It is a truth frequently acknowledged that anime that isn’t the latest Shonen Jump hit, packed to the gills with jiggle physics, or part of a long-running beloved franchise tends to get shafted when it comes to production resources—especially if it’s something marketed to women or focused on LGBTQ+ characters. Consequently, there are some great queer manga and novels whose anime fail to capture what makes them so compelling, be it because of a mismatched creative team or animation so sparse and stiff it might as well be nonexistent. Not all of these are unwatchably terrible series, but they all share at least one major factor that detracts from the appeal of the story. Fortunately, if you’re intrigued and want to check out the source material, all of these titles are licensed in English.
The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window
Summary: Kosuke Mikado has always been terrified by his ability to see ghosts; Rihito Hiyakawa is an exorcist delighted by Mikado’s ability to act as an amplifier for his powers. Hoping to become braver, Mikado agrees to become Hiyakawa’s assistant, and the two begin investigating an escalating series of local curses.
They got a real brain trust in the director’s chair(s) for this one. Chief director Daiji Iwanaga had almost no prior experience in the role outside of a few episodes of the especially sleazy tiddy series My First Girlfriend is a Gal!, while second director Yoshitaka Yasuda was primarily a key animator whose work was primarily in action shows like Tekken and boxing series Hajime no Ippo. Neither of them, if the show they created is any indication, would know eroticism if it slapped them—this is bad, considering that they were tasked with adapting a mystery series that frequently dips its toe into Hannibal-esque erotic horror. The simple but memorable designs and clean line art of the manga look stiff and ugly, while color decisions like making one of Mikado’s cardigans granny-pink or slapping a piss-yellow color filter over the screen make it just plain unpleasant to look at, even before we get to the limp translation of the ghosts that are meant to be a lynchpin of the series.
The script feels patchwork and abrupt, despite coming from reliably solid writer Ayumi Sekine. Part of what makes Tricornered Window the manga so compelling is that Hiyakawa frequently ignores Mikado’s boundaries, which is pretty normalized in steamy BL and josei series; but as the series goes on, it makes that lack of care for Mikado’s boundaries into a central source of tension and horror between the two leads even as they continue to feel drawn to one another. It’s smart and refreshing, but the anime skimps over the discussions of consent and boundaries to jump right into badly-staged versions of erotic scenes, pushing the series back toward the kind of “but he’s sad and I can fix him” storytelling that the manga worked to complicate. It’s a case not just of lackluster adaptation but of poor staffing choices actively undermining the core of what made a work memorable and loved.
Adachi and Shimamura
Summary: Sakura Adachi and Hougetsu Shimamura are high school students who meet while skipping class and slowly grow closer.
Yup, that’s the whole summary. This is the kind of very quiet, slow-moving character piece that’s both wildly popular in anime when done well (see: the ultra-dedicated fans of K-ON!) and a soul-crushing drag when paired with subpar direction. AdaShima looks nice, and it absolutely nails certain moments: Adachi trying to justify her love for Shimamura as definitely Noble and Pure before being derailed into a panic spiral by the thought of boobs has a particularly true-to-life flair.
Its trouble is threefold. First, those nice visuals come packaged with a lot of just-this-side-of-pervy shots of girls putting on stockings, thighs, hemlines, everything suggestive you can think of that’s not quite a panty shot. It would make sense if it were framed as character point-of-view shots, but the leering is rampant from the word go and it’s distracting in a show that wants to be so grounded in its teen leads’ experience. Then there’s the choice of ending. While any adaption of an ongoing title will be necessarily open-ended, this feels less like it ends and more like it just…stops. Shimamura’s arc in particular peters out halfway, and Adachi doesn’t even come to much temporary closure after realizing her crush halfway through.
Ultimately, the series never escapes the fact that it comes from an extremely interior book series about teenagers being trapped in their own heads and it isn’t always sure how to convey that compellingly on screen. Which is a shame, because the novels are a fun if extremely slow-burn romance. For the visually inclined, there’s a pretty good manga version too. With no sequel season on the horizon, it’s bound to be more satisfying.
Requiem of the Rose King
Summary: A gothic retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Richard is an intersex young man and Duke of York, cursed by his mother and beloved by his father. When his father is killed trying to take the English crown for York, Richard vows to complete his dream of a York king.
Rose King got luckier than a lot of modern shoujo works, in that it received a 24-episode adaptation covering the entire series rather than the partial 12-episode approach. On the downside, this means that the series had to cover 17 volumes of dense political machination and high romantic melodrama in that constrained space—for comparison, the fake marriage action comedy SPY x FAMILY covered about four volumes of manga in its first twelve episodes. Rose King absolutely books it through the first quarter of the series covering Richard’s early years, sacrificing some of the story’s strongest elements and a fair amount of foundation for the character. The adaptation’s focus is set firmly on Richard’s moves after his ascendance to political prominence and his romantic entanglements, resulting in a somewhat stop-start pacing as episodes rush through some scenes before slowing down to breathe in quiet interpersonal moments.
