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Shenmue anime director says series will be ‘more accessible’ than the OG game

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The creators want to capture the games’ essence in the anime, minus the ‘clumsiness’

Ryo from the Shenmue anime
Shenmue the Animation
Image: Crunchyroll/Adult Swim

Yu Suzuki, the legendary video game developer and creator of Shenmue, shared his involvement in the game’s anime adaptation from Crunchyroll and Adult Swim Thursday at New York Comic Con. The panel discussed how the pioneering open-world game, known for its immersive slice of virtual tourism as well as its ponderous gameplay, was condensed into a linear 13-episode story that could appeal to new and younger audiences.

Also on the panel was director Chikara Sakurai (One Punch Man), producer Yu Kiyozono (Lupin III), and Joseph Chou (Blade Runner: Black Lotus). The panel was moderated by writer, actor, and Shenmue megafan Ify Nwadiwe, who also had the chance to watch the first episode of the anime coming in 2022.

Shenmue was first released in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast, followed by its 2001 sequel, although it only came to North America in 2002 via the original Xbox. Both a martial arts period drama set in Yokohama, Japan in 1986 and a slow-burning revenge story, it follows high schooler Ryo Hazuki on a journey to avenge his father’s death, eventually taking him to Hong Kong and mainland China.

While it was considered a flop, the series nonetheless had a faithful cult following. Fans finally got their wish with the long-overdue Shenmue 3 in 2019, made possible through Kickstarter. But while that sequel was ultimately a creaky, old-school experience designed for old-school hardcore fans, Suzuki said that the anime will be “more accessible, and can be enjoyed by small children.”

“The clumsiness is part of the fun when playing this game,” he said, acknowledging that the original game’s quirks that either charmed players or tested their patience. “You could also say that the young generation now may find it stressful. But games should be stress-free, particularly for new players, so that they can immerse themselves in the story to fully enjoy it. You do not need to operate the anime like you do the games. You get the message straight away.”

In a way, Sakurai is also a newcomer, admitting he never played the game when it first came out because he couldn’t afford to buy it. Instead, he absorbed its world through reading about it in magazines or playing briefly at a friend’s house. He commented how it was interesting being asked to direct an anime adaptation of a game he “longed to play … but never did.”

He also spoke about the challenges of building the world of the anime, in particular with portraying a setting from 30 years ago. “If the depiction was too realistic, young people or people of a different culture might not understand it,” he said. “So we gave it a lot of thought. We wanted to depict how the protagonist had to struggle through the hard and inconvenient times.”

Does that mean we can expect to see scenes of Ryo using a rotary telephone, waiting for the bus, or asking people about where he can find sailors? Regarding the latter, Sakurai mentioned that they have incorporated the spirit of the game into some of its scenes, saying, “We made the protagonist talk to people on the street ... We wanted to reconstruct a bit of the atmosphere of the game.”

Chou touched upon how the anime will expand on the game while still remaining faithful to the source material and how having Suzuki involved in this process was important. “Even the stories that weren’t shown in the game before, [Suzuki] actually had hundreds of thousands of pages of backstories written so we were able to reveal that in the anime itself,” he said.

Kiyozono also said that because of the “many more attractive characters in Hong Kong,” the anime will draw on locations from the second Shenmue game, including a CG recreation of Kowloon Walled City. With the season not ending like the first game, instead including Ryo’s arrival in Hong Kong, we may also see the anime incorporate what happens during Ryo’s voyage on board the ship, previously only seen in a short manga.

If the anime is a success, perhaps we’ll see the rest of the Shenmue saga told through anime instead of having to wait for Shenmue 4. Either way, Suzuki sounded excited about the potential for the anime to introduce new fans to his creation. “If you simply want to enjoy playing the game, it can be a bit stressful, unless you are a real enthusiast,” he said. “With Shenmue the Animation being released soon, those who have heard of Shenmue but never played it before will hopefully find it more approachable. The production quality is high, and the characters are full of life. So I ask everybody to please watch and enjoy the anime.”