Anime adaptations have a sordid history in Hollywood’s production studios. Death Note is the latest property to get adapted by the US. A seminal anime I first devoured in my teenage years, I watched the Netflix take on the much-loved property with both amusement and dread. What the heck had they done to Light Yagami, sorry, Turner—why was he so dumb? Why was this version of Ryuk so proactive, as opposed to a cheerful spectator? Why did Watari, and L, have a Blade Runner-style revolver? All of these questions have no good answers.
I didn’t hate the US Death Note movie. I enjoyed it as one might enjoy a schlocky horror movie. The visuals and music were great and stylish, the performances mostly good. Dafoe makes a fantastic Ryuk, ominous and amusing all at once. Stanfield really gets into the pecularities and mannerisms of L. Still, the movie missed most of what made the original manga great.
Our own Ade Adeoye writes that “the Death Note movie by no means had to imitate the original [manga]”. I happen to agree; adapting the story and themes of a Japanese manga to a different setting could highlight some interesting differences in cultures and exist as more of a companion piece than a direct remake. Unfortunately, Death Note misses the mark, with infuriating writing decisions and characterisation choices for most of the main cast—and yet, it’s probably one of the better Hollywood anime adaptations, sitting at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie that was the most disappointing to me was Dragonball Evolution. Dragon Ball was my gateway drug to anime and manga, like so many other kids and teens in the west. To this day, I run a site based on DBZ and engage, often, in discussions about its artistic merit (and come in defence of its flaws). Studios had so much to gain from creating a successful live-action adaptation of such a beloved series, but they failed so, so hard. They butchered everything iconic about the franchise, from the setting to the visuals to the characters. Son Goku is a struggling high school student who gets bullied. Goku. The little anarchic monkey boy-turned-space-warrior. Bullied.
Characters are introduced with little set-up, and team up quickly with no chemistry. Lord Piccolo wants to destroy/rule the Earth, for some reason. Mai’s there, too. Goku air-bends his way to victory, mostly thanks to the script, though he does turn into a monkey at one point. Not a cool Great Ape, though. That’d be too interesting. Zac Bertschy of Anime News Network writes: “This movie appeals to nobody. It was made for no one.” Fans will feel disdain about the changes, and newcomers will be confused and annoyed about the lack of decent, or even mediocre, writing. DragonBall Evolution is one of the most critically panned anime adaptations, with 14% on Rotten Tomatoes.
I could spend a whole feature length moaning about Evolution, but we’ve gotta move on.
Other anime adaptations have failed critically. ScarJo-helmed Ghost in the Shell rocks a comparatively high 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. A CGI Astro Boy sits at a whopping 49%. The Wachowski’s adaptation of Speed Racer makes it to 40% (and for whatever reason, has a cult following. As I was working on this article, GameSpot released a 10 Worst Anime Adaptations list, and the comments are filled with rage at Speed Racer’s inclusion).
You get the idea.
Why can’t Hollywood successfully create anime adaptations?
(Note: I believe white-washing and cultural appropriation are genuine issues in live-action adaptations produced in the US. However, I don’t feel eminently qualified to talk about these issues—at the very least, they would deserve their own feature or, perhaps, a Talking Point).
The Problem: Re-Interpretation and Changes
Many themes and plot elements in anime and manga are somewhat specific to Japan. Certain characterisations and archetypes that make sense to a story written in and set in Japan make far less sense if a story is adapted for a Western audience. Light Yagami is a stereotypically calm, scholarly young adult at the start of the Death Note manga run—when he comes into ownership of the Death Note, his internalised obligation to society leads to him using his new power towards his ideal of societal good: a world free of crime. Of course, he becomes corrupted along the way.
A stereotypical American youth probably does not have as strong an internalised obligation to society as their Japanese counterpart. Hence, Light Turner needed an additional motivation to target criminals; his mother is killed by a sadistic sociopath, Antony Skomal, in a hit-and-run, and he goes unpunished by the judicial system. This is the first name Turner writes in the notebook. His father gleefully calls him up in the morning to tell him about “karma”, and thus Light Turner becomes Kira (“Kira means Light in Russian and Celtic,” Turner tells Mia, and us, unconvincingly. Kira does not mean those things. I checked).
