Knights of the Zodiac Is the Rare Great Hollywood Anime Adaptation
The Hollywood version of Saint Seiya is actually, unbelievably, pretty awesome.
The best animation adaptation by Hollywood has quietly arrived in theaters, and no one knows it exists. With a modest $60 million budget, approximately the cost of catering on a Spider-Man sequel, the studio has shown no faith in Tomasz Bagiński’s Knights of the Zodiac, a live-action version of Masami Kurumada’s Saint Seiya that somehow stars Sean Bean.
It’s a shame Knights of the Zodiac is almost DOA as it enters theaters, because it’s actually great. While it’s grading on a big curve, given the bumpy history of anime in the West, Knights of the Zodiac is the surprise of the summer as a rousing sci-fi superhero flick with unique Asian American zest.
Based on the Saint Seiya franchise about a martial artist who protects the reincarnation of Greek goddess Athena, Knights of the Zodiac is secretly brilliant in its holistic understanding of what makes anime appealing as a medium. Melodramatic characters, impenetrable worldbuilding, and acrobatic choreography are all hallmarks to some of the best anime. Zodiac is faithful to these eccentricities,which most “real” Hollywood movies overlook in favor of verisimilitude.
It doesn’t “elevate” its source material in the same way that, say, Francis Ford Coppola made his masterpiece The Godfather out of an airport novel. Instead, Zodiac is wholly reverent to anime and to all things that make it so weird and so fun. There just hasn’t been a movie like it since Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which similarly wrapped itself in anime’s extravagant pulp aesthetics and character-driven storytelling of wunderkinds.
Though Michael B. Jordan’s Creed III publicly touted its anime inspirations a few months ago, in execution, Knights cranks the dial to 11 to bring the outlandish, rhythmic, and sensory-stimulating choreography of homemade TikToks to the big(ger) screen. Its action doesn’t hit as hard as Creed III — things get lightweight when VFX superpowers are involved — but Zodiac has all the Shaw Brothers-style fight choreography that should have been seen in 2017’s Power Rangers.
But Knights is more than its wire-fu. It’s the coming-of-age story of Seiya (played by Japanese-American actor Mackenyu), an underground fighter scouted by an affluent benefactor (Sean Bean). Unbeknownst to him, Seiya wields a power that makes him eligible to become a “Knight,” an armored protector of Athena whose spirit exists in the beautiful Sienna (Madison Iseman). Through epic training and a budding, star-crossed romance between Seiya and Sienna, Seiya learns to uphold his ancient duty while searching for his lost sister.
Although plagued by unintelligible plotting, low-rent production design reminiscent of a Fox Kids series, and talented actors who struggle to mutter lines with lingo like “Cosmo” and “Eagle Knight,” Zodiac is nevertheless a gleeful celebration of its source material’s artform in a way most Marvel and DC blockbusters almost never are to comics. It’s also just a rousing popcorn film on its own, with intricate action (with equally engaged camerawork) that stands out from far more polished and expensive releases.
An underrated aspect to Zodiac is its defined yet unremarked sense of identity. It’s the new ideal for Asian-American superhero stories, where Asian talent take center stage in a story not solely contingent on race. Sure, it’s a tiresome trope for all Asian-led action movies to introduce its heroes in fight clubs (Hello Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Snake Eyes) but Knights of the Zodiac at least finds thematic and narrative footing in how it introduces Mackenyu’s lead as an unconventional thinker and unlikely hero. That Mackenyu’s handsome Japanese features are spotlighted in a magical Karate Kid-esque story also feels like unofficial, and long overdue, correction in an industry that too often champions white faces instead. (Hello, Dragonball: Evolution.)
Knights of the Zodiac is no Guardians of the Galaxy, arguably the benchmark by which movies like Knights will forever strive towards. After all, James Gunn’s Marvel hit successfully translated obscure comics into a heartfelt story with throwback sci-fi aesthetics. In an instance of “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” Knights coulda been another Guardians, a blockbuster with B-movie spirit that wins over audiences with an authentic portrayal of love in its many forms. Maybe because of a middling script, slapdash editing in anything but fight scenes, and absent romantic chemistry between Mackenyu and Iseman, Knights doesn’t amount to the same heights. But it nevertheless runs at such a propulsive pace it never stops being even just a little bit interesting, and it certainly never stops being fun.
As streamers like Netflix and Amazon dump the most maddeningly average content despite ridiculous price tags, the wildly sugary Knights of the Zodiac getting a theatrical release feels both brave and bittersweet. It isn’t auteur cinema by any reasonable definition. But it is a rare treat that packs a stronger punch than it looks, thanks in large part to actors like Bean, Famke Janssen, and the eternally underrated Mark Dacascos giving it the time of day. Knights of the Zodiac may be welcomed into theaters by the sound of crickets, but that doesn’t stop its star from shining bright.