The first sign that the anime Tekken: Bloodline probably won’t break the long chain of failed adaptations of the popular fighting-game series is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy at normal speed. The six-episode miniseries, streaming on Netflix, has its characters moving so slowly and in such cumbersome ways that the show only looks “right” at 1.25x playback speed, with some fights needing to be cranked up to 1.5x. This probably wasn’t done intentionally to make the show more interactive, like the video game that spawned it.
That said, Bloodline actually does try to re-create many familiar elements from the Tekken games in anime form. They just aren’t the right elements. Among all the big fighting games out there, the Tekken games have always been some of the slowest ones. Tekken’s core gameplay involves controlling a character’s individual limbs with different buttons, so one button is for right-hand punches, the other for left-leg kicks, and so forth. This forces players to move beyond button-mashing and master the process of stringing together the simple movements to unlock each individual character’s full potential and unique fighting style. That’s why Tekken matches may look slow and simple, even though they require a lot of skill. That’s all fine and good in a video game, where the audience controls the action. Passively watching characters move slowly in an anime series is much less rewarding.
The slower animation might not be an issue if Bloodline featured fascinating characters. The anime is loosely based on the plot of Tekken 3. It involves young fighter Jin Kazama being trained by his grandfather, Heihachi Mishima, to win a fighting tournament, which will lure out an immortal, green god of fighting.
Of all three characters, only one has a real personality. Even though the god is effectively Aztec Hulk, he isn’t all that interesting to watch, but Heihachi is. Even though he may seem at first glance like the same “hard-ass martial arts master” archetype we’ve seen time and time again, the show faithfully paints Heihachi as both a fighter and a CEO of a major corporation, and it’s fun to watch him apply his “no mercy” rules of fighting in a business setting. Unfortunately, all the other, objectively more interesting Tekken characters, like the white-haired Black Wing Chun prodigy Leroy Smith, or Nina Williams, a ninja assassin clad in a purple bikini-catsuit, are relegated to little more than cameos, without any deeper dives into their backstories.
One of the biggest draws of the Tekken games is its roster of funny, out-of-left-field characters. Maybe Alex the genetically engineered dinosaur in blue boxing gloves wouldn’t have worked in Bloodline’s story, but there was no reason to introduce American judoka/MMA fighter Paul Phoenix and then do absolutely nothing with him. You cannot show audiences a man who looks like he styles his hair with Viagra, then tell us his fight with a bear (Kuma, a real Tekken character who actually is a martial arts bear) happened off screen. How absolutely dare you?!
Reducing that fight to a non-visual anecdote not only robbed the show of a scene that could have been free advertisement for the anime for years to come, it also feels like a waste of the dark tone Bloodline sets up. While the Tekken franchise has its share of goofy-looking characters, there’s often a dark, bloody drama underneath the silly costumes and designs. As strange as it sounds, an oddball character like Phoenix fighting an actual bear could have been dramatic, if it was handled like something out of The Revenant. And that sort of juxtaposition of insane visuals and somewhat realistic fighting is actually one of the secrets to Tekken’s popularity: a kind of reverse-mullet approach to its tone. Silly in the front, serious in the back.
Another thing the Tekken games have going for them are the characters’ different fighting styles. Those are missing from the anime as well. In Bloodline, characters like Heihachi like to talk about how unique the tournament fighters are, but when it comes down to it, Leroy’s Wing Chun, Ling Xiaoyu’s wushu, and Jin’s karate all sort of look the same on screen. Why? And while we’re at it, why are the characters’ most powerful moves represented as Dragon Ball-esque energy blasts when the original Tekken always prioritized semi-realistic combat over magical moves? Also, why are Bloodline’s fight scenes so short? (A fan complaint: They also skip Tekken’s signature air-juggling of your opponent.) Fans of Tekken games may find themselves asking “Why?” a lot while watching Bloodline.
The problems with Tekken adaptations extend beyond the latest anime series. Tekken: Bloodline is like a spiritual successor of the 1998 animated Tekken: The Motion Picture, in the worst possible way. Tekken: TMP is loosely based on Tekken and Tekken 2, and it majorly limits its cast to just a handful of characters: Jun Kazama and Kazuya Mishima (Jin’s parents), plus Heihachi. All the franchise’s other cool characters are relegated to the background and heavily toned down, as they are in Bloodline. And while the movie’s fight scenes move a lot faster, without any Bloodline-style sparks or electric bursts coming out of people’s fists when they punch someone, they too are far too short, and don’t show off the differences between individual fighting styles.
The most frustrating thing about Tekken: The Motion Picture, though, is that writers Ryota Yamaguchi and Seiichi Ishii apparently understood that the games are a mix of goofiness and serious drama, but then got it all backward. The Tekken games are silly on the outside and dark on the inside. The anime does it the other way around, like when Jun and Kazuya are talking about a traumatic event from their childhood when a lady walks in wearing a cocktail dress and carrying a bazooka. It shows that the filmmakers almost understood the assignment, which feels more frustrating than just not getting it from the start.
A Tekken anime should be more like one particular scene from the 2011 CGI film Tekken: Blood Vengeance. In that movie, a robot assassin — who dresses like a pastel clown stripper and is equipped with wings and chainsaw hands — stops to talk about how she and another character who was experimented on have bodies that defy nature. She wonders what that makes them. That particular blend of the absurd and the tragic is exactly what Tekken should look like on screen. Unfortunately, that’s probably the only thing about the games Blood Vengeance got right.
In what is apparently tradition with Tekken adaptations, Blood Vengeance doesn’t take advantage of the original games’ impressive stable of characters. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on Ling Xiaoyu and the robot assassin, without making their fighting styles look unique. It’s such a bizarre place to fail. Not only did the filmmakers have to come up with just two distinct forms of fighting, one of them was for a chainsaw-robot. There was so much potential there for fun style. In The Mandalorian, when the IG-11 droid stands in one position and spins segments of its body to shoot all the people around it, there’s a beautiful, creative robotic precision to its moves. Something that thought-through and unusual could and should have been part of Blood Vengeance.
Dwight H. Little’s 2010 live-action Tekken movie gets that one bit right. In the film — which current Tekken games director Katsuhiro Harada apparently called “terrible” in a since-deleted tweet — all the different fighting styles actually look different. Capoeira looks different from kung fu, which looks different from boxing, and so on. Everything else about the film, though, just isn’t Tekken. It’s far too serious about its premise, it omits the memorable character backstories, and it ends up messing up Heihachi (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) by seriously toning down his lethal nature.
So what would a perfect Tekken adaptation look like? It’d feel absurd on the surface, given its huge roster of colorful characters, but it’d be able to find the drama and heart in their battles and interactions. It would be based on real martial arts, the way Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series The Legend of Korra are, though like both of those shows, it could get fantastical and explosive with them from time to time for the sake of a good spectacle. Most importantly, though, it would need to take audiences on a journey that’d replicate the feeling of mastering a Tekken game, by showing us just how much work can go into the simplest martial arts move.
Unfortunately, that basically describes Netflix’s Cobra Kai, a series with its own pedigree, backstories, and fandom. Tekken fans will just have to keep waiting for an adaptation that takes the games’ strengths seriously. Until that improbable future comes to pass, at least they have a long and memorable series of video games to keep them busy.
Tekken: Bloodline is currently streaming on Netflix.