The good news is that Knights of the Zodiac, the 2023 live-action adaptation of the manga and anime series Saint Seiya, will immediately look familiar to longtime fans. The bad news is that it’s because the film seems to be primarily based on the 2019 Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya CGI series, which fans widely consider a low point in Saint Seiya history. To be fair to that series and the 2023 movie, it’d take an immense effort for a live-action version to look as good as the classic anime adaptation of Masami Kurumada’s manga, a TV series that left such an impression that the series is getting a live-action Japanese/U.S. adaptation nearly four decades later. But it’s unclear why director Tomasz Baginski and his writers decided to abandon every element that made Saint Seiya so beloved in the first place.
First released in 1986, the Saint Seiya anime takes the time to slowly build its world around the reincarnation of the Greek goddess Athena and warriors called Saints (or Knights, in some translations). Their strength comes from harnessing their inner energy, called the Cosmos, and from their Cloths — mystical, ancient armors based on constellations, and distributed to the “worthy” by followers of Athena. The Saints use these tools to protect the goddess and mankind from threats, including other Greek gods.
Nothing in the ’80s anime is ever fed to the audience through such straightforward, clunky exposition, though. Viewers only get fragments of the story here and there, with some not coming into play until halfway through the series. The plot comes together over time into a fascinating whole. Mix that with brutal action and authentic character drama, and you have a show that was downright revolutionary when it first came out, and which still holds up nearly 40 years later.
The 2023 Knights of the Zodiac, on the other hand, just has characters flatly explaining the plot and their motivations out loud. The defanged action sequences don’t leave an impact, and what was once an engaging story about Greek myths and destiny has been downgraded into a cliched “battle” between technology and faith/magic.
To quickly sum it up: Knights of the Zodiac is about Sean Bean’s Alman Kido taking in Seiya, a young vagabond martial artist played by Mackenyu (son of Japanese cinema legend Sonny Chiba) and training him to use the mythical Pegasus armor to protect Kido’s daughter Sienna (Madison Iseman), the reincarnation of Athena. This all happens in a world mostly like our own, with a tiny sci-fi dystopian aftertaste to it, in the form of Guraad (Famke Janssen), a leader of a paramilitary organization who used a Saint armor to develop cyborg power suits and wants to kill Sienna because she believes the girl will destroy the world. Almost none of that plot comes from the original manga and anime — but it’s almost a note-for-note adaptation of the little-loved 2019 CGI series.
Saint Seiya ran for 114 episodes until it was canceled in 1989. It later came back as Saint Seiya: Hades (2002-2008), a show that reminded 21st-century anime fans, “Oh right, this series was awesome.” That incarnation opened the doors to new animated movies and shows… which sadly included Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya. Whether you go by IMDB ratings, Rotten Tomatoes, or your own eyes, it’s hard to argue that the CGI series isn’t the Saint Seiya story at its worst.
The 2019 soft reboot retells the original Saint Seiya story, only with dialogue that gives away more plot in one episode than the original anime did in 30. It comes with a sudden, startling aversion to the original show’s blood and violence, it introduces guns, helicopters, and other “evil” technology belonging to Vander Graad, a paramilitary villain whom the heroes have to defeat with inner-energy blasts.
At least the creators of the CGI series knew to keep the “Pegasus Fantasy” heavy-metal opening (originally performed in Japanese by Make-Up, and covered in English by The Struts as “Pegasus Seiya” in Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya). The live-action movie doesn’t even have the good sense to keep that fan-favorite element, and with everything else working against it, it’s basically dead on arrival.
The 2023 Knights of the Zodiac opens promisingly with a colorful fantasy battle, but then changes to a poorly lit fight club so fast, it’s enough to give audiences tonal whiplash. Seiya is introduced on his way into an underground martial arts fight hosted by Cassios (Nick Stahl). In both the ’80s anime and the CGI series, Cassios is a giant with a white mohawk and Mad Max armor. Here, though, he’s… just a guy. A regular, normal-sized, normally dressed (for a movie villain) guy. Viewers should use that character to set their expectations for the movie, because starting with Cassios’ intro, director Tomasz Baginski scales down and decolors everything from the source material, possibly in an effort to make this take on Saint Seiya more grounded and realistic — a truly bizarre choice for a story about magic knights fighting evil cyborgs.
Even the 2019 show kept the world of Saint Seiya colorful. The movie does not. When Seiya finally gets his signature Pegasus armor, it’s a dark gray (instead of the iconic white and red) that makes Seiya hard to see during his fights with Guraad’s black-clad cyborg ninjas, who are all a blur of dark tones. And it obscures Mackenyu’s face, so according to the Hollywood Law of Face Time, he has to lose his helmet or the entire armor within five minutes of acquiring it.
In the original manga and anime, losing or even damaging a Saint armor was a huge deal — canonically, the Cloths can literally only be repaired with blood. In some cases, a character would have to bleed to death to repair a Saint armor. In the live-action movie, though, that kind of damage is no big deal — and it’s just one of the many places where the writers don’t seem interested in what made Saint Seiya special in the first place. They only care about staging spectacles, largely borrowed from other movies and comics.
Take the battle where Seiya crawls toward a superpowered character who can’t stop emitting destructive energy. It’s basically the ending of X-Men 3: The Last Stand, which also starred Famke Janssen. The underground fight club that introduces Seiya looks like it was drawn from every live-action Tekken movie ever. Cassios eventually gets a power suit with a head protrusion permanently grafted onto him, like some copyright-dodging version of The Rhino from Spider-Man. And then there’s the Cosmos — the energy left over from the Big Bang that resides in us all, which the franchise’s Saints use to perform superhuman feats. That energy is now found in the blood, and can be transfused between people, which is way too close to the idea of midichlorians from the Star Wars prequels.
Knights of the Zodiac isn’t a completely empty experience. Sean Bean is endearing in his fatherly role, and audiences will have no trouble believing that Kido sees Sienna as his daughter whom he wants to protect, even though she’s a literal goddess. Famke Janssen is also much more complex than the CGI series’ Vander Graad — here, she’s actually Sean Bean’s ex-wife and Sienna’s adoptive mother, and she genuinely struggles with her conflicting feelings about saving her child or saving the world.
Mackenyu only seems to have two modes in the film: bored and confused. But his fighting scenes are excellent. Knights of the Zodiac’s martial arts style looks very original, focusing on a lot of flying kicks and landing in a refreshing middle ground between The Matrix-style kung fu and wuxia martial arts. The writers also touch a bit on the habits Seiya developed by living in poverty, including a lesson on how he’ll never reach his full power until he overcomes his childhood trauma by devoting himself to a higher purpose. That new element really fits the character. In places where the writers don’t get Seiya — for instance, by changing him from a man who never backs down, regardless of the odds, to someone who flees his first fight — they absolutely butcher him. But at times, they do take him in new directions that expand the franchise’s understanding of him.
But that will only matter to audiences who are already familiar with and invested in the Saint Seiya series. That only leaves two things for new viewers to enjoy: Bean and Janssen’s unfortunately brief performances, and short, erratic bursts of creative action. It seems like the people behind Knights of the Zodiac started by drawing on the worst part of the franchise, then kept making progressively worse decisions. The movie’s only saving grace is that there was once a ’90s live-action American TV pilot (only 19 seconds of which have survived), so Knights of the Zodiac at least can’t be called it the worst piece of Saint Seiya media ever made.
Knights of the Zodiac opens in American theaters on May 12.