Who doesn’t love spitballing ideas? Taking an existing concept or story that you love, bringing it to the bounds of what’s reasonable, and indulging in a degree of wish-fulfillment. It can even become its own sort of structured improvisation:
A Star Wars movie just about Obi-Wan Kenobi!
An Obi-Wan solo movie starring an older Ewan McGregor and a cyborg Darth Maul!
An movie where grizzled Ewan McGregor gathers a rag-tag team of bandits and force-sensitive hopefuls to defend the Lars homestead against Darth Maul’s underworld gang, Seven-Samurai-style!
…and a few ideas down the path, you’ve reached something so fanciful that even Mickey Mouse’s deep pockets will hesitate to fund the production of. But that second or third in the line is usually still within the realm of fun-but-wild ideas that an ongoing series can get away with for just an episode or two to shake things up.
DC Comics even has a specific brand for this: Elseworlds, which includes such wild concepts as Red Son (re-imagining Superman as a Soviet icon of Communism and the working class), The Doom That Came to Gotham (casting Bruce Wayne as a pulp action-adventurer fighting against Lovecraftian monsters), and JLA: The Nail (envisioning a Justice League run sour of public opinion without Superman as its beacon). But these are almost always short-run series of just a few issues, calculated and managed bets by the publisher with an inbuilt assumption that the idea won’t be will be long-lived.
But that’s an avenue that anime knows how to walk rather well.
Anime and its feeder genres of light novels and manga a unique spot in that regard, in that the feasibility of a title doesn’t necessarily have to ride on its stand-alone merit. Many series get their momentum though shared publications with a built-in audience. Other intellectual property has the ability to survive and even thrive on merchandise during the years between installments of the “main” series. And still others get (often inexpensive) television adaptations in hopes of boosting sales of the source material. And on top of that, anime itself comes in a relatively short seasonal format of 12 twenty-minute episodes, which somewhat lessens riskiness of any given risky concept.
And it doesn’t hurt if your show is riding on the back of a forty-year-old franchise.
Yatterman is one of those series that I hadn’t given a second thought to after my first exposure to it. After all, a Saturday-morning action cartoon from 1977 had managed to pull out a live-action adaptation that played its concept fairly straight – it was hard to imagine the franchise going to more interesting places than that. These long-running, stable franchises don’t tend to re-invent themselves very often, after all.
Which is a big part of what made Yatterman Night such a lovely surprise.
One of the benefits of working off such a long-established show is that you can operate under some degree of assumed knowledge. Even if you’ve never seen a single James Bond movie, you can understand the whole plot structure that would hypothetically lead up to the music video to Genghis Khan, just because the James Bond films and what they represent are so ubiquitous.
Likewise, having never seen an episode of the original Yatterman, it wasn’t hard to get an appreciation for the concept of Yatterman Night: take a crew of fun and ineffectual villain characters – not unlike the Pokémon anime’s Team Rocket trio, Captain Hook’s crew from Peter Pan, or even Bowser and his Koopalings – turn them into the questionable heroes of a from-the-ground-up reboot.
And do you know what? It works.
Some of the choices made in translation a little odd, like turning mature villainess Doronjo into an adorable nine-year-old who still dresses in the same shoulder-baring outfit, or turning her two horrible henchmen into charismatic guardians, because the marketing shows we empathize better with people who look traditionally handsome. But, in turn, that raises points about the importance of framing, intentionally or otherwise.
We’re drawn to these fun cartoon villains because of how strongly their personalities are written, and how their relationships are allowed to break the mold in how they treat each other – that is, often ambiguously and in ways that can’t be conveniently solved within the plot of a single episode. They just have this nasty way of ending up more interesting to follow minute-to-minute than Heroic Jones and the Do-Good Squad over there. In fact, if the Doronbo Gang weren’t trying to rob jewelry stores or revive an unspeakable alien evil or whatever, you’d think the show would be better off the more time it spends with the quirky squad of antagonists on screen, regardless of the fact that at least two of them look like their own walking caricatures.
This becomes terribly apparent when you flip their morality around and suddenly the titular Yatterman have little inherent character to redeem themselves with. Masked figures with a single-minded devotion to their cause don’t make for such a great pitch when their cause is enforcing a broken caste system and their own position at the top. And beyond that morality, there’s… not a lot left to the characters as an idea. The Yattermen are just good people, but “good people” on its own doesn’t give you much to work with.
On the other hand, while the original Doronjo has elements of that same single-minded devotion, she also has the task of actively leading her henchmen around and dealing with them one-on-one way – which she does such a poor job at that it that regularly bites her in the end despite her apparent intelligence. Even so, she retains her poise – and a certain element of vanity – despite her consistent failure.
Also, cartoon bombs blow up her face.
Her equivalent in Night – the spunky Leopard – shares in a commitment to her own vengeful goals. She has to learn to lead her own “henchmen” through study and determination, despite being incredibly young and certain to fail many times – in fact, with nearly the same once-an-episode frequency as her predecessor. That same “vanity” is transformed into an inspiring self-assuredness, and her own naive ways of trying to keep her teammates inspired and moving toward their goal is a much more benevolent interpretation of the character’s inability to live up to her role as head of the team.
Also, she builds a giant cartoon bomb that blows up in her face.
There’s a ton of other subtext that the show makes a go at exploring while leaving more for viewers to pick up on in their own time – the dangers and benefits inherent to idol worship and a designated common enemy, the nobility in thankless tasks, and the questionable value of a status quo.
But mostly it’s an exercise in how far you can take an odd concept and run with it.
Telling a short series from the villain’s perspective isn’t even necessarily a new thing – Doctor Doom and Lex Luthor have both had their own series at points, and recent perspective-flip Maleficent has done enough box-office business to warrant a sequel. And while these can make for insightful shifts for a while, at the end of the day the series’ image dictates that these characters are still generally returned firmly to the Box of Evil.
But Yatterman Night has the benefit of existing parallel to rather than as a true part of its original series. It gets the chance to stretch its legs and play off of the original’s familiar structure without needing to either firmly reject it to stay interesting or be beholden to it when all is said and done. Instead we get to leave things in that delightfully gray area.
It’s messy, but another by-the-book reading wouldn’t make quite the same mark.