How Hollywood should handle anime/manga adaptations

In honor of the upcoming release of Ghost In The Shell, here’s a piece I wrote around a year ago about Hollywood should handle the adaptation of Japanese media. I had the idea after the new of Legendary buying the movie rights of Pokèmon broke. After all this time, I feel it still actual. Hope y’all enjoy!

Pokemon ScreenshotIt’s this week’s news that a bidding war was happening secretly in Hollywood, and it was suppose to be top secret. The reason why was suppose to stay behind the scene, it’s because we are talking Pokèmon. Right now, three studios are actually active in the bidding: Warner Bros., Sony and Legendary, the latter one said to be very close to win.

Now, this article won’t be about what consequences a Chinese conglomerate (which Legendary is part of) will cause if actually brings home the rights of one of the biggest Japanese properties, which apparently is concerning a lot of outlets (but if business is business no matter what, it shouldn’t be too important). Rather, a personal opinion on how an adaptation of Japanese properties (novel, anime, manga, videogames) should work.

First off, I’ll start saying that I’m not a fan of those adaptations that tend to be super-faithful to the plot and facts that the source material, whatever it is, presents. Because the mentality of being faithful to those things eventually makes you forget the differences between a book/game/cartoon and a movie. What is in it doesn’t necessarily translate properly into the big screen. If you see, the more faithful adaptations are not necessarily the most acclaimed. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, who basically took the comic book vignettes as story boards, is probably one of the most faithful adaptations ever, with studio driven changes, that, even if we include the ending, are overall minor. What works in the comic book, doesn’t necessarily work in the movie (for example, the funeral of the Comedian is really fast while in the movie is a very long sequence); the biggest problem of this adaptations that the satyrical and social value of the original novel is completely lost, since the influence of Nixon and the cold war mindset by 2007 (year I presume the movies started pre production) were just an old story to tell, ergo we didn’t really care about those. There are rumors that a studio wanted the movie to take place in the George W. Bush era. in this case, although a much more challenging writing, would have gave more chance to the filmmakers to make a version of Alan Moore’s work relevant to our times, giving rather a different take on the material, maintaining it’s core objective of provoking, which is arguably more important than the plot, in this case.

That’s one of the reasons why V For Vendetta worked so much, because, by changing a lot of major things (the protagonist above all) from the original comic book, the Wachowskis-written blockbuster is still relevant nowadays as a thought-provoking film. Anyways, you can check any adaptation (including Lord Of The Rings) and realize that change sometimes is best for the adaptation (flow-wise, and, well, market wise).

Now, after a long digression on how an adaptation should work, let’s go back to the actual point of this article: the arrival of the Japanese properties in Hollywood.

There’s no denial that Japanese anime/manga/games are the next target here in California. Since the superhero scene is held by the triumvirate Warner, Disney and Fox, and the active billion-dollar making franchises are just a few (Marvel, Star Wars, Transformers, Pirates, Fast & Furious), and they are all based on well-known properties, it’s clear that studios are going after anime shows, because they are known, they have a following and their premises are potentially really marketable.

As of now, we have two studios that own major anime properties: Fox owns Dragon Ball (even after the rape-level movie they released in 2009), while Lionsgate owns Naruto. Yes, technically Warner owns both All You Need Is Kill, whose adaptation was released under the name Edge Of Tomorrow (I know, the original name is so much cooler), and Godzilla, but the first is a graphic novel (adapted from a novel) and the latter was a movie already, so it required a minor adaptation. Also, Sony owns Metal Gear Solid, of which since the announcement with Kojima doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

For instance, Dragon Ball is probably the most popular anime property in the world. Nowadays, after 32 years since its manga debut (30 for TV), is probably a half a billion worth franchise, and potentially bringing it up a billion with proper work towards a live action film series.

Seriously: as much as we love it, this design can’t work in live action.

However, adapting Dragon Ball is tricky. Firstly, it visually requires a lot of restyling, which equals of a realistic time of pre-production and pre-visualization of no less than 1/1.5 years to do it properly; all the creatures, characters and environments needs to be re-planned an redone by giving a proper amount of time (including hairstyles, especially hairstyles) in order to make them suitable for a worldwide audience to see on a big screen. Secondly, due to the overwhelming popularity of Z over the original series and giving for granted that the studio would want more adult Goku than young Goku right away, the introduction of the world and the character(s) set up needs to be re-written. All of this wasn’t in mind of Fox when they did the horrible movie, I guess it was done to renew the rights (they had them since 2003). That said, all of this work is necessary if the studio wants to make Dragon Ball a saga into a Star Wars style series (and the potential is there). Funny enough, the fighting sequences are not a problem: the ending fights of both Matrix Revolutions and Man Of Steel state that is possible.

