So returns my most infrequent series where we look at the issues that properties have in the transition from one media to another: Adaptation Decay. While in the past I have looked at the challenges of adapting manga to anime for this special edition I will be looking at a much more challenging adaptation - Hollywood live action. This of course will be ignoring (perhaps another special edition) Japanese live action adaptations which have issues all their own. The topic is of course currently in the news with the prediction that the much hyped and also much maligned Ghost in the Shell could become one of the years biggest bombs losing around one hundred million dollars...
When looking back at Hollywood adaptations of Japanese properties the results have been just plain bad to horrible. Manga, anime, and Light Novels have all been adapted in recent years and with the exception of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, the adaptations have been lack luster at best. For some reason the trip over the Pacific Ocean just does not seem to be kind to these kind of properties.
This is becoming more and more apparent as anime grows in popularity in the west and anime fans pocketbooks grow with it. In a medium starting to realize nerdy movies can make bank, the popular franchises are starting to actually get green lit rather then licensed only to die on the vine. However because of this boom in production we are now clearly seeing both the financial and artistic issues in doing so.
Interestingly it has not always been this way as in the 1990's a series of Japanese manga productions actually kind of succeeded. Not critically so much but at least monetarily. I am referring to the adaptation of Fist of the North Star and more specifically The Guyver. They worked for one reason and one reason only, they were cheap and they embraced it.
The Guyver especially embraced how bad it was and it came away as a surprisingly entertaining film. It like Fist of the North Star which was little more then a poorly made action film were not what you would call “Good” though they did keep you entertained. They also had the benefit of incredibly low expectations. Being niche products, for a niche audience, and with a budget to match.
However as anime has grown up and grown in popularity so too have interest in adaptations. We now have at least seven or eight potential anime adaptations in various stages of development, the furthest along likely being Akira. With the Death Note adaptation hitting later this year.
However this brings me to the first issue that Hollywood always seems to make when making adaptations of manga and anime - THEY CHOOSE THE WRONG ONES. Hollywood is so scared of flops out of these adaptations they only pick what they think will become hits. As such they pick from the limited pool of incredibly popular products. Most notably Shonen Jump anime and what we would consider “the classics”.
However each of them have a fundamental issue. They are very hard to film without a substantial budget. This is the biggest issue with Ghost in the Shell, it has a production budget and Ad budget of close to two hundred and fifty million dollars. For an MCU movie that is huge, but for niche manga/anime property even in an emerging market that is positively gargantuan. This is an issue with all of Hollywood (see the DC Extended Universes financial issues for an example) but it is especially true of anime adaptations.
Why? The most popular ones are oftentimes the most fantastial. Akira and Neo-Tokyo for example would be hugely expensive to film. While properly adapting either Naruto or Bleach would require substantial effects budgets to avoid making them look like Dragon Ball Evolution’s breaking windesque “kamehameha”... This is not even considering the monster budget that would be required for one of Hollywood’s biggest and longest lasting pipe dream anime adaptations the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion.
An easy way of fixing this is picking less popular but easier to film manga and anime that may work as live action. Though less popular a work, an adaption of something like Serial Experiments Lain could work. As its popularity is primarily derived from its complex and challenging story not the flashy effects. Revolutionary Girl Utena also seems primed for a live action adaption, it even checks off a whole bunch of Hollywood bonus points including a strong female protagonist - hell Utena could even be white, J. Law anyone? It would also challenge Hollywood to actually put a same sex relationship front and center in a film rather then trying to get plaudits for putting it in a throwaway piece of dialogue, looking at you Power Rangers.
The second issue one can see in adapting these works is quite frankly likely one of the largest. Nobody in Hollywood really gets them or how to make them work. The best adaptations are exactly that adaptations, taking what can work in live action from the source material while leaving out what can not. You can see a perfect example of this in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban which dropped a lot of the stuffy robes of the first two films and gave Hogwarts a more grounded appearance. While the film was less true to the books it was a better film because of it.
Anime adaptations can be good but somethings just don’t translate that well to another medium. A work should first be judged by why the fans enjoy it and what the central message and themes are; if they can be translated to live action then proceed, if they can’t don’t. Sadly this is difficult and it would require a fan and their is only so many Quentin Tarantino’s to go around. Sadly Hollywood actually recently lost its biggest anime fanboy in Robin Willians a few years ago, one of the few people in the town that actually got the medium and was excited by it. This is a guy who’s daughter was literally his princess Zelda.
Finally and this may get me accused of me being a Social Justice Warrior then so be it. If the character is Japanese, their entire origin is based around being Japanese, please for the love of god cast a Japanese person. What makes anime work for a lot of people is the fact it exotic and different, the Japanese flare of anime is a big part of that. When a character is named Motoko Kusanagi a name partially inspired by a legendary Japanese sword, get it the character is a figurative sword, then perhaps casting a white person even as beautiful and bankable as Scarlett Johansson is probably not the best idea.
Remember anime is more then just a story its also worlds and themes. If Hollywood wished to do a Ghost in the Shell properly do what OVA’s do all the time and make it a gaiden, a side story set in the world of the license. You still get the cache of the name but now you can write a story that fits the medium while allowing one to cast all the bankable stars you want. This also avoids the obvious issue of pissing off a sizable amount of the fan base by changing one of the most iconic characters in anime. Hell you could even set it in Vancouver, cost cutting at work the Canadian dollar is cheap right now after all.
Until Hollywood starts to understand these issues it will continue to put out lack luster adaptations. Films like Ghost in the Shell are not failing because the small but vocal anime population are not going to see them, no they fail and will continue to fail because the current system is set up to make bad films.
Know what is more bankable then star power? Quality. If you make a quality film and keep the budget reasonable people will be more likely to see it. Even Power Rangers an okay film at best is kicking Ghost in the Shells stylish yet unaffordable ass. I want anime and Hollywood to succeed together because it will be a good partnership for both, however until Hollywood understands what make anime work that will not happen any time soon. In the mean time go watch the originals they are classics for a reason.