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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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‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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How Rimuru Tempest Changed the Game for Isekai Protagonists

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime shines within the vast sea of generic isekai thanks in no small part to protagonist Rimuru Tempest.

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that time i got reincarnated as a slime

The core premise of the isekai genre–a character being transported from their everyday life on Earth to a parallel universe–has become wildly popular for a reason: it’s an immensely appealing fantasy. Just as audiences everywhere fell in love with the seminal Spirited Away in the early 2000s, it’s still exciting to fantasize about discovering a new world and going on all manner of crazy adventures. However, the incessant flood of new isekai every season to capitalize on this trend has resulted in some of the most generic, overly-manufactured protagonists in any genre.

Though this sea of formulaic main characters is vast, it makes it all the easier to recognize when one bucks the typical conventions and actually proves that there’s room for unique takes on the genre. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime adheres to a few cliches, but it also manages to set a new bar for what a captivating isekai protagonist can be.

Rimuru in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Breaking the Mold

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as wholesome and optimistic an anime as they come. The tone can be deceptive at first; when Satoru Mikami is suddenly stabbed when trying to protect his junior, his dying wish is for his computer’s hard drive to be destroyed. But after being reincarnated as a slime–and gaining the new name Rimuru Tempest–his true desires become clear: world peace and a simple, comfortable life with friends.

What’s immediately striking about Rimuru as the main character is that he starts off as an average 37-year-old man. He spent his life working hard and appeasing his higher-ups to climb the corporate ladder. Shady hard drive aside, he lived a respectable and long life compared to the vast majority of protagonists in the genre. This significant age difference is evident in nearly every action and major decision Rimuru makes; he looks at situations practically before jumping headfirst into conflict.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

When Rimuru gets a drink poured on him by a noble in a bar, for instance, he quells his anger in consideration of the bar and the friends around him. When someone asks for his aid in an impending battle, he pauses to go over all the available information and reaches a consensus among everyone before agreeing. And when protecting a goblin village from a pack of wolves, he doesn’t just mindlessly slaughter all the wolves; he looks for the way of least resistance (killing the leader of the pack) before ultimately integrating them with the goblins as equals. Though his human form looks young, it’s the wisdom behind his actions that makes those around him respect his leadership.

This is especially impressive considering just how overpowered Rimuru is. His transformation into a slime came with resistances to fire, cold, electric currents, pain, paralysis, and the ability to absorb, analyze, and take the form of anything he wants. In other words, he could go down the path of the typical shounen protagonist and solve his problems with his fists, but he never lets his overwhelming power dictate his decision-making process.

Rimuru meeting with his commanders.

Leading a Nation

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as much about Rimuru’s adventures as it is about the rise of the independent monster nation he helps establish. Instead of running off in search of adventure, the little slime decides to nurture the goblin village he protected at the outset. He helps the goblins and wolves “level up” by naming them, shows them sustainable ways to gather food and build makeshift defenses, and even brings back dwarves to introduce blacksmithing and carpentry.

Through expansion, industrialization, and conflict, Rimuru manages to orchestrate the creation of his country in a way that’s genuinely believable. His ambitions for a peaceful and integrated world play out in his willingness to accept other goblin tribes, ogres, lizardmen, and even friendly humans in his country. Being able to rationally read situations makes forging alliances and negotiating with neighboring nations possible. When a major calamity threatens all life in the forest, Rimuru wastes no time in holding a summit and allying with other forest dwellers over a common interest.

None of this would be possible without the uncanny, Luffy-like ability to inspire a sense of trust and reliability in those he comes across. Just like the members of the Straw Hat Pirates follow Luffy out of respect and loyalty, Rimuru’s commanders follow him because of his sound judgment and dedication to seeing everyone in his nation be happy. It’s satisfying seeing members of Rimuru’s guard take personal offense when others talk poorly of him because it’s clear that he’s earned the respect he’s given.

If isekai is to continue growing in popularity and thriving long-term, room must be made for different types of protagonists. Be they depraved, refreshingly honest characters like Kazuma or upstanding yet easygoing leaders like Rimuru, both demonstrate how valuable it is to shake up the formula and try new approaches to the genre. If the constant barrage of isekai has bittered your tolerance to it as a whole, That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime is well worth giving a shot.

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Anime Ichiban 23: New Decade, Same Questionable Tastes

Hatsune Miku at Coachella? Mangadex getting targeted for legal issues? People defending OreImo? 2020 is off to a crazy start!

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Welcome to 2020, Anime Ichiban listeners!

Lots of things have happened in the past few weeks, not the least of which is Hatsune Miku making her Coachella debut. After catching up on industry news, we take a look back at some of our more questionable choices in anime and how on earth we manage to defend them.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introduction and what we’ve been playing
17:46 – Hatsune Miku to Perform at Coachella
25:29 – Crunchyroll’s “Most Watched Shows of the Decade”
30:03 – Funimation’s Popularity Awards
38:13 – Wages in the Japanese Animation Industry
45:38 – Miki Yoshikawa’s New, Fan-Picked Serialization
47:08 – Legal Trouble Brewing for Mangadex
57:02 – Highest Grossing Domestic Anime Films for Japan in 2019
59:33 – What shows surprised us and which ones do we struggle to defend?

TRACKS

Intro – “Dream X Scramble!” by Airi (Keijo!!!!!!!! OP)
Outro – “Lucky☆Orb feat. Hatsune Miku” by emon(Tes.)

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