In the show’s defense, it’s clearly doing what it can with relatively little. Why focus on the battle scenes when you have to depict the majority of them as pans over still shots? The storyboarding breaks its back trying to make up for a lack of fluid animation with bold color palettes and creative visual direction, and it really works when Richard is wrestling with his inner demons or facing down nightmares. This is popcorn-munching gothic melodrama, and at the end of the day I admire that the show approaches its lead with compassion while also focusing on the emotional and romantic turmoil that no doubt drew many fans to the work in the first place. It’s just extremely frustrating that it had to make that choice despite springing from quite popular source material; meanwhile, shit like Rising of the Shield Hero comes from rock-bottom selling source material, tanks in the ratings in its second season, and still gets pre-emptively greenlit for a third. The shoujo glass ceiling is real, people.
Summary: Sorawo, a college student majoring in modern folklore and urban legends, finds a door to an alternate universe she calls “the otherside.” There she meets Toriko, a confident young woman searching the otherside for her missing mentor. Together, the two venture deeper into the mysterious and dangerous world they’ve uncovered.
Cosmic horror is always difficult to translate from a written to visual medium. A huge chunk of the genre is focused on warping the narrator’s perspective or playing with the limitations of a locked-in character point-of-view. Those things can be successfully translated into visuals—just look at School-Live!, directed by the talented Masaomi Ando and maybe one of the best pieces of perspective play in anime. But Otherside Picnic didn’t have the benefit of a star director. It had stridently competent at slice-of-life but ill-fitted for genre fiction Takuya Sato, a list of producers as long as my arm, and the animation team at the drastically overworked studio Liden Films.
Liden was working on four shows simultaneously that season, and while Cells at Work: Code Black came out looking slick, Otherside Picnic…. functioned. It’s a watchable show from beginning to end, but the monsters are done in CGI that’s jarring and shapeless more than uncanny and horrifying; meanwhile, the writing reorders its plot arcs so that rather than ending on Sorawo desperately racing to save Toriko and learning more about the central mystery, it closes on a two-part monster-of-the-week adventure involving some stranded American soldiers. It’s baffling from beginning to end, little more than an advertisement for the eerie, wonderful novels with a bonus of excellent performances from the lead actors. And Liden? It would go on to showcase its priorities by completely neglecting the rarely-spotlighted girls’ soccer series Farewell, My Dear Cramer (written by the same author as the downright beloved Your Lie in April) in order to pour all its best talents into shonen mega-hit Tokyo Revengers. It’s like clockwork.
Summary: After being forced to retire from pole vaulting due to an injury, 19-year-old Eiji Okumura comes to New York City as part of a journalistic investigation of street gangs. There he meets 17-year-old gang leader Ash Lynx; when Ash’s brother is killed and Ash is given a mysterious vial along with the phrase “banana fish,” Eiji winds up pulled into the deepening conspiracy—first by coincidence, and then by a growing desire to protect Ash.
This one’s going to be on the controversial side, as this series had more production resources and managed to reach a higher degree of popularity than any of the other titles on this list. But I will always, unfailingly, count it as a missed opportunity. The original Banana Fish is a compelling, pulpy crime thriller and one of the most beloved shoujo manga of the 1980s, on that had a pivotal influence on the development of BL as a genre. It has a sympathetic depiction of a sexual assault survivor in Ash, and his and Eiji’s powerful, unbreakable relationship stuck powerfully in a generation’s memory.
It’s also the most powerfully 1980s thing you’ll ever read, with a lot of elements that aged with the grace of sour milk: Eiji and Ash’s deeply emotional but physically chaste bond is structured in contrast to the people in Ash’s life who reduced him to his body, but it gets pretty dicey when every male character who does show sexual desire for men is a rapist, a pedophile, or both; the tackling of 1980s racial politics is hit-or-miss at best; and it staples on a bullshit Midnight Cowboy-esque ending that feels like a remnant of an early draft more than the satisfying conclusion to a story about a survivor facing down his demons and finding someone he can truly trust.
When the 2018 anime announced it was going to take place in modern day, it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to take what worked about the series and strip out the parts that didn’t—DEVILMAN crybaby had done something similar not six months earlier. Unfortunately, the producer seemed passionate about recreating the original work as exactly as possible, but with iPads. Not only does this carry over all the problems with the original work in a world that’s left it behind (although even when the manga was running, its contemporary Earthian had gay angels telling God to fuck off), it creates a host of new inconsistencies. Banana Fish was an extremely then-modern and temporally situated work, and the anime put no thought into how attitudes and legal systems around social welfare, LGBTQ+ rights, the internet, or the culture-shattering influence of 9/11 might fundamentally change the details of the story even if the broad strokes held true. It just changed Ash’s brother serving in Vietnam to an unnamed Middle Eastern war and called it a day. This one ends up being the most painful to me, because it’s competent enough that we likely won’t see it revisited again in our lifetime, and yet it can’t help but feel like a case of nostalgia strangling an opportunity for a genuinely modern version of a classic.