If you’ve consumed any pop culture in your life, you’ve likely experienced the phenomenon of the retcon. Short for “retroactive continuity,” it’s when the writing staff of a creative work chooses to either redefine or straight up ignore previously established canon to branch out their story in new directions. From Jon Snow’s return on Game of Thrones and Judy Winslow’s disappearance on Family Matters to just about every comic book superhero death ever, retcons have been around forever. (My personal favorite is an alternate Superboy PUNCHING THE UNIVERSE so hard that Jason Todd, the second Robin, came back to life.) So it won’t shock you that the worlds of anime and manga are in the same boat. Many changes have been made to try to make their stories work, so we’re going to take a look at how those retcons usually pop up. Pay attention, because things may change by the time we’re done…
Just as in many other media, one of the most prevalent ways you see a retcon in anime and manga is when a character’s death just doesn’t stick. The most egregious user of this trope is Dragon Ball Z, thanks to the reusable retcon MacGuffins that are the Dragon Balls. Goku and his friends are constantly making the ultimate sacrifice, only to make it not-so-ultimate by bringing them back from hell (or the Home for Infinite Losers, depending on which version you watched.) It’s a fantastic way to finish off an enemy, but you’d think all of these guys would have some trauma from the experience…
Another great saga is the tale of Mu La Flaga. The Earth Alliance escort pilot from Gundam SEED defended the crew of the Archangel, eventually taking on the responsibility of controlling the Strike Gundam. However, he falls in combat, and his helmet is shown floating among the wreckage… at least originally. When the compilation Gundam SEED: Special Edition movies aired, Mu’s helmet was removed. Later, in the sequel series Gundam SEED Destiny, a mysterious masked pilot called Neo Roanoke appears on the scene, helping the special forces unit Phantom Pain in its assaults against ZAFT. But when the Archangel recovers him, and his DNA is tested, it’s discovered he was Mu all along. The leadership of the military-industrial concern LOGOS had him brainwashed and used him as a tool to help them eradicate Coordinators from humanity. By the end, his memories were recovered, and he fought alongside his allies once again.
SHIFTING IN FOCUS
Sometimes, a property is created, and along the way, the creator decides to take things in a different direction. The change can be jarring, even if for the better. Dragon Ball rears its head again here, thanks to Goku’s history. When the original Dragon Ball began, Goku was just a mysterious boy with a tail, given a noble upbringing by “Grandpa” Gohan. But in the outset of Dragon Ball Z, years after the original series began, the invading Saiyan warrior Raditz reveals Goku’s true origin: he is Kakarot, an advance Saiyan warrior, meant to eradicate humanity to prepare the Earth for sale. But an errant bump on the head as a baby spared Earth’s population and gave us a happy-go-lucky martial artist instead. Thanks to this – and the barrage of existential threats that would follow Raditz - the focus had solidly moved from wacky, world-spanning adventure to knock-down, drag-out combat, completing the change that had begun partway through the original Dragon Ball’s run.
Yu-Gi-Oh! is another example of a series shifting hard from its original direction. Creator Kazuki Takahashi had planned on a horror manga where Yugi Mutou, through the power of the Millennium Puzzle, would submit cruel people to torturous, often violent, Penalty Games to exact justice. But early in the run of what would be volume 2 in the manga, Takahashi introduced Seto Kaiba, a professional card game player. He tricks Yugi into handing over the Blue-Eyes White Dragon card Yugi’s grandpa had in stock at his shop, then suffers a Penalty Game in return. And while the story would continue to cover other things, Takahashi would keep coming back to the card game, which he eventually dubbed Duel Monsters in the book. Finally, near the end of volume 7, Duel Monsters would take hold as the primary focus of the book. The Penalty Games and ironic revenge fell to the wayside, and a franchise would take form, with a series and card game that are both enjoyed worldwide to this day.
People complain to this day when the slightest error occurs in the localization of a series. Nuances missed by the official translator can ruin underlying emotional weight from the Japanese version. But if you think about it, we’ve got it pretty good nowadays, because localization was much more haphazard back in the day. The original storylines were often chucked to the wayside, retconned with completely new stories and names generated to suit the American market. It started back in the ‘60’s, with Tetsujin 28-go becoming Gigantor and Giant Robo changing to Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.
