Eat-Man and the Value of Fearless Adaptation
by Travis Hedge Coke
Accurate adaptation from page to screen has been fetishized as long as they have been adapting print works into film and television, conflating literalness with quality and quality with authority. One to one transliteration from a prose or comics page to the moving audiovisual experience, even if it is desired, is impossible. Even if it were possible, it would most likely be a broad disappointment.
The 1997 adaptation of Akihito Yoshitomi’s Eat-Man from serialized manga to animated television program could have safely hewed close to its source material. Yoshitomi’s comic is very animation-like, set in an imaginary world that is a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy tropes and veering towards serio-comic adventure is protagonist, Bolt Crank.
Bolt is a mysterious, childish, cool adventurer for hire who goes around a world designed like levels of a late 80s video game, having adventures and meeting cute girls. He has a special power to eat anything, though primarily non-traditional, usually inorganic objects, and to recreate them wholly or rearranged into a new object. Rinse, wash, repeat with verve.
Eat-Man is an incredibly fun comic. It has a passionate soul and a hearty laugh. A charming manga aimed at middle schoolers and the young at heart. The art style is engaging, friendly, and expressive. It is perfect for a four p.m. after-school slot.
So, why did Bee Train founder, Koichi Mashimo, turn Eat-Man into a slow Brechtian late night psychodrama with a lot of naked symbolism and Lynchian pacing?
The first episode of Eat-Man features scenes of sweeping, misunderstandings, baths. The people Bolt meets may be trapped by their own hypocrisies, or they may be trapped inside glass billboard-like panes at the edge of their town.
At the time, Mashimo was a twenty-year veteran of animation, and had gone through that kind of spiritual awakening after a ski accident, which led him to change his business practices and how he approached animation itself, considering his studio and his work as medicinal for both artists and audience.
Eat-Man was an after midnight anime because, after Neon Genesis Evangelion, TV Tokyo and other broadcasters were intensely gun-shy. Evangelion pushed boundaries of what could be shown in a daytime television slot, frequently delivering broadcast tapes so close to deadline there was no chance to view them ahead of live showing, resulting in complaints from the public, complaints from government, and occasionally, the station simply having to shut off the program they were broadcasting.
In the second half of the 1990s, broadcast anime in Japan were extremely limited, post-Evangelion, to the point that Cowboy Bebop, with its six p.m. showtime, would originally only air five episodes of the eventual twenty-six episode series. Revolutionary Girl Utena was possibly the only afternoon-broadcasting anime to escape, and that hinged on irreproducible elements.
The midnight and after-midnight time slots were a haven.
Mashimo deliberately made the world of his Eat-Man adaptation feel unfamiliar, artificial, and as if it could collapse like cheap pasteboard sets at any moment. The episodes are paced with hypnotic, unusual rhythms. The dialogue is minimalist and oblique.
A symbolism-heavy series, even the symbols that seem easy to interpret, by the end of that episode, will be fractured, torn open, turn in on themselves, until we can only be unsure.
Eat-Man is a symbolist anime (in the sense of, “Enemy of education, declamation, wrong feelings, objective description”). Like an Edvard Munch painting, it is neither wrong nor only right to laugh or cry at the same scenes, to take an episode seriously or as an elaborate joke.
An episode focusing on the rescue of hostages emphasizes a winged statuette in a room of callous, serious men of war. As they engage in their wars and laugh condescendingly at a real woman, someone who believed in them even as they made her a trophy, she picks up a machine-gun, fires at them, though none are harmed, and destroys the statue she has, over the course of the episode, come to look like, blowing the wings off and taking it from its place on the mantle.
The manga grows more metaphysical and cosmic as it advanced over the years, from the early stories the show had to draw from, but in that comic the cosmic is a cosmogony of stars and anthropomorphic Death, dragons and reincarnation. The cosmic or the anime is one of flowers disliking you and the mysteries of barfly hypocrisy.
The high fantasy aspects removed, what is left may be more magical, but we can never tell. Are the supernatural elements deeply meaningful, or are they farcical and only seeming? To be unsure is possibly the most honest, but there is no incorrect interpretation.
Sometimes a buddha sweeps the floor. Sometimes a buddha gets swept up.
Mashimo’s Bolt Crank is, like the titular character of his earlier television series, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, a figure who is fool and wise, with a spiritual detachment and amusement at common human concerns intermixed with a childish or irreflective approach.
The second season, under a different director, hews closer to the comic, but the mark had been made. In not adapting one to one or even trying, in taking the source material as inspiration and touchstone, Mashimo was able to express things the original comic could not, without damaging or overwriting the comic.