Netflix’s Anime Adaptation Curse: What’s Going Wrong?

From Death Note to One Piece, passing through Cowboy Bebop and Saint Seiya.

Netflix’s Anime Adaptation Curse: What’s Going Wrong?
Juan Carlos Saloz

Juan Carlos Saloz

Netflix is a platform to which we owe a great deal. There is no doubt that, thanks to its system, VOD (Video on Demand) has become the standard, and piracy has taken a back seat in favor of streaming platforms. Thanks to Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, or Amazon Prime Video exist, and it has been the digital revolution that the audiovisual industry needed in the 21st century.


However, the platform has been stumbling blindly for some time now. In the past year, it sparked one of the biggest controversies in the industry by prohibiting, in almost all countries, sharing accounts as it had been done until then. This has led to millions of user cancellations and, of course, a significant loss of prestige.

But this is only the latest of their problems. Since its peak, the platform has been criticized for its lack of mercy when it comes to canceling series. It happened with Sense8, and since then, the number of victims has only increased, with more and more falling prey to the jaws of its supposed audience.

That’s why it is surprising, to say the least, the obsession Netflix has with continuing to bet on live-action adaptations of anime. It is clear that anime has been one of the platform’s great secrets to success, even boasting the entire Studio Ghibli film collection. However, right from the start, Netflix believed that it not only had to bring the best Japanese animated series and movies to the platform but also adapt the best ones into live-action. And, well, that’s how things have been going… and it doesn’t seem to realize that it almost never turns out well.

Adapting anime… a good idea?

As we already highlighted in our Top 10 worst live-action anime adaptations, it is common for a live-action remake of such series to go awry. There are very few cases where we come across an acceptable adaptation, and no matter how hard they try, it always falls short of the original anime.

However, this is something that Netflix should have realized by now. Back in 2017, five years ago, the platform released Death Note, its own adaptation of one of the most beloved anime series. The idea seemed magnificent: it’s a somber story with just the right amount of fantasy to make for a great thriller.

But, spoiler alert, it went wrong. The movie deviated so much from the anime that its best aspect, the characters, bore no resemblance to their original counterparts. The plot was much more foolish and geared towards teenagers than the original, and although the CGI wasn’t too bad, everything seemed cardboard-like, lacking a serious tone or a director on board who knew what they were doing.

The backlash Netflix faced at that time was so severe that Death Note barely received a 36% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 23% rating from the audience. It is the anime adaptation that comes closest to Dragonball Evolution in terms of ratings. And that’s saying something considering the fierce competition.

But Netflix believed that it was just a minor setback that could be compensated for later. And boy, did they try. For two years, they kept hyping up the highly anticipated adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe’s anime series that had all the ingredients to be revived as a great show on the platform.

And once again, it turned into a disaster. The series – because yes, this time they realized it had to be a series – fell into the opposite trap of Death Note. They attempted to replicate almost every scene from Watanabe’s original anime, but everything was filtered through Netflix’s somber cinematography, flat art direction, and performances that fell far short of those in the anime. As a result, it came across as a mere copy that obviously lacked the appeal of the original. Consequently, it was canceled within a week.

However, Netflix persists in its determination to move forward with productions. The latest one has been Saint Seiya, which will soon be released on the platform. Although it had a theatrical release before, it will be available on Netflix in just a week, thanks to the platform’s contribution to making it a reality. Yet again, the result doesn’t seem to bode well for the VOD service. The adaptation of Saint Seiya has been completely panned by critics, adding to the controversy surrounding Netflix’s previous remake.

The only successful instance where Netflix has managed to adapt a manga well is with Alice in Borderland. The series has become one of the most-watched on the platform and has a legion of fans worldwide. Its quality is also quite commendable, and while it stays faithful to the manga, it diverges enough to offer a compelling audiovisual experience.

The key factors behind Alice in Borderland‘s success are twofold: it is a relatively unknown manga to the general public, and it is a Japanese production. The Japanese may have produced some of the worst anime adaptations in history, but they understand the material they’re working with, and occasionally, gems like this one emerge.

Unfortunately, the path that Netflix seems to be following is not so much in line with Alice in Borderland but more aligned with Saint Seiya or Cowboy Bebop. The next big series they will release, which they are keeping mostly under wraps but investing a fortune in and aiming to make it a flagship in the industry, is One Piece… and I can’t imagine a manga that’s more difficult to adapt.

Eiichiro Oda’s series was the most-watched of the entire 2022, and it’s a manga that has been successful for decades without ever dropping from the top rankings. It’s not surprising considering its blend of pirate-themed setting with a unique style that seamlessly combines action and humor. And that formula works brilliantly in the anime or manga format.

But… how will a live-action adaptation fare? Based on the secrecy surrounding Netflix’s project, it doesn’t bode well. All signs seem to indicate a potential failure at any moment… yet the platform cannot afford to fail. Just as HBO Max demonstrated with The Last of Us that video game adaptations can be done well, something we were unsure of, Netflix wants to prove it with manganime. However, for now, their path is quite rocky.


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Juan Carlos Saloz

Juan Carlos Saloz

Cultural journalist specialized in film, series, comics, video games, and everything your parents tried to keep you away from during your childhood. Also an aspiring film director, screenwriter, and professional troublemaker.

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