Naruto, on the other hand, could be a easier adaptation to work on, as its original series was quite popular as well. Given that, it still requires a re-visualization as a re-write; not as much as Dragon Ball, but no less important. The best way to approach the Ninja world, personally, would be Harry Potter style: as we stated the original series popularity before, a movie series where we see the character grow up could perfectly work for the franchise. Also, would give longevity, perhaps making the plot adaptation more fluent.

The plot, in both cases, is a really tricky problem. To start with, both manga and anime are long form narrations: 52 episodes year-round for anime in Japan, and 52-chapter year round for manga, in both cases released weekly. To make things clear, the entire Dragon Ball Z anime consist of 291 episodes, 444 episodes if we count the original series too, which would go over if we count the Super and the apparently no-more canonical GT series. And differently from the longest US TV series The Simpsons (technically the longest is WWE Raw, but it has multiple storyline, which anyways end within 2 to 3 months from their start, and it’s live) which has aired more then 500 episodes without a continuous storyline, anime shows have a continuous story of which a great number of episodes (I would say 90%) is necessary to keep understand what’s going on. Naruto, on the other hand, simply eclipsed that number. All this to simply say that us western people consider American TV Series with 24 episode a season a long form narrative. Compared to anime, that’s short.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no Anime is made with the idea of being exported. Japanese culture doesn’t work like this. Dragon Ball became popular probably due to the similarities with Supermanand its violence (Attitude Era wrestling was making huge ratings on TV during that time), Naruto shares some features with the Toriyama series, from characters to fights.

Very few video games are made with the international audience concept in mind. Final FantasyMetal Gear Solid and Pokèmon are probably the only ones that are specifically produced to be also exported.

That said, the Pokèmon adaptation needs just a visual work, plot wise is basically a free pass. The anime was cool at the time, but the games are what made the property important, and those have no real story. Potentially, Lionsgate could get their hands on a Transformers-style franchise.

Regarding Metal Gear Solid, the story is an hybrid between a western and a Japanese story. Visual elements from both cultures are present into the plot, the trick here would actually be to decide how to approach the property. Kojima was attached to supervise the project, but since he divorced from Konami and consequently from the video game franchise I don’t know if he still there.

I guess all this interest for Japanese properties came because of two movies.

The first, Pacific Rim: without being an actual adaptation of any property, Del Toro wisely took elements of the kaiju culture and some anime features (Neon Genesis Evangelion was a clear reference for the Jaeger design) to bring his epic to life. What made the big difference was the good amount of time for pre-production.

The second one, obviouslyis Edge Of Tomorrow. After reading All You Need Is Kill, you can see major changes have been made. The setting was completely westernized, and the creature/world design was obviously westernized too. However, the core of the story is there, and it’s one of the most beloved movies in the last 3 years. In fact, despite a not at all exciting box office run (which was barely enough for the movie to break even), it’s getting a sequel thanks to its fan following and appreciation. Not something executives in Hollywood won’t notice

That said, Edge Of Tomorrow may bring some complications to the most purists fans, which we can see already in the Ghost In The Shell adaptation. Since the westernization of the movie worked so well, we are gonna see it in every movie based on a Japanese property. And of course will start from the casting. Tom Cruise for All You Need Is Kill, Scarlett Johansson for Ghost In The Shell, Nat Wolfe for Death Note. All of the movies of course will get different settings, meaning most likely the movies won’t take place in Japan, but in the US. Even the long gestated Akira adaptation is rumored to take place in Neo New York, rather then the original’s Neo Tokyo.

Now, even if you don’t like the idea, people should need to approach this realistically: this movies, in order to be properly adapted, need a very high budget. We are talking about $150 millions at least, except Death Note, which could get away with $25/30 million budget due to it’s minimalistic concept. All the others need a huge budget, and, in order to go profit, studios and investors will want big names to bank on. Meaning star power, which means american/British actors, which of course means different settings unless you go for a ‘I moved out of my country’ story. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t means it’s not a well done adaptation. And if you think I’m justifying white-washing, I’d rather define it as an explanation for it.

A lot of people, though, would argue that a lot of manga/anime characters don’t look asian, rather western. This is a very interesting point, which is complicated and not at the same time. While the drawings don’t always represent asian physiognomy (at least in those like Dragon Ball or Naruto), it’s not required to do so. One of the important points made by fans online, who most of them have studied, either for hobby, passion or more, the culture, Japanese people assume those drawings represents asian people because for them the asian physical features is the standard. And it’s not a racist thing, is just the truth. For us, those drawings represent caucasian people because for us that’s the standard, those are the features we are exposed since we were born. Same things happened to them. So, yeah, they are technically still representing asian people. At the same time, though, for movies like Dragon Ball, Pokèmon and Naruto, which all take place in fictional worlds, the idea of race can be cheated out easily.

As much as an utopia, especially considering proper pre-production when most studios are eager to make money right away, but if they want a proper adaptation to base on a franchise, they should follow this mindset.