For its 23 years of existence, Sega’s game series, Shenmue, has arguably experienced a lot of drama. The series began life with a record-breaking budget and industry-changing aspirations, only to founder as a casualty of its original target platform, the short-lived Dreamcast. While the series returned as a surprising, Sony-promoted Kickstarter in 2015, the resulting Shenmue III underwhelmed (and left some backers livid thanks to an EGS-related switcheroo).
Yet the series’ first two games, in spite of their dated mechanics, remain beloved for players who reveled in Shenmue‘s mix of substantial martial arts combat, open-city exploration, and fully voiced dialogue. (The 1999 original’s best ideas are better realized in the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Sega’s own Yakuza.) Furthermore, Shenmue games always came with an intriguing, detective-like story of family, friendship, and revenge. Forget the game industry drama. Ryo’s suspenseful search for his father’s killer, Lan Di, was the good stuff, and dedicated fans continue to hope its story might even see a logical conclusion.
I kept all of that in mind while tuning in to this week’s Shenmue: The Animation, a new TV series co-produced by Adult Swim and Crunchyroll, in hopes that its season premiere might benefit from leaving its video game roots behind. And now I’m a bit upset—enough to beg Sega: please don’t get fans’ hopes up with an animated series premiere this good, only to yank Shenmue away from us again.
Tearing down an arrogant demeanor
As fans previously suggested in 2020, Shenmue: The Animation is poised to retell the game series’ events with additional color and context, whether to add side stories that were scrapped from the original games or to take the games’ known stories in darker or more violent directions. The first episode makes this intent clear by focusing on Shenmue I‘s dramatic opening sequence, which introduces series hero Ryo Hazuki—and immediately makes him a witness to his father’s murder.
Compared to other games of its era, Shenmue I‘s opening cut scene remains memorable for how polished and cinematic it was for the time, complete with masterful martial arts motion capture and emotive facial animations. The teams responsible for this week’s TV interpretation are careful to respect that legacy, and series villain Lan Di issues the same brutal blows to both Ryo and his father before walking away with an all-important “Dragon Mirror.”
Yet, this week’s new series introduces an entirely new wrinkle for Ryo’s character development, and it’s surprisingly for the better. Shortly before his life is torn apart by tragedy, we see him as a happy-go-lucky high schooler… who happens to be a skilled and suave martial arts student. To prove this point, Ryo takes down two varieties of jerk: an arrogant bully at a rival school who boasts before an official tournament; and a pair of bullies who harass one of Ryo’s old friends in the streets of Yokosuka.
S:TA, then, begins with a calm and arrogant Ryo, but after he joins his father in a fatal showdown with a mysterious rival, he is changed. Again, that fight plays out just like in the original game—which means Ryo interrupts the fight, then nearly gets killed until his father sacrifices himself so that Ryo might live. This time, however, fans get to see a version of Ryo who truly believed he could even the battling odds. His failure to do so in this extended, animated version leaves him visibly frustrated and grief-stricken.