic video game series, Castlevania is a dark medieval fantasy following the last surviving member of the disgraced Belmont clan, trying to save Eastern Europe from extinction at the hand of Vlad Dracula Tepe himself. The animated series is from Frederator Studios, a Wow! Unlimited Media company, written by best-selling author and comic book icon Warren Ellis and executive produced by Warren Ellis, Kevin Kolde, Fred Seibert and Adi Shankar.
Here’s a quote from the producer, Adi Shankar.
Furthermore, I personally guarantee that it will end the streak and be the western world’s first good video game adaptation.
Shankar’s body of work includes Dredd, the most recent movie adaptation of the famous Judge Dredd comic series, starring Karl Urban; “Power/Rangers,” which has been described as the “ludicrously over-the-top gritty (and unauthorized) sequel to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, “full of cartoonish violence, and oozed with style.”
I do not even know where to begin. How about with Shankar’s arrogance?
As I said in my bio, I’ve been playing video games for thirty years. This also means I’ve seen the mid-90s rash of video game Western cartoons with my own two eyes. They were cheesy, steeped in that 90s ethos of concluding with public service announcements, and I can still recall some of them. This includes Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, which had a fairly good episode touching on the friendship between Sub-Zero and Smoke, before the latter got cyberized, and the Street Fighter animated series’ delightfully malevolent portrayal of everyone’s favorite M. Bison. Only Darkstalkers really qualifies as the worst piece of shlock from that time period, and with a bit of effort, I can recall a few worse items.
However, the unparalleled best adaptation of a Japanese video game franchise into the West was Mega Man, which Wikipedia characterizes as “a Japanese-American animated television series multi-produced by Capcom Productions, Ruby-Spears Productions, Ashi Productions, and Ocean Productions.” Mega Man was the number one weekly syndicated children’s show in the Nielsen ratings, which meant that millions have fond memories of what was actually a good adaptation of the franchise that was respectful of the source material and still managed to tell its own story. It was the first “good video game adaptation,” and Shankar undoubtedly saw it as a child, since he’s only a year older than I am.
The Castlevania animated series is a super violent adaptation penned by Warren Ellis as a dark fantasy with Game of Thrones vibes. The original Castlevania video game series is a multi-game saga that eventually evolved into the exploration of the relationship between humanity, chaos, and entropy, involving the interactions between the Belmont Clan, Count Dracula, and other characters who acted to preserve order, protect an ungrateful humanity, or simply to bring back the Dark Lord who curses God. Michiru Yamane’s compositions were legendary, Ayami Kojima’s art was spectacular, and the games themselves adapted and changed, yet remained consistent.
What I am getting at is that the franchise includes violence, but was never solely about the “super violence.” It’s the Game of Thrones issue all over again – A Song of Ice and Fire includes violence and sex, but it was never solely focused on or even overly interested in those elements, whereas once the television adaptation no longer had source material to adhere to, it degenerated into a blend of gore and softcore porn. The baseness of the HBO series design eventually drags the story down from interesting into predictable and boring.
It’s a trademark of Western storytelling, I fear, and I don’t say that because I’m some sort of pocky-munching weeaboo who wants to move to superior Nippon. I would have to be paid millions of dollars a year to live in a country where ATMs are inaccessible after 10pm and the native population treats you as either a fashion accessory or a dirty foreigner. That said, I’ll happily consume their media since their storytelling still makes more effort than the West.
The Dark Age has influenced all sorts of Western media, concentrating efforts on making darker and grittier things which have no business being as such, like Shankar’s Power/Rangers “sequel.” Darkness has a place in many stories, a role required to explore places of the human psyche best left in shadows, but it’s not supposed to be the only thing that a story is able to stand on. Take Batman The Animated Series, the phenomenal Western animation that explored the night of the human soul without overstepping into simple shock value. The stories were intelligent, the dialogue sharp, and even with the inevitable 90s toning down, presented moral complexity and provoked thought. Without thoughtful and nuanced application, darker and grittier becomes similar to the shock value of the old slasher films, losing its ability to surprise once the viewer has seen it enough times.
It’s a trend easily observed in Western video games like Gears of War and Call of Duty, where everything is smeared with an overlayer of mud and gunmetal gray, where color is dismissed as childish. The stories themselves are set pieces and predictable. There’s nothing wrong with formula and there is nothing new under the sun, but a bit of metaphorical color, such as in Spec Ops: The Line, always helps raise a game far above its peers in every meaningful criteria.
The best example of banal predictability in this franchise would be the Lords of Shadow reboot of Castlevania, developed by a Western studio. The gameplay was an adaptation of the style of the two PlayStation 2 Castelvania titles, Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness, combined with a titan-slaying mechanic ripped off from Shadow of the Colossus, a Japanese-developed game. The story? Your Belmont protagonist becomes Dracula. I saw this fanfiction in the early 2000s, so it is not inspiring to see it as a AAA title that sells a million copies and rewards laziness with cash and sequels. At least there are actual twists in the stories of the original Castlevania series.
Netflix is already well-known to gobble up new content like a hungry American extended family on Thanksgiving, so the Season Two renewal for Shankar’s work does not actually mean anything. If we’re lucky, this adaptation sinks, and someone else will try to work on an animated adaptation of a video game that does more than “super violence.” If it doesn’t, then we can expect to continue seeing mindless mediocrity rewarded.