Japanese animation (or anime) is known for its wild stories and, at times, mind-bending action, depending on the genre. These things make for some legendary cartoons (most based on manga, or Japanese comics). But they're difficult to translate well into live-action cinema, as "Knights of the Zodiac" further establishes.
The latest anime turned live-action movie is based on a manga first published in 1986. It was called "Saint Seiya," and was created by Masami Kurumada. That manga was adapted into an anime called "Knights of the Zodiac," which went on to become widely popular, amassing fans all over the world.
And now, decades later, Director Tomek Baginski has brought this series to the big screen with some unsurprisingly disastrous results.
The story focuses on an orphan named Seiya (Mackenyu) looking for his sister who was abducted when they were children. Seiya begins the story fighting in a shady martial arts ring for undisclosed reasons. During one fight, he seems to awaken a power called "cosmo," a mystical force that resides in everyone. But only some can wield it as a weapon.
Seiya is observed by a man called Alman Kiddo (Sean Bean) who tells him an evil woman named Guraad (Famke Janssen) will be after him now that he has displayed his cosmo ability. Guraad's henchmen, faceless and armored goons, soon show up to chase after Alman and Seiya.
They escape, and Alman takes Seiya to his beach hideout. It's there Alman introduces Seiya to his daughter, Sienna (Madison Iseman), who is the human reincarnation of the goddess Athena.
Alman tasks Seiya with becoming a knight and protecting Sienna, as her powers are uncontrollable. Guraad seeks to destroy her, believing the goddess Athena to be a threat to all human life.
But in order to keep Sienna safe, Seiya will have to master a magical suit of armor, harness his cosmo, and become the Pegasus Knight. The original manga had other knights that fought alongside Seiya with their own armor, but "Knights of the Zodiac" struggles enough with its own source material without an expanded roster of characters.
Adapting anime (or manga) to live-action rarely works well, especially with fantasy or science fiction stories. They inevitably become burdened by the special effects they need to translate fantastical elements to the point that story, characters, pacing, and everything else fall by the wayside. And the CGI hardly ever looks impressive in a live-action world.
This is the case for "Knights of the Zodiac," which needs a hefty amount of CGI to bring cosmo and magic armor to life, albeit unconvincingly. Undoubtedly, digital artists poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this project to bring it to life, but the deck was stacked against them.
Most of this film's characters are written to be one-dimensional bodies for the mess of CGI to flow around. Seiya is just a moody guy looking for his sister. Sienna is a moody girl who never asked to be a goddess. Guraad is a generic villain looking to kill one of the story's protagonists. None of them is given much to work with in the way of narrative or human moments.
It's easy for people to forget that cartoon characters are humans, too. An actor can be dressed to look like a character from the show, but the original anime series had more than 100 episodes for each character to develop and grow their arc. The manga had 28 volumes to tell its sprawling story of gods and warriors.
But the 112-minute film wasn't interested in capturing the essence of these characters and what they fought for. Seiya, Sienna and everyone else merely act like people going through the plot because the script tells them to. More than halfway through, "Knights of the Zodiac" starts to become a tedious affair with its awkward transitions, befuddled character motivations, and not even an ounce of life.
The actors look like they're trying, but it looks as though they'd have an easier time making bricks without straw than a compelling story from the script they were given. Only Bean seems to maintain any level of charm in "Knights of the Zodiac."
"Saint Seiya" is supposed to be a story about desperate warriors coming together to protect a goddess everyone else wants to kill because they see her as a threat. It's about proving worth and honoring the bonds of loyalty these mystical armor-wielders share with one another. But none of that comes through in "Knights of the Zodiac."
The narrative and characters are swallowed by a storm of ill-conceived CGI and unfortunate writing, another title in the long list of live-action anime adaptations that should deter similar future attempts.