Out of all the harm it’s done, the worst thing to come out of 2009’s Dragonball Evolution was not even the movie itself, but the faux-stigma it created around live-action adaptations of anime or manga for western audiences. That single movie was so outrageously bad that it somehow convinced people that adapting that entire medium – which is one of the most diversified there is – is an inherently bad idea. It’s such a nonsensical complaint that even writing about it makes me cringe. Ever since then, every time there’s the slightest smell of a popular manga being turned into an underwhelming movie – like, say, Fullmetal Alchemist -, this reactionary discourse comes back as if it’s a rule: “Stop turning anime into live-action! It doesn’t work! It never worked! It’s never gonna work!”
Except newsflash: live-action adaptations of anime or manga do work, and they have worked ever since long before western comic book movies were even a thing, so it’s well past time we stopped this ridiculous stigma. In this article I’ll discuss why this herd effect phenomenon of opposing live-action anime movies boils down to bogus arguments and how these adaptations have produced many fantastic pictures, even some of the best I’ve ever seen – with no hyperbole – and some which influenced great movies you have seen. To do that, we’ll go through some of the many great live-action adaptations there have been – including American ones. I’ll even throw you a bone and not go to the trouble of defending Adam Wingard’s Death Note movie – which yes, I think is good – at this time; we’ll save that for some other day.
THEY’RE NOT TABOO IN JAPAN
Just like Hollywood and its comic book movies, Japanese cinema has no quarrel with producing manga adaptations, many of which are highly successful both critically and financially. It’s perfectly common over there, but unfortunately if a streaming service doesn’t secure the international distribution rights for them, they fly over a lot of people’s heads. The Assassination Classroom movies were both huge hits in Japan, being among the highest-grossing films of their respective years and they’re just delightfully fun movies, but even I myself only found out about their existence because I’m already invested in seeking out Japanese cinema.
Prestigious auteur Takashi Miike directed Blade of the Immortal in 2017, based on the acclaimed and popular manga by Hiroaki Samura, which has also been adapted into anime form multiple times. Not only was the film an spectacular masterwork that achieved great critical response, it very much pleased Samura and was even nominated for prestigious awards – but since such a film has a limited reach, the grand audience outside of Japan ends up not making contact with it, and when a much weaker adaptation that did manage to score global distribution like the Netflix-released Fullmetal Alchemist comes around, that becomes the main point of reference excusing the bashing of anime adaptations. Except Netflix also released the Shinsuke Sato-directed Bleach film, which was a great movie that both critics and Bleach fans very much enjoyed to everyone’s surprise (not mine), and yet that didn’t get nearly as talked about as the underwhelming attempt at FMA. Why? Because the anti-anime adaptation crowd are a loud lot, and tend to make much more of a fuss over anything slightly negative than something greatly positive, therefore genuinely good movies such as Bleach get buried in the midst of the hate-talk surrounding the few less-than-ideal ones.
One adaptation that did achieve international success to the point of breaking through to a larger audience was 2012’s Rurouni Kenshin, which went on to become a highly acclaimed trilogy and will receive two final movies this year adapting the final arc of the original manga. The Kenshin movies, all directed by Keishi Ohtomo, were a masterclass in how to adapt a long-running shounen series into superbly realized and well-developed live-action films, and have become modern classics of samurai cinema praised by fans, critics and even respected filmmakers like Gareth Evans, helmer of The Raid and its sequel.
These movies might not have the global audience gravitas of Hollywood productions such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or The Dark Knight, but the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy is actually one of the best and most consistent film trilogies ever made in terms of both quality and continuity. Not only that, but if the two upcoming final films – both also directed by Ohtomo – deliver on the same quality that the initial trilogy has, Rurouni Kenshin will be one of the most accomplished movie franchises of all time, consisting of five fantastic films in a row – which is a level of consistency most comic book film series only dream to have.
It doesn’t stop there, however. As good as the Rurouni Kenshin anime series is, it never adapted the final arc of the manga and resorted to filler story arcs in its last seasons – later, the studio released two OVAs (afterwards re-released as feature films) adapting that final story, but those were non-canonical to the show and while one was a masterpiece (Rurouni Kenshin: Trust & Betrayal), the other was a glaring disappointment and a huge disservice to the original ending (Rurouni Kenshin: Reflections). In other words, if these two new live-action Kenshin movies deliver, this film series will be the only media to have properly adapted the entirety of the manga. Not the anime, not the OVAs; the live-action movies. One argument I’ve too often heard against live-action adaptations is “if we already have an anime that’s great, why do we need a live-action movie?”; well, to get down to the level of this nonsensical point, I take at look at Rurouni Kenshin and ask back: “if we already have the perfect live-action movie series, why do we need the anime?”