One of the core characteristics of Yagami is his high intelligence and confidence. Turner does not possess either intelligence or confidence (outside of a bizarre, late-third-act twist revealed in the last five minutes of the movie). Instead, the movie version of Light is unconfident and, for much of the movie, lacks a strong personal drive to use the notebook. In his first encounter with L, he pretty much reveals that, “yes, I am Kira, what can you do about it?”. I found myself pinching the bridge of my nose in frustration.
Mia takes much of Yagami’s calculation intelligence and manipulation. This is a change that could be interesting, but felt poorly implemented. Spoilers ahead: imagine if Light Turner died at the end of the movie, rather than Mia. It would signal a significant change in comparison to the original characters, and establish Mia as a truly interesting character. Instead, Light Turner reveals an uncharacteristic (and contrived) plan involving Mia’s death; this calculation is more Yagami or Mia than Turner.
Because of Light Turner’s personality, Ryuk has to be an active driving force for the story. This feels odd, as he looks and sounds like an explicit incarnation of the same character from the manga. Ryuk should feel be happy to sit back and watch how the humans use the notebook and interact with each other. It’s a show, or a simulation, to him—that is, the manga version of the character. Hollywood Ryuk forces the wielders of the Death Note to be active with the book, threatening to kill Light several times over the course of the movie. Perhaps this makes him more insidious, and, certainly, the movie plays up Light’s terror at Ryuk, especially in comparison to his manga counterpart, in a pretty hilarious freak-out:
Ultimately, however, it feels like the change to Ryuk’s character is for the worst. He comes across as a manipulative demon rather than amused bystander, a much more generic archetype.
Light’s character changes might have been interesting on paper, and a genuine attempt at adapting a well-known story in a unique way. However, it changes the principle interesting element of the show—the game of cat and mouse between two (or more) very smart, manipulating people—into a schlocky thriller, with gory deaths and some good visuals. The original, obviously, is better. As far as anime adaptations go, Death Note was an extremely promising story, with nuance and character drama. This was thrown out of the window.
Dragonball Evolution is worse still. Almost every element of Dragon Ball is ‘adapted’, by which I mean characters and elements of the show are given lip service at best. Evolution roughly adapts the first two-fifths of Dragon Ball, namely before the ‘Z’ sagas. We get introduced to Son Goku, Bulma, Chi-Chi, Lord Piccolo, Grandpa Gohan, Master Roshi—only, none of these characters are recognisable versions of characters from the manga. Nor, as an interpretation and re-imagining, are they given any room to breathe, to become new takes on legendary characters. The only thing tying the movie to the Dragon Ball I love are the Dragon Balls themselves; the characters are Son Goku, or Bulma, or Piccolo in name alone.
Hollywood’s record of adapting beloved anime franchises for the big screen is abysmal. What, then, should movie studios do going forward?
Perhaps Hollywood should stick to homaging and adapting elements of classic anime. This method has seen success time and time again. The Matrix couldn’t exist without the original Ghost in the Shell. Pacific Rim owes a debt to the likes of the Gundam and other ‘real robot’ anime series, as well as Godzilla. Akira, one of the next big anime movies due a live action adaptation, has inspired various western stories, from Chronicle to Stranger Things. Scott Pilgrim vs the World, by way of its source comic, utilises a canon of visual references not just to video games but to manga and anime.
However, studios will likely persist in wanting to adapt anime series directly to the silver screen—in which case, these productions should have direct creative oversight from the original creator(s) of the series they’re adapting. This should ensure a faithfulness to the essential themes and characters that made the source material so good, and could lead to interesting insights or even re-interpretations that are true to the creator’s vision.
In the meantime, let’s hope the studios keep their mits away from Cowboy Bebop or Akira a little longer, until they figure out how to do anime adaptations properly.