For more than two decades, adapting manga or anime into live-action cinema has been a particularly winding road for American studios to follow. “Dragonball Evolution,” “Speed Racer,” “Ghost in the Shell” and “Death Note” to name a few. All of these tanked at the box office and were slammed by critics. Even though some of other live-action films have been well-received, their track record continues to be where many people have low expectations for these live-action productions. “Knights of the Zodiac” — the latest one based on Japanese material — was expected to be a savior for anime and manga fans but, unfortunately, that’s again, not the case.
An ambitious production, this film is based on Masami Kurumada’s popular manga series “Saint Seiya,” which was a legendary graphic story serialized in “Weekly Shonen Jump” during the ‘80s. It enthralled readers in Japan, and was also turned into a long-running Anime TV series which ran from from October 11, 1986 to April 1, 1989, and was also broadcast outside Japan. After the success of ”One Piece Film: Red” and “The First Slam Dunk,” Toei Animation funded 100% of the production cost of this film with mostly “Hollywood” staff. But the original manga series is available in 28 volumes (246 episodes).
With so much source material available, this film is trying to become set up as a long-lasting franchise. The story centered around Seiya (Mackenyu), a headstrong cage fighter who taps into a mystical power called “Cosmo,” when he fights Cassios (Nick Stahl). After a fateful night, Seiya escapes from a fight and meets a mysterious stranger named Alman Kiddo (Sean Bean) who kidnaps him and they go to a secluded place where Alman’s adopted 18-year-old daughter Sienna (Madison Iseman) resides. She is the reincarnation of Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom in the world of “Knights of the Zodiac.” She is fighting against Kiddo’s scheming ex-wife, Guraad (Famke Janssen) and her armored foot soldiers.
However, Seiya is not ready to face this powerful opponent yet as he was trained by Marin (Caitlin Hutson) who is responsible for overseeing his progress, including teaching him how to unleash his cosmic energy. Seiya has to go on a wild quest of self-discovery to become the mighty Pegasus Knight.
One thing that stands out about this film is that the producers enlisted a Japanese actor to play the lead role. The son of the late great martial arts star Sonny Chiba, Mackenyu possesses the action actor skills just like his father, so the action sequences are the lifesavers of this film. Andy Cheng, the fight coordinator behind Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” lent a sense of realism to the gravity-defying fight sequences, but that doesn’t help his performance due to the failure of the story to give his character a substantial arc. Mackenyu and Madison Iseman give dull performances and lack the connection and chemistry that they desperately need in this film.
The screenplay is credited to the screenwriting duo of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, along with Kiel Murray of “Cars 3.” They keep everything here fairly basic, so basic that it’s as if they’re giving a screenwriting course on how to develop a simple fantasy-action story. It suffers from stilted dialogue, clunky exposition and a plot that lacks any real sense of thrills and suspense throughout.
The visuals are quite different from the original work. Tóth András Dániel and Godena-Juhász Attila’s muted costume design, starting with the holy robe (the saint’s cloth/armor) worn by Seiya, is predominantly a metallic gray with a golden accent instead of its original trademark red-and-white look. Are some fans wondering who, in their right mind, was thinking it was a good idea to change the color of Seiya’s iconic cloth?
In an interview with director Tomaszs Baginski, he had a meeting with the original author, Masami Kurumada, and received various instructions and opinions from him. Baginski had presented another design for the holy robe that was based on the original work, but author Kurumada said that he intended it to be different from the original, so the director altered it to be this version for American fans.
Even though the director clearly did his homework, it took five years to make this film. Baginski doesn’t have a notable track record as a director, mostly having worked as a producer on several Netflix films prior to this, it’s definitely a challenge taking on the studio project that has so much visual effect. He worked quite well with his actors. Even though the roles played by Bean, Janssen, Dacascos, are all pretty limited on the presence of their scenes, at least they delivered performances, but Baginski’s overall execution lacks the distinctive feel and tone of the original works from Kurumada.
If Baginski intended to present this to the world of 2023, he then changed it in this way for this reason. He had to incorporate new themes in a way that didn’t not contradict the original work, which was a difficult task to begin with. Since the original work was old and the genre completely fantasy, it’s difficult to incorporate those visuals into a live-action format. A great deal of time was spent on the project from the planning stage on. There are trends in live-action film adaptation which had completely shifted as they were planning the project so they had to make further changes. The original manga was long and difficult to adapt or digest, so it wasn’t suitable for a single two-hour film; you have to give the producers and director a certain credit to even attempt such a difficult task.
In the end, “Knights of the Zodiac” suffers from the problem of trying to please both a general audience and the core who loved the original content. Reportedly, Stage 6 Films and Toei Animation planned to turn it into a whopping six-film franchise. It’s an ambitious move since ‘Saint Seiya’ contains enough lore to warrant becoming a franchise, but given this first attempt which will make die-hard fans cringe, it doesn’t look like it will deserve a sequel, let alone a franchise.
Knights of the Zodiac releases in theaters starting May 12.
Grade : C-
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Here’s the trailer of the film.