The trend continued into the 1980’s, and Beast King GoLion met huge success when it got Americanized. Five pilots return to Earth from an interstellar expedition, only to find their home world wiped out by nuclear war. After being captured by visiting Galra Empire forces, they escape to the planet Altea, where they discover five robotic lions that combine into the mighty robot GoLion. There’s a reason why this sounds familiar. World Events Productions would buy the rights to the series, undo the destruction of Earth, and tone down the cruelty of Galra before relaunching the series as Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
The most heavy duty Americanization of anime occurred around the same time, though. In 1984, American studio Harmony Gold acquired the rights to Super Dimension Fortress Macross, a popular mecha anime from 1982. But there was a problem: to be viable for weekday syndication, a series needed to have at least 65 episodes, and Macross only had 36. Harmony Gold then acquired the licenses for two other series, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA, and proceeded to… well… slam them together. The stories were woven into one multi-generational saga through the use of a mysterious energy source called Protoculture, and arrived to American airwaves in 1985 as Robotech. The combined series went on to be a cult favorite, but would also leave a mess behind. While a few spinoffs would make their way stateside, the original non-Robotech forms of the three series are only available on Amazon Prime, as Harmony Gold kept their license current to maintain their ownership of Robotech. Due to that, well-regarded Macross spinoffs such as Macross 7 and Macross Frontier have never been released in North America.
Often, you can be proud of something you created, but just think about how you could improve it by changing one or two things. And sometimes, those tweaks can lead to whole other iterations of that thing you created. Take, for example, Tenchi Muyo! Beginning in 1992 with an OVA, the story revolved around Tenchi Masaki, a teenager who accidentally releases a “demon” sealed in a cave for 700 years, only to discover she’s actually the notorious space pirate Ryoko. Once she’s freed, she attracts an array of powerful women from outer space, who naturally all start crushing on Tenchi. But when adapted for television with 1995’s Tenchi Universe, a few tweaks were made. Ryoko was never trapped on Earth, just crash-landing near Tenchi’s home instead. Space policewoman Mihoshi had a new partner, Kiyone, to back her up. And the whole gang was forced to flee to space to clear their names of false charges. Then, things got mixed up again for 1997’s Tenchi in Tokyo, where the plot moves from the idyllic countryside to the big city, Tenchi’s royal lineage is discarded, and a new love interest, Sakuya, arrives to sweep Tenchi away. And that’s not even touching the side stories like Tenchi Muyo GXP, Magical Girl Pretty Sammy and War on Geminar. Let’s just say that the Tenchi-verse is… complicated.
We’ve also seen this happen a lot recently. One of the most notable reboots was Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. When the original Fullmetal Alchemist aired in 2003, the manga was still underway, so the anime’s creative team had to come up with an ending of their own. But by the time Brotherhood had begun airing in 2009, Hiromu Arakawa was in the home stretch of wrapping up her manga, so the anime had a lot more reference material to work with. So instead of traveling to World War I Europe, Edward and Alphonse directly take on the threat of Father and his homunculi.
One of the most recent redo’s is 2019’s version of Fruits Basket. The tale of Tohru Honda and the Soma family was originally adapted in 2001, but the 2019 version, while still funny at times, does away with most of the slapstick comedy, focusing more on the tragic pasts of the characters involved. And, as an added bonus, the story may get an ending this time around as well, with a second season currently airing!
Finally, one of the most divisive retcons is one that completely changes the way a story ends. Whether it’s fan backlash or just the creators wanting to better stick the landing, switching out the final chapter can be cathartic to some, but just as aggravating to others. The biggest example of this is Neon Genesis Evangelion. The iconic 1995 series started out as a standard mecha show, but soon took the genre in a new direction, taking a look at religion, psychology and legacy as much as it did giant robots punching things. In the final two episodes, creator Hideaki Anno placed Eva pilot Shinji Ikari in a dark room with a chair, forcing Shinji to contemplate his place in the world and how he connects to others. But fans, wanting an explosive finale, were enraged with the minimalist finale. Some even stooped to sending Anno death threats. In response, Anno created The End of Evangelion, a movie with a more literal ending to the story, but still one with many layers to unfold.
Other series even eschew the risk of you not liking the ending by just giving you multiple endings outright. Junya Inoue’s 2009 manga series BTOOOM! revolved around a man named Ryota, who is one of the best players of the MMO game that shares the series’ title. Suddenly, he wakes up on an island where he is forced to participate in the game in real life. In 2018, the series finally came to an end… twice. Depending on how you wanted the story to end, you could read either the “Light” or “Dark” version of volume 26 and choose Ryota’s fate for yourself.
This mechanic is also often used in stories inspired by romantic visual novels. Amagami SS and Yosuga no Sora, both released in 2010, used the same storytelling gimmick: the male romantic lead has many girls as dating options, so rather than tell one story, the series both tell all stories. Amagami SS was much more linear, telling each girl’s story as a 4-episode arc, while Yosuga no Sora had a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure vibe: if you want to see Haruka date Kazuha, watch episode 3. If you want to see him with Akira, skip to episode 5. It’s definitely one way to satisfy everyone…
Retcons are a constant in storytelling. They can be used to introduce fresh new ideas, bring back beloved characters or just change the topic entirely. Retcons can help you find new facets in things you love… as long as they’re used correctly. Just remember to stay on your toes, because what you know already might not matter in the end!