So far this year there have been two major live-action adaptations of what I guess could be called "visual culture" properties, albeit ones hailing from entirely different corners. The first was Ghost In The Shell, about which I had some kind things to say and some less-than-kind things, and which landed with a wet thud even — and maybe especially — amongst the fans who has been most eagerly anticipating it. The other was Wonder Woman, a critical and commercial success.
This doesn't tell me that live-action anime/manga adaptations with strong female leads is a dry well or a crapshoot. It tells me that we've barely started to figure out how to make such things work, and that there remain a slew of other properties in that vein that might well be far better candidates for adaptation.
Most every Ghost In The Shell review, including my own follow-on discussion, reads like a catalog of all the reasons why that film stiffed: the problematic casting; the way the underlying story had already been passed by in popular culture by a good decade or more by things the original had influenced (see: The Matrix); the general indifference of mainstream audiences to cyberpunk aesthetics; and so on. Having a strong female character in the lead, though, wasn't one of them. Otherwise, you'd have to stand by the awkward argument that Lucy, also starring Scarlett Johansson in a role that is almost a spiritual precursor to her turn as the Major, succeeded in spite of her serving that precise function and not because of it.
It's a shame, because GITS and the Major are iconic, at this point even outside of anime audiences. That means one of the big properties that could have made the leap across the ocean and between media now sports a big label reading "NICE TRY". So with that off the list, what else could we turn to in anime/manga that features a woman at the center in such an iconic way — and, what's more, that could survive the transition not only from animation or illustration to live action, but also the move across cultures? Here's some suggestions.
I could count on one hand the number of shōnen, or even shōnen-to-seinen, titles that address female power as a fact — not something to fetishize, but something just to use unpretentiously and unexploitively as a story element the same as any other. Claymore tops the list, a broiling adventure that would have deserved the tag line To fight monsters, we created monsters had Pacific Rim not already snapped it up. That it features one of the finest, most self-possessive heroines in popular culture as of late is good enough. That it surrounds her with characters cast in much the same mold, but without being clones of her, is even better. It also provides us with a supporting male hero in the Steve Trevor mold by way of Raki, one who knows when to step up and when to step back. For all these reasons, and many others, it is arguably one of the best places to start.
If only because I love this property to death, I stand by my original assertion that you can make a Western version of it without screwing it up. There's many ways you can map what's in it to things familiar to English-speaking audiences. But the core idea — a group of misfit women (and a cross-dressing man, a misfit in his own right) banding together to preserve the things that matter to them — needs no translation. Neither does the other underlying theme, that a) people want love and acceptance for what they are and what they choose to be, and b) if they can't get those things from the world at large, they're going to build it on their own, and c) probably should anyway. We could stand to see positive messages like that slipped under the door by way of a property that is also fall-down funny and heart-warmingly relatable.
A confession: In truth I'm not the biggest fan of this property, about near-future (female) soldier Deunan Knute and her lover-turned-combat-cyborg Briareos. It's another of Ghost In The Shell creator Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk-isms that always seems to be more interesting in theory than in practice. That assessment could apply multiple times, given how many times it's already been adapted as an anime property. Note, however, that I don't think name recognition would be what mattered here, but the mechanics of the translation. If Appleseed were rendered as live action with a strong script, one that emphasized the heroine's strengths apart from her supporting hero and not merely because of him (as too often is the case with this kind of story), we might have a surprise hit piece of eye-filler. And unlike Ghost In The Shell, the original story is relatively locale-neutral, meaning there would be less to refit for the sake of a Western viewership — and less unnecessary controversy to court.
Boy meets girl. Girl hates-then-loves-boy. Boy gets girl. Girl eventually realizes she needs to go her own way. It's rare to see a story with that basic template where the main question is not, will the guy win the girl?, but is instead, is this what the girl really needs in her life? That attitude, all by itself, makes Paradise Kiss a worthy project for adaptation; it sends a far more positive and self-empowering message than most of the slop that passes for "romance" these days. It also wouldn't be hard to find relatively close mappings and matchings in the West for the DIY-haute-couture subculture its heroine finds herself drawn into.
The Dirty Pair
I've made a case before for a live-action adaptation of this slam-bang SF comedy series — first light novels, later anime, and even later on a Western comic adaptation that actually does the original material some serious justice. That was right around the time the first Guardians Of The Galaxy film landed in theaters with a raucous splash. A good Dirty Pair production could strike many of the same notes, and give us a comedic female-centered inversion of a dynamic we've usually seen confined to a guy-and-guy or guy-and-girl team-up. We even have recent positive precedent for such a project by way of the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy team-up The Heat, which raked in a ton of money and was a critical hit too. Suggested tagline: "Disaster never strikes just once."
Perhaps this story of a female asssassin and her amnesiac sidekick is better suited to long-form TV than short-form cinema; in fact, there was an attempt to launch just such a project not long ago, but it appears to have fizzled. I'm convinced the core story dynamic — two women against the world, and especially against the secret society that wants them dead — can work in either format. What matters most is the attitude, and the relationship between the principal characters, one that's as much about mutual emotional support as it is about having each other's physical backs. And if done as a film series, it could explore the depths and breadths of the underworld they're arrayed against the way the surprise-success John Wick did.
Sexy Voice And Robo
I've mentioned this manga before as a candidate for a Western live-action adaptation generally, but it seems worth repeating in this context too. The "Sexy Voice" of the title is a teenaged girl who staffs a phone-sex line (she's able to sound older than she actually is); the "Robo" is her older, male, otaku-esque sidekick. The two of them end up in a series of amateur-detective adventures in the Veronica Mars vein, but the story takes some surprising emotional detours. A Western version could make plenty of hay from all that, and the general framework of the story affords some great opportunities for saying things about the way the world looks askance at young women (and women, period) who take things into their own hands. (Turns out there was a live-action TV drama adaptation of this story in Japan; it might be worth seeing how it shapes up against the original.)