Hopefully that’ll illustrate how fruitless of a question that is.
MANY ARE CINEMATIC MASTERPIECES
Asia has been on the business of adapting manga to live-action since well before Hollywood’s comic book movie frenzy kicked in, which has resulted in some iconic classics that have been influences on both Japanese and American cinema alike. You like Kill Bill? Well, you have live-action manga adaptations Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and Lady Snowblood to thank for that. Scorpion (a franchise which I’ve covered in a series of reviews) and Snowblood, both made in the 70’s, are immortal classics of Japanese cinema and have been direct inspirations on Kill Bill, to the point of Tarantino using their theme songs in the movies and modelling O-Ren Ishii’s design entirely after Meiko Kaji’s Yuki – Kaji herself, who has been to the Kill Bill set, tells that the filmmaker would have the crew watch scenes of Lady Snowblood during breaks. Scorpion itself was a landmark on the mixture of Japanese exploitation with surrealism, and has inspired acclaimed filmmakers such as Sion Sono – who even references Scorpion directly in his masterpiece Love Exposure. The second Scorpion film, Jailhouse 41, is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I’ve discussed its brilliancy in my special.
On to more modern works, three out of Japanese auteur Mika Ninagawa’s four feature films have been manga adaptations, and all of them are phenomenal works of art, her best being 2012’s Helter Skelter, a movie that I often describe as the unholy offspring of Black Swan and The Neon Demon – except it came out before Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 fashion horror picture. Ninagawa’s three adaptations (Sakuran, Helter Skelter and Diner) are endlessly inventive films with incredible depth of subject matter and an unparalleled sense of style, and they’re completely different from one another, shining a light on how manga is such a diverse medium that lends itself to the most varied styles of storytelling.
But if Ninagawa’s work is too obscure for you, you might be more familiar with this little South Korean movie by the name of Oldboy. Commonly seen as director Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, Oldboy is regarded as one of the greatest neo-noir movies of all time, having achieved universal acclaim by critics and shocked audiences to the core when it came out in 2003. It even won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival – and it so happens to be a live-action adaptation of a Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. Another argument that manga/anime gatekeepers will often throw around is that the medium doesn’t translate to film because there’s not enough time in a movie to adapt a serialized work; well, the Old Boy manga is serialized in 79 chapters and 8 volumes, and Park Chan-wook successfully made it into a 2 hour movie that’s an all-timer masterpiece, so… I don’t think so.
THE POSSIBILITY TO BE CREATIVE
A legend of Japanese animation and cinema, Hideaki Anno has expressed his rejection of Pacific Rim and the possibility of a live-action version of his supreme work Neon Genesis Evangelion, saying that “it would be hard to express in live-action”. But hold your horses, because even still, Anno is not exactly an ally to the anti-live-action crusade; being a masterful filmmaker working with both anime and live-action, Anno simply has an eye for what he thinks works on those formats and what doesn’t, and has directed a live-action adaptation himself: Cutie Honey. Based on Go Nagai’s revolutionary 1973 manga that set foundations for the Magical Girl subgenre, Anno’s Cutie Honey is a pure delight of tokusatsu imagination in the form of a superhero comedy filled with satire and in-depth exploration of loneliness.
Because of Anno’s movie, I was compelled to go back and consume more of this character, buying my own copy of the entire manga, and watching every version of Cutie Honey there is – and let me tell you, if there’s one property that I would’ve otherwise described as “unadaptable” to live-action, that’s Cutie Honey. Go Nagai was basically the founding father of ecchi/hentai, and Cutie Honey was conceived with a lot of provocative sexual content that serves as a vehicle for him to poke fun at Japanese conservatism. If I had seen the original work first, I would’ve said that Cutie Honey is off limits for live-action adaptations – and yet Hideaki Anno, the madman that he is, did it. And he was not the only one.
After Anno’s film, two more live-action versions of the Warrior of Love were made in Cutie Honey: The Live, a tokusatsu TV show, and Cutie Honey: Tears, a movie reboot. All three versions find inventive ways to translate Nagai’s work to live-action: Anno’s film tones down the sexualization and leaves it in the undertones of its satire; The Live actually goes for the ecchi vibe and makes itself at home in the absurdity of tokusatsu TV; and Tears takes a serious approach, turning it into a high-concept cyberpunk action flick. The different interpretations invite new, different audiences – while the Cutie Honey manga and many of its anime versions are decidedly not for anyone, many people who wouldn’t enjoy them might find something they like in Anno’s live-action movie, or in Tears. These adaptations offer the opportunity to be creative and ascend beyond the reaches of their original work, as well as conquer new audiences.
