Jayne Nelson on the anime version of the cult TV show Supernatural
If there’s one thing Japan and the USA have in common, it’s a burning love for scary monsters. Both countries have more than their fair share of urban legends, myths and folklore, from America’s infamous Bloody Mary (say her name three times in front of a mirror and she’ll pop up to kill you) to Japan’s kappa (live in waterways; can bring good luck or bad; love to eat sweet things). So it isn’t really a surprise that an American television show about two guys who hunt such creatures should wind up spawning its own animated Japanese version. The result is the enjoyable, gory and ever-so-slightly twisted Supernatural: The Anime Series.
For those who aren’t familiar with the original, it was created in 2005 by Eric Kripke (best-known back then for the Boogeyman films; these days he’s co-producing the show Revolution, alongside JJ Abrams). Now in its eighth season – with a ninth already commissioned – the series airs on The CW and stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles as Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who lost their mother to a demon in childhood. They were then raised as monster hunters by their revenge-obsessed father, travelling the country wiping out all supernatural creatures and protecting an unsuspecting public. It’s a cool job (as Dean puts it: “Saving people, hunting things… the family business!”) but it’s a dangerous one, too: over the years, the Winchesters have tangled with everything from common-or-garden vampires to Lucifer. Yes, really: the Devil himself tried to bring about the Apocalypse on the same channel that airs Gossip Girl. You have to love this show’s balls.
Right from the get-go, Supernatural has boasted a killer style all of its own, evoking nostalgic, Americana-seeped dreams of travelling Route 66 as free spirits, but with the twist that these guys drive Route 666 instead, wisecracking and bickering in their vintage 1967 Chevy Impala while listening to classic rock songs. Never has AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” been interpreted so literally. The show has never been a huge ratings-grabber in its home country but the stars regularly appear to screaming crowds of thousands in places like Brazil, Germany, Italy and even here in the UK. And it’s well-known enough in Japan to have attracted the attention of animators Madhouse, who made and aired their own version in 2011 under the tutelage of creator Kripke, Atsuko Ishizuka and Masao Maruyama.
The 22 episodes that resulted are a fascinating mixture of American and Japanese styles, with the original show’s roster of monsters supplemented by some uniquely Japanese creations. We’re fortunate to get Jared Padalecki voicing Sam throughout, while Jensen Ackles pops up as Dean for the final two episodes – scheduling commitments prevented him voicing the whole thing. His replacement, Andrew Farrar, isn’t too bad; a little husky, perhaps, but just occasionally he nails Dean so well you forget it’s not Ackles. For added verisimilitude for Japanese viewers, the actors who dub the live-action TV show in Japan (Yuya Uchida and Hiroki Touchi) also lend their voices to the anime version.
The Supernatural anime compresses the original show’s first two seasons into one, padding out the backstories of many characters (we get to see more of Sam’s relationship with his unlucky girlfriend Jess, for instance) and making more use of the Winchesters’ grumpy yet kick-ass father, John. Eleven episodes are more or less the same as the US versions, although some have different names, but even if you’re familiar with these stories they’re given extra twists and turns as they’re squeezed into 22 minutes. Other episodes pick up on themes or suggestions from the live-action show and adapt them into full-length tales: examples include a season two character named Jake earning a backstory, as does one named Lily. There are even flashbacks to the Winchesters’ childhoods sprinkled throughout the season, and due to the wonders of animation you don’t have to ponder whether old, bald John Winchester is wearing a wig in the past. Best of all, the ongoing plot arc (where is the yellow-eyed demon who killed Ma Winchester?) is meaty enough to keep you coming back for more, with some episodes self-contained standalones and others ending on cliffhangers (be warned: these usually happen after the end credits).
Design-wise, the animated series has just as much of a distinctive look as its earth-toned and bleached-out counterpart, but in a completely different way. Colours are ramped up until much of the action looks like it was filmed inside a neon-lit motel room (fitting, given how much time the two leads spend in cheap motels). Sam’s hair regularly turns purple; eyes change colour from scene to scene and the only thing that remains a constant is the Chevy Impala’s glossy chrome-and-black body. It’s a stylish, slick look that works perfectly for this nightmarish realm of supernatural beasties, and it means that whenever blood is spilled the reds are bright enough to dazzle. Supernatural has always been a violent show – though some of the gore is brilliantly tongue-in-cheek – but without the constraints of live-action effects, the anime can go deliciously crazy. The shapeshifting creature in the first episode, “Alter Ego” (a remake of “Skin”), becomes a mass of bubbling flesh and tentacles when it switches bodies, while demon eyes that are simply black in the original series become horrible, glowing voids too large for a human face. One of Supernatural’s original taglines was “Scary just got sexy” (thanks to the good looks of its stars); here it could easily be “Scary just got… holy cow, what is that thing?”
Supernatural: The Anime Series is a fascinating companion piece to the original, fleshing out its first two seasons and mixing in some uniquely Japanese elements to spice up its familiar taste. Best of all, you don’t even have to worry that it’s only one season long: if you want to continue down that highway to Hell with the Winchesters, you can switch to the original series once you’re done. Not many anime shows can claim to have live-action sequels.
Supernatural: The Anime Series is out on DVD on 27 May in the UK.