Rather timely that I've been watching the two-part Attack On Titan live-action film that was released in Japan the other year. I've got a full review in the works, but I'll say right here that it's nowhere nearly the kind of movie that needed to be made from this material. Now word is trickling out that Warner Brothers is negotiating with Kodansha for the right to remake the property as a live-action production in the West — the sort of thing I imagined might happen at some point, and now seems all the more worthwhile given how dismal the original films were. For once, someone's remaking something that needed remaking! But again, nothing's ever really that simple.
Let's do it again
First, the facts. According to Deadline, producer David Heyman — he who gave us the Harry Potter films — is allegedly negotiating along with Warner Brothers for the rights to Attack On Titan. No start date, no screenwriter, no other names attached — right now, it's just an idea.
From what I can see, it's a good idea. Not just because Attack On Titan has always lent itself well to being adapted as live-action outside of Japan, but because the existing Attack On Titan live-action production is, to put it as gently as I can, not up to the job. Again, a full rundown of what went wrong with that movie will require its own article, but the short version is simple enough: 1) it's not the story we were promised; 2) its awkward pacing and clumsy exposition are bad enough in their own right.
After suffering through it, I decided the odds of seeing another live-action version in Japan anytime soon were effectively zero, and that the only way we'd see a redress of the grievances caused by the films would be by way of a Western version. Cut to this week, where news surfaces that just such a thing appears to be in the works.
In the abstract, this is a good idea. Not just because it provides an opportunity to get things right with this material, but because Attack on Titan always struck me as a story that was more readily adaptable in the West than it was in Japan. Now that I think about it, though, I'm less comfortable drawing that conclusion than I was before.
There's a feeling I get when I look to the West
I've written before about how certain properties from Japan have a quality I've labeled "pre-localized". They don't take place in Japan or anything recognizably like it; they're informed at least as much by cultural artifacts from outside the country as they are anything inside of it; and for all of those reasons, they lend themselves exceedingly well to being adapted for Western audiences, even if they have no immediate name recognition. Black Lagoon, Fullmetal Alchemist, Claymore, Vampire Hunter D, Soul Eater, most everything created by Tsutomu Nihei (BLAME!, Biomega, etc.), Berserk, Chaika The Coffin Princess, Cowboy Bebop, The Dirty Pair, Guin Saga, The Heroic Legend Of Arslan, Outlaw Star -- the list goes on, and every time I sit down and think about this issue, I find myself adding a few more names to it. And Attack On Titan belongs on it, of course.
Then there are titles that are set in Japan, but are constructed in such a way that they could be relocalized without too much difficulty: AJIN, All You Need Is Kill (adapted into the superb Edge of Tomorrow), Bubblegum Crisis, Gantz, Parasyte, and many others. (I vote for adding Princess Jellyfish to the list.) With the former list, though, the chief distinction is that they don't need any work to be localized — they're essentially drag-and-drop operations. The vast majority of Titan's cast sported Western, or at least non-Asian, names, and one key character that was ostensibly Asian, (or some analogue of that) Mikasa, had this aspect of her used as a plot point.
This was one of the other complaints people had about the current live-action Attack On Titan. Mikasa's exoticism was essentially erased from the story, although it's a toss-up whether that was because of the all-Japanese cast, or more directly due to the story having been reconstructed from the inside out to focus on other things. But over time, I realized the second of the two was more crucial than the first. If a Japanese company decides to adapt a property that's prelocalized — as is the case right now with Fullmetal Alchemist — I'm more concerned about the storytelling and the dramatics than I am about whether or not the cast "should" look Asian or Western or what have you.
I suspect my feelings on this issue stem from what I could call asymmetry of cultural expectations. First, Asian characters have typically been given short shrift in Western film (see: Paul Muni sporting yellowface in The Good Earth), so it's not as if a little turnabout — and on Japan's own terms, no less — is going to be deadly. Second, this sort of thing probably bothers Japanese audiences not at all, since for them there's going to be far more pride in the fact that something like FMA can be put in front of cameras than there will be questions about whether or not Edward and Alphonse, and everyone else in the story who's not from Xing, should be played by non-Japanese. (After all, Xing in FMA is an analogue of China, not Japan, and I think Chinese and Japanese alike would be miffed at any attempts to conflate them.)
Let's not repeat ourselves
My point with all this, vis-a-vis Attack On Titan, is not that I think a Western adaptation would be better by dint of being Western. Rather, it would be better because it would afford a chance not to make the same boneheaded narrative and aesthetic mistakes that the first adaptation did.
The people involved at this stage inspire some confidence. Heyman not only gave us the Potter films and its prequel continuity Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, but also Gravity and Paddington (by all accounts a delightful surprise of a movie). If Heyman shows the same taste in creative collaborators that he did when lining up those projects, then this may work out better than most people would anticipate.
Again, I am trying to school myself out of is the thinking that this will automatically be a better production just by dint of being a Western one — whether because of the prelocalization of the material, or because Heyman will have a bigger budget to play with. Maybe that's the real issue with the concept of prelocalization: that because it's something that can be transplanted all the more readily out of Japan, that it ought to be, or that it would automatically be better for the material if it was. If this Titan takes off, we might well have one of our better test cases for that theory.