One of my most anticipated movies of the year is Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders’ live action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga and Mamoru Oshii’s anime (as well as its spinoff material). That said, I wouldn’t exactly call it an excited anticipation. While the trailers have looked impressive, capturing the cyberpunk feel of the source material, getting the visuals of the property right are only one part of what makes a good anime-to-live-action adaptation. And up to now, no movie has really gotten it right–many have gotten it flat-out wrong. Some stories just need to be told using animation, and there’s danger inherent in moving it across formats.
The beauty of anime is that it can be anything, from the quietest character dramas to the most ridiculous endeavors in zany madness, and everything in between. The medium itself is so versatile, and it’s up to the filmmaker whether the art style be very exaggerated or incredibly true to life. In truth, any story can be told in any medium, provided the people behind the adaptation have a firm grasp of the material; however, most of the time, the anime that gets elected to be translated to live-action is only chosen because of how much the anime wowed visually.
In other words, the anime that uses its medium in the most extreme, visually dazzling ways tends to be the sort that Hollywood (and, to be fair, Japan’s film industry as well) thinks would make for good blockbuster fare. This means that much of the anime that has found success in the Western world is of the sci-fi, action, and horror variety. Nobody’s really clamoring for a live-action remake of Isao Takahata’s lyrical nostalgia drama Only Yesterday–a movie that I think uses the anime medium in utterly gorgeous and effective ways–but there’ve been talks for what feels like forever about making a live-action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a movie that revolutionized cyberpunk aesthetic with body horror and action elements.
And that brings me to my first major point, which is manga. Naturally, manga and anime are incredibly closely tied in Japanese art and culture, and one often fuels the other. They coexist in symbiosis in a way Western comic books don’t with any moving media, be it live-action or animated. Even if a comic book does beget a movie adaptation, the film either doesn’t follow the book exactly–like most big budget affairs–or it follows the story while changing the look dramatically. Interestingly, one of the most “faithful” Western comic-to-film adaptations is Sam Mendes’ 2002 film Road to Perdition, which most people didn’t even know was a graphic novel in the first place.
In manga and anime, though, often the manga authors work directly on the adaptation, and might even write or direct the film themselves, as Otomo did with Akira. This allows for the film or TV version to be incredibly close to the source material, even bringing to life its direct visual style. I think of Attack on Titan, an anime series that literally looks like the pages of the manga brought to life. Yet, when a live-action version of the same text was made in Japan in 2015, the duplicated look was off-putting and took me out of the reality of the movie.
But the Attack on Titan movie was made in Japan for Japanese fans. An entirely separate huge hurdle comes when a Western live-action adaptation of an anime or mange totally misses the point of the source material.To say nothing of the at-best-troubling whitewashing in the casting department that we see in so many productions, there’s cultural nuances that simply don’t track. I hate to bring up what is arguably the worst example of this ever, but the 2009 movie Dragonball Evolution not only cast Goku, Bulma, and Piccolo with white actors, it failed to effectively transpose some of the Dragonball franchise’s hallmarks, such as the exaggerated humor and over-the-top fight scenes. These stories cannot and did not work seriously in a format where the characters are made to adhere to the laws of human physics.
As computer special effects get closer to looking truly real, the likelihood of seeing science fiction anime coming to the live-action realm goes up. Already, the Ghost in the Shell movie looks to be as visually close to an anime source material as we’ve ever seen without being “cartoonish,” but there’s so much more to anime as an art from than simply mimicking story and visuals; the hardest thing for a film to replicate, especially outside of Japan, is the inherent Japanese-ness of every aspect. Even something like Cowboy Bebop, which is arguably one of the most “Western” anime series, has distinctly Japanese flourishes and even code of honor. A character like Radical Edward almost assuredly would be impossible to replicate in live action, as are the distinctive looks of all the other characters.
Far be it from me to proclaim which pieces of art should and should not be transferred to a different medium, especially when the stories are strong enough to warrant new incarnations. But the risk is far different here than in adapting a Western comic or a novel; there’s an expectation that a film based on an anime to retain some of the distinctive visual elements, but at what point do those simply become a pastiche rather than a true adaptation? I would argue something like Ghost in the Shell has a cool enough story to be done without having to make the Major and Batou having to look identical (sans race, annoyingly) to their anime and manga counterparts. And at that point, they’re just exploiting visuals rather than telling a compelling story.
Images: Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks/Kodansha/Toho