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Anime Adaptations: Why Does Hollywood Always Fail?

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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?

The Solution

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.

Chronicle

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.

George slumbers darkly in the wastelands of rural Wiltshire, England. He can often be found writing, gaming or catching up on classic television. He aims to be an author by profession, although if that doesn't pan out you might be able to find him on Mars. You can argue with him on Twitter: @georgecheesee

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. mojack411

    October 23, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    A Hollywood live action of “your name” was recently announced and I’m absolutely terrified. I hold that movie so close to my heart and I can’t bear the thought of it being turned into something else or potentially ruined.

    Well written article that goes beyond just bashing adaptations and pointing out they did have potential, it was just terribly misguided.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      October 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      wait what why no stop it Hollywood stop

    • George Cheesee

      October 24, 2017 at 3:21 am

      Thanks for the praise.Ultimately, anime/manga live-action adaptations are usually based on (Japanese) comic books, and Hollywood seems to be getting THOSE right, but it doesn’t treat its anime source material with the same level of respect or understanding.

  2. Kyle Rogacion

    October 23, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    The problem behind anime adaptations is a problem with adaptations at large for exactly the same points you bring up. Source material should inspire, rather than act as a crutch. This is why I can appreciate Lord of the Rings as both a movie and book series. They’re two vastly different types of stories that utilize the strengths of their respective mediums.

    Here’s hoping that one day there will be a giant weeb that gets into a position of influence within Hollywood.

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Anime

Anime Ichiban 33: Coming into Maturity

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Anime Ichiban welcomes our anime waifu overlords, old and new. Join Matt and Kyle this episode as they discuss the return of the Goddess of Anime, Haruhi Suzumiya herself, then hop on over to the new virutal sensation that’s finally sweeping English-speaking nations: Hololive Vtubers!

For this episode of Anime Ichiban, the SHITSUMON! topic will have the duo diving into recently released Aggretsuko Season 3 and The Great Pretender and explore how the two shows work with mature themes.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introductions and what we’ve been up to
23:33 – The Return of Haruhi Suzumiya(‘s light novels)
37:23 – The Debut of Generation 1 of Hololive English Vtubers
53:07 – Minor news roundup: (Shenmue anime announced; Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel Part 3 movie debuts to huge success; KyoAni fire updates)
58:35 – SHITSUMON! How does anime portray mature themes in its storytelling?

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Anime

Anime Ichiban 32: The Art of Following a Formula

Corporate shakeups and Galapagos Syndrome spell omens of a changing global landscape for the anime industry.

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diary of our days at breakwater

Corporate shakeups and Galapagos Syndrome spell omens of a changing global landscape for the anime industry and that the crew digs into along with how a series can effectively perform within its genre conventions.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introductions
12:28 – Legacy piracy site KissAnime shuts down
28:45 – AT&T reportedly looking to sell Crunchyroll
43:27 – Galapagos Syndrome: Is anime in danger of losing its global identity?
58:41 – News Reel
1:02:20 – SHITSUMON! How do shows perform effectively and still entertain in genres whose formulae are already well known and expected?

TRACKS

Intro – “Cagayake! GIRLS” by Houkago Tea Time (K-ON! opening theme)
Outro – “Tsuri no sekai e” by Umino High School Breakwater Club (Our Diary at the Breakwater ending theme)

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Anime

‘One Piece: Stampede’ is an All-Star Behemoth Buckling Under Predictability

Does One Piece: Stampede sail all the way to Laugh Tale, or remain anchored in an East Blue of mediocrity?

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As the fourteenth film in Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece saga, One Piece: Stampede was released in 2019 to critical and financial success. As a big-budget commemoration of the anime’s 20th anniversary, Stampede has lots to live up to, from successfully stamping a momentous two decades, to satiating the hype of a passionate global fanbase. Does it sail all the way to Laugh Tale, or remain anchored in an East Blue of mediocrity?

It’s party time at the Pirate Fest!

The Pirate Fest, a grand gathering of the sea’s most infamous individuals, is underway! At the festival, the Straw Hats compete with their Worst Generation rivals to retrieve a treasure of Gol D. Roger. But behind the scenes, festival organiser Buena Festa and legendary pirate Douglas Bullet are scheming something sinister.

Cutting to the chase, One Piece: Stampede soon kicks into an all-out battle against said Douglas Bullet, with Luffy working with friend and foe alike to fell his opponent.

Much like Dragon Ball Super: Broly, also animated by Toei Animation, each frame of One Piece: Stampede is a treasure to behold. Fluid animation and colors spell eye-candy magic, and the odd bit of 3D animation isn’t (too) visually jarring.

One Piece: Stampede nails its mission statement of lightning-paced popcorn entertainment to a tee. Goofy shonen films don’t have to transcend ‘awesome action and silly superpowers’. Rather than shooting for the moon and coming up short, Stampede settles for smashing the sky. With white-knuckle fights and satisfying character moments conveyed with a zippy pace, One Piece: Stampede assuredly brings what fans want. And whilst not as developed or memorable as other film baddies (One Piece: Strong World’s Shiki or One Piece: Z’s titular Z), Douglas Bullet is terrifyingly tough enough to tick the boxes.

Playing It Safe

Whilst the ‘playing it safe’ ethos of One Piece: Stampede succeeds on the surface, the imaginative innovation of One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island is missing, and the excess of characters prevents the possibility of channeling the simplicity of One Piece: Dead End Adventure. Stampede works as anniversary celebratory bombast but isn’t the series’ smartest, and with the core of the film occurring in a single spot and under dull skies, location fatigue rears its head.

For some, the draw of One Piece: Stampede is its constant character cameos. From the instantly recognizable to the deep cuts, it’s a fun gimmick for fans, although the absence of big names like Kuzan and Jinbei are noticeable. Some cameos fall on the side of groan inducing-ly forced, shoehorning a requisite Zoro fight, or overtly shouting to audiences “Remember them?!” Having no effect on the story, these cameos are clunky and break narrative immersion.

Far from the worst of One Piece’s wildly varied films, Stampede is what it needs to be. It lacks the creative spirit of One Piece’s heights and is dampened by its inconsistent cameo execution, but it’s a fine anniversary celebration for one of manga and anime’s, if not the world’s, best works of fiction. For the uninitiated, it’ll be like an avant-garde acid trip, but for those clued-into Luffy’s antics, it’s a barrage of ballistic glee!

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