HOLLYWOOD DOES GET THEM
Of course, it’s easy to read this lengthy article and say “oh, but those are all Asian movies! Hollywood is the problem!”, which is why we have this one final segment. The main argument against American-made anime adaptations is that Hollywood doesn’t care for or respect the source material, not dedicating the level of attention to detail needed to bring them to life… Well, there aren’t a great many deal of Hollywood adaptations yet, but these that I’m going to tackle here stand firmly against that point. One film that was critically panned at its time and used to be a vehicle – pun intended – for gatekeeping is the Wachowski sisters’s Speed Racer; too bold of a movie for 2008, it was a wild, visually maximalist ride that dared to combine anime and live-action language in ways that your textbook blockbuster doesn’t dare to experiment, and in recent memory it’s been critically reevaluated as the masterpiece that it’s always been. Speed Racer is proof that you can be just as imaginative in live-action as you are with animation, all it takes is a little nerve – and while not everybody was onboard with the film upon release, eventually people caught up to it, as it’s now regarded as a cult classic.
Then we have 2017’s Ghost in the Shell – which in all honesty warrants its very own article for reasons I think are obvious, but for now this’ll have to do. Au contraire to what your typical layman will tell you, the film is not a remake of the 1995 classic anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii. As an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the 2017 film is based on Masamune Shirow’s original manga, the 95 movie and especially the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It even encompasses elements from the 95 film’s sequel, Innocence, which a lot of critics who like to pass for anime experts just to dunk on this movie probably don’t even know it exists. Director Rupert Sanders had such a deep level of attention to detail when crafting this film that anyone who really knows Ghost in the Shell can see the absurd of claiming this version doesn’t care for its source material, and one common point of criticism is how Scarlett Johansson’s version of the Major has more of an individual personality instead of the eerie ambiguity of the character in the animated feature – except that’s a quality that Mamoru Oshii brought to that specific iteration of the Major; the original manga’s and the one from Stand Alone Complex, which Johansson’s is more primarily modeled after, do have much less of an ambiguous, inhumane personality. So does Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell not care for its source material, or could it be that some people aren’t as well versed in it as they pretend to be?
Last, but not least, we have Alita: Battle Angel. The James Cameron produced, Robert Rodriguez directed adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s work is, by far, the most successful Hollywood film based on a manga in every aspect. It’s been the highest-grossing one and was deeply beloved by audiences, having conquered a legion of fans now known as the Alita Army, on top of largely pleasing fans of the original manga. As a blockbuster it was a breath of fresh air in a scenario saturated with familiar types of movies, and as an adaptation it was a phenomenal translation of Kishiro’s universe and titular character to the big screen. Battle Angel Alita was no easy property to adapt to film, yet Rodriguez and Cameron made it as though if it were effortless, and not only that; this particular live-action movie was an incredibly superior, richer and much more attentive adaptation of its source material than the Japanese anime OVA that was done before it – which it also borrowed elements from and improved on them, like the character of Chiren, who was created for the OVA and is pretty much pointless in it, but is given a purpose and fully-fleshed out arc in the movie. Now that Alita‘s out and, against all bets, people actually loved it, there’s clamor for a sequel, and if that happens it’ll be a first for a Hollywood manga/anime movie.
IN OTHER WORDS, STOP GATEKEEPING
As you can see, there have been too many cases of well-succeeded manga adaptations to let the ill-fated ones steal the spotlight. Manga and anime offer an endlessly diverse realm of new stories to tell, something cinema is always striving for, and to say the entirety of those mediums doesn’t work in live-action nor will it ever is pure ignorance. On top of that, new versions and reimaginings are only ever good for the source material; every time anything is remade, there’s a bigger exposure and demand for its original source. The original is reprinted, re-released, or simply sought out by curious spectators – I myself am a hardcore Rurouni Kenshin and Cutie Honey fan only because I watched their live-action films first, fell in love and then decided to seek the rest of it. How many probably got into Battle Angel Alita the same way? How many people watched the 1995 Ghost in the Shell for the first time in a movie theater because there were screenings of it leading up to the 2017 version? And even when one turns out horrible, it doesn’t do any harm to the original, after all we had Dragonball Evolution and Dragon Ball is as big now as it’s ever been. No one is making you watch these movies, but the discourse against them needs to stop, as we never know what wonders could come out of them, or how many people will become fans because of them, and cinema needs to be allowed to take risks. If making an anime adaptation means it might turn out like DBE, but there’s a chance it could turn out like Rurouni Kenshin instead… I’ll gleefully take that chance every time.
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