Jayne Nelson compares the live-action show to its anime cousin
Three years ago, during a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Eric Kripke was asked why an animated version of his television series Supernatural was being made. His reply was a simple one: “I just wanted tentacles in it. It’s something we can’t do in live action on the show.” Well, you can’t argue with that. The result, Supernatural: The Anime Series – released in Japan in January 2011, and hitting DVD here on 27 May – does indeed feature a few tentacles, although perhaps not quite as many as Kripke might have liked.
That’s not to say the original series suffers from its crushing lack of rubbery sucker pads, mind you. Supernatural follows brothers Sam and Dean Winchester as they travel the backroads of the USA hunting monsters, and thus there are many other creepy limbs on display: belonging to vampires, werewolves, demons, spirits and a whole host of other creatures from around the globe (Indian rakshasas; Albanian shtriga; Japanese kitsune). The show lives up to its name, trawling the world’s urban legends, myths and folklore to bring us a horror film every week in the form of a 42-minute television show.
Supernatural knew what it wanted to do from the moment it launched on The WB (now The CW) network in 2005 – bring big-screen scares to the small screen, but without The X-Files’ po-facedness, and with a knowing nod and a wink to the horror genre that would please gore-hounds. Season one saw many episodes riffing off famous frighteners such as Candyman or Ring, but after a while the series found its own formula and ran with that. This formula consists of killing people in the goriest ways possible on American network television. Over the years we’ve seen men cut in half by falling lifts, vampires strangled with wire until their heads pop off, ballet dancers dancing themselves to death on bloody stumps, young lovers tearing strips off each other (literally) while snogging… So much fake blood has been washed from the floors of the Vancouver-based sets that the drains in Canada must be permanently dyed red.
Supernatural also wanted to draw in those who might not find this horror palatable, and so Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles were cast as its monster-hunting leads. It seems shallow to call them “eye candy”, but the show’s viewing demographic is now significantly skewed in favour of women, so that plan certainly didn’t backfire. The show is often funny, too, with its humour existing mainly in the form of the wisecracks that spill from Dean Winchester’s lips (“Dude, you fugly,” he tells a killer scarecrow), although one of the show’s best lines came when another character called Lucifer himself “a great big bag of dicks”.
Most Supernatural episodes are “monster of the week” hunts, but the series also has a lot of fun playing with its format. One episode features the Winchesters stuck in a Groundhog Day time loop in which Dean dies over and over in hilarious ways; in another, they discover that people are writing fan fiction about them; yet another episode has them playing their actor alter-egos on the set of a TV show named Supernatural… you get the drift. This is a show that isn’t scared to do anything.
This fearlessness is what makes an animated version such a perfect fit. Each of the Japanese serial’s 22 episodes brings something new to the mix already perfected in the live-action version, whether it’s a different take on an old monster (werewolves are way better in animated form!) or a uniquely Japanese creature (such as a kappa). While there are original stories, the anime takes care not to stray too far from the format we know; indeed, many episodes are illustrated remakes of season one and two episodes. The arc plot of those first two years, with the Winchesters hunting the yellow-eyed demon who killed their mother, is largely identical as well. But on the original show, the climax of season one, “Devil’s Trap”, took place in an abandoned shack, while here it happens on the top of a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan with a helicopter buzzing around. Budget concerns? What budget concerns?
The anime does suffer in a few ways compared to its parent series, namely in that the cast we know and love isn’t quite there in the same way. Padalecki gives it some welly as he voices Sam, but Ackles wasn’t free until the final two episodes to bring Dean to life. (Incidentally, the biggest difference between Ackles and Andrew Farrar, who voices Dean in his absence, is that Ackles says “dee-monic” and Farrar says “demonic”. It’s the little things that matter.) Bobby, a much-loved recurring character played by Deadwood’s Jim Beaver in the original show, pops up in the anime like some kind of cackling pixie; he’s not the Bobby we know and love in any way. One good thing is that psychic Missouri Moseley, who appears in original episode “Home” and then never comes back, gets to star all the way through the anime. We’re not sure why she’s turned Jamaican, but hey, at least she’s there. It’s also nice to see more of the Winchesters’ father, John, albeit voiced by a different guy; he vanished from the live-action show after season one because actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan found himself in too much demand.
While filming Supernatural, Morgan had a guest-star run on Grey’s Anatomy which was hugely successful, effectively launching his movie career – he went on to play the Comedian in Watchmen. His character died on Grey’s and later haunted the hospital as a ghost. A few years later, in an episode of Supernatural named “Changing Channels”, the Winchesters find themselves stuck in an episode of a Grey’s-a-like TV show, and comment on the fact that one of the characters is dead and haunting the hospital. You want meta? Supernatural can do meta in its sleep.
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One major thing that makes the anime as much fun as the live-action show is its gleeful love of grue. Supernatural makes liberal use of a squeezy bottle filled with blood to spray up walls when characters die; the anime does this too, recklessly flinging blood around without a care in the world. Nobody has to mop up the mess afterwards on this set! Little touches of continuity are on display as well, such as the amulet Dean wears around his neck, or his car’s license plate. Even Sam Winchester’s hair is a joy in animated form: it’s just long enough to have a life of its own, arguably acting the rest of the character off screen in every scene.
It’s a shame that Supernatural: The Anime Series didn’t progress beyond one season, because Supernatural itself is now heading into its ninth, and material would have been there for many more complementary adventures. The anime also missed out on a huge chunk of mythology that would have been amazing to see portrayed in a Japanese style: namely, the arrival of angels in season four to battle the show’s many demons. Thankfully, the 22 episodes we are lucky enough to have are a fascinating way of rediscovering a much-loved show through a different set of eyes. Gore, action and demons doing nasty things: what more do you really want from any series?
Supernatural: The Anime Series is out on DVD on 27th May in the UK.