Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Feature Image

First impressions: Shenmue the Animation

Shenmue the Animation was a surprise announcement last year, coming out of a co-production between Crunchy Roll, Adult Swim and Sega. With the first episode hitting streaming services on the 6th of February 2022, it is now an official part of the Shenmue pantheon, a series that contains some of the most ambitious technical achievements in gaming history while simultaneously earning a reputation as a somewhat divisive gaming experience to those who participated in the console wars around 1999-2002.

Shenmue was a game you either loved or hated – the fully 3D environments were packed with astounding detail and playing it on a Dreamcast in 1999 (if you were in Japan – Australians had to wait until December 2000) was an experience quite unlike anything before seen on a console. But the slow, deliberate pace of the game, grindy mechanics and somewhat questionable dialogue gave plenty of fodder to those critical of what was fast becoming Sega’s final entry in the home video gaming market.

But for people like myself happily immersed in anime and Japanese video gaming circles, the game was a journey and experience that felt so inherently, tangibly Japanese you could be forgiven for losing your mind over what could ostensibly be interpreted as a giant weeb simulator.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Ryo on his way to the karate tournament

Shenmue The Animation therefore has an interesting challenge – it needs to work out how to translate the slow pace of the games into something befitting a contemporary anime production, elevate the stilted characterisation born of this crazy experiment from then-head of AM2 Yu Suzuki, and determine if it wants to hook in old nerds like me or younger fans who may be new to the whole Shenmue experience.

Impressively, for this first episode at least, they’re off to a good start.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Iwao and Lan Di fighting in the Hazuki Dojo

Shenme the Animation’s first episode, Thunderclap, kicks off with some fantastic slice of life sequences where Ryo demonstrates he can smile, echoes the spirit of the amazing (and under-rated) Yawara by effortlessly ippon-ing his way through a local karate tournament with his high school karate club then tackles some juvenile delinquency before getting the poop beaten out of him by Lan Di who ultimately likes to steal antique pottery from martial artists who live in the ‘burbs near Yokosuka.

All of this takes place across the first half of the episode, with the back half spending a bit of time with Ryo doing his moody wandering around kind of thing before settling on the idea that he needs to uncover the true meaning behind his father’s death. Which, just hopefully, will mean in future episodes he can get sweaty in the park before looking for sailors in the Yokosuka red light district.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Ryo fighting in Sakuragaoka Park

It’s an interesting mix of elements at play, and while it doesn’t quite nail it, it’s not a bad foundation.

Where the adaptation thus far deserves credit is providing a bit more engaging slice of life elements, particularly to the beginning of the episode which shows Ryo actually has a bit of a personality. The choreography for the action sequences were generally quite solid and the character designs echo the spirit of the source material while bringing it up to what you’d expect of an anime produced in 2022, though I think the art direction could have worked a little harder to capture the era the anime is set.

There’s some fanatical detail in there as well – the menu on Tom’s hot dog stand I swear looks 1:1 with the game, and Aji-ichi felt tangibly authentic. Those panning shots along the main street in Dobuita really felt like coming home, insane as that sounds.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Ryo and Nozomi in front of Aji-Ichi Restaurant

The voice cast is a mixture of new and returning characters – Masaya Matsukaze does a great job imbuing Ryo with a slightly different, more natural energy compared to his performances in the games and Takayugi Sugo is just as menacing as always. Sadly Iwao wasn’t voiced by the legendary Hiroshi Fujioka (who lovingly embodied gaming’s greatest showman, Segata Sanshiro) but Nozomi’s new voice actress, Haruka Fushimi, does a great job playing the role a bit differently with plenty of energy that is a solid compliment to how Megumi Yasu handled the performance over 20 years ago.

Where this episode felt a little rough around the edges comes down to some of the shortcuts it takes across the animation itself. The result is a production that sometimes feels a little stilted with some rough, heavier linework in some spots – Brittany Vincent over at IGN made a great comparison that it feels similar to Sailor Moon Crystal’s broadcast cut which was also a little rough – hopefully Shenmue the Animation gets a physical release in the future where it may benefit from extra work here and there to tidy it up. The pragmatist points out that the action sequences have been animated extremely well, so on balance it works itself out.

The pacing in this initial episode of Shenmue the Animation is a little jumpy as well – the speed with which it flies from slice of life to Iwao’s death to Ryo turning into a zen master in the family dojo felt like it needed more time to avoid it coming off like a box-ticking exercise.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Ryo in the park in Dobuita

To be honest though, getting the pacing right for this adaptation was always going to be difficult. With a standard TV series length and two games to burn through, it doesn’t have the luxury of taking its time. A reasonable counter to this on contemplation is – would an extended anime series be to its benefit? Part of Shenmue’s divisive nature was the large volume of quietly methodical adventuring elements and in today’s climate, an extended series may suffer from inattentive padding rather than focusing down hard on exploring the critical story beats to build up momentum.

Part of me wanted to see the first episode spend more time on life in the Hazuki household prior to the confrontation with Lan Di, explore the world Yu Suzuki built over 20 years ago and focus on how Ryo deals with what happens to add a sense of gravity to the proceedings.

But asking to make that investment is always a risk and it’s difficult to get it right. The approach taken here drives things closer to a middle point that leans on the action/journey approach. I don’t think it’s a bad choice on reflection, but the subjective fanboy within would love to see how an alternative take may have been.

Shenmue the Animation First Impressions, Shenhua looking at the moon

Shenmue the Animation, regardless of any qualms above, has performed admirably as an anime adaptation of a video game from 1999. I’m really looking forward to how this series goes, and if nothing else it’s a nice complement to my fifth (I think?) playthrough of the original games, this time on my PlayStation 4.

My fingers are firmly crossed that the team have made some solid choices and we’ll see a fun and interesting adaptation of these amazing games. I’m looking forward to finding out regardless!