Why the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ Creator Changed the Game in Anime

Comic mastermind Bryan Lee O'Malley hopes his fans enjoy the big swings in the Netflix's new Scott Pilgrim story

From left, Scott Pilgrim and Matthew Patel in "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off," voiced by Michael Cera and Satya Bhabha, respectively.

Courtesy of Netflix

Words by Caroline Cao

This feature discusses light spoilers for the anime.

It’s a zany metaphor for the perils of plunging into a new relationship. The Scott Pilgrim six-volume comic series, published by Oni Press from 2004-10, is a rom-com high on shōnen manga influences and video game references. It follows the eponymous 23-year-old Canadian bass player, who falls in love with the Girl of his Dreams, Ramona Flowers. But per the video game logic of his world, he must defeat—“K.O.” in Street Fighter lingo—Ramona’s seven Evil Exes in order to date her.

The comic-writer Bryan Lee O'Malley, a Canadian of French and Korean descent, looked to his early adulthood, band pals, and past romances as loose inspiration for Scott’s relationships. On his graphic novel’s white-centricity, he once reflected on Tumblr, “I’ve sometimes joked that Scott Pilgrim is my fantasy of being a cute white indie rock boy,” having grown up as an “ostracized mixed-race weirdo” (and sought to avoid white-centricity in his later comic works like Snot Girl and Seconds).

Scott Pilgrim subsequently acquired a cult classic adaptation, the Edgar Wright-directed 2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie, starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Despite making short of its budget, the superlative style of the film helped it retain a faithful fanbase. And the fans are getting fired up again. The Japan-based Science SARU (the experimental anime company behind Inu-Oh and Devilman: Crybaby) directed an anime retelling Scott Pilgrim Takes Off for Netflix, out today. Amplifying this anticipation, Wright is serving as an executive producer (alongside SARU’s founder Eunyoung Choi) and the movie cast hopped back in to voice their respective characters.

Also, showrunner O’Malley and his co-showrunner, co-writer BenDavid Grabinski have unleashed a big swing rather than a rehash. In a recent interview with O’Malley, he told me he agrees that it’s “fair” to see the anime as his “Rebuild of Evangelion(referring to the remake of a beloved mecha anime series), given that it branches off into new paths from the initial canon. The titular Scott disappears, rendering him the love interest in need of rescue. It’s up to Ramona to go Sherlock mode for him, and find some closure for her fraught romantic history. Although packed with the signature action sequences, it might surprise fans that the anime puts more emphasis on diplomacy.

At the time of our conversation, the eight-episode anime (directed by Abel Góngora) hadn’t reached mass eyeballs yet, so O’Malley pondered over the incoming reception. “For the past two years, I've known that I'm doing something a little wild with my beloved characters,” he says. His subversive spin is a result of him reflecting, “I think part of that is just getting older, and part of that is the way our culture has evolved. In the 2000s, it just felt very funny to me to have a guy just fight through all these emotional problems. It still is funny, but we also kind of look at that as a sort of an immature outlook now, I think, culturally.” Revisiting Scott Pilgrim with Grabinski was an opportunity to construct alternative outcomes to Ramona’s fractured relationships, instead of fighting them to the literal death.

Matthew Patel, voiced by Satya Bhabha in "Scott Pilgrim Takes Off."

Courtesy of Netflix

He could also spotlight supporting characters who vanished too quickly in the source material, particularly the comically villainous Evil Exes. Matthew Patel’s actor Satya Bhabha has more hamminess to exercise with Matthew’s new arc, upgrading him from an offed, one-note joke foe to a megalomaniac chairman of an empire—and he’s a D-plus theater student “with delusional Broadway dreams,” the best possible excuse for a Stephen Sondheim Into the Woods gag.

O’Malley takes pride in a scene where Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), Scott’s jilted high schooler date, strums a bass for the first time. Her musical proficiency—literally—illuminates the band room with color. After spending most of the source material and movie being a stalkery and combative “Scottaholic,” Knives gets to exist outside of infatuation, without necessarily erasing her pain over Scott’s betrayal. “We really wanted to give Knives a world that was not about boys,” he says.

Initially, he did worry about animation translating the niche Scott Pilgrim humor, but Science SARU put those anxieties to rest. “For the most part, Science SARU is very autonomous. I just had to kind of stand back and treat them with respect,” he says.

During a saturation of live-action remakes of animated films, I pointed out that the Scott Pilgrim anime operates as an outlier on two fronts: Firstly, it's an animated retelling that succeeds the live-action version as opposed to the typical vice versa. Secondly, because it’s remixing and subverting the main story, I can’t neatly categorize it as an anime spin-off, which has become common for live-action Western productions (Star Wars: Visions or the South Korea-based, Studio Mir-animated The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf to name a few). In response, O’Malley had a comment on the “Is it really anime?” debate that often follows those Western-collaborated anime tie-ins. “I'm not that interested in the debate,” he says. Science SARU handles the animation, while the West handles the English recording. “So yeah, it's an interesting kind of mashup of sensibilities.”

Could Science SARU animate more Scott Pilgrim on the horizon? Although the anime drops a mid-credits scene teasing evil still afoot, O’Malley admits it amounts to a parody of Marvel stingers. He did tease, “I think it all kind of depends on how things are received. At the moment, we don't have any concrete plans…I can imagine I'll just suddenly wake up and be like, ‘Oh, what if we do this with this character?’”

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is streaming on Netflix.

Published on November 17, 2023

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.