New trailers and teasers surfaced recently for the live-action adaptations of Gintama and Bleach. That there are live-action adaptations of these properties at all is startling enough, and not in a good way. What I've seen so far of Gintama, and what I worry will also happen with Bleach, are violations of two major guidelines for adapting this kind of material. One, don't be overly literal. Two, if you have to be overly literal, consider another property.
Reality ... what a concept
The first guideline, "don't be overly literal", is easy enough. When you adapt something to another medium, you're always going to be forced to make changes to it. What's drawn my attention all the more over time is how the chief reason for this has evolved.
Back when filmmaking technology was a good deal less sophisticated than it is now, many of those changes had to be made simply because it was impractical to render certain things in a live-action movie. You could still do quite a lot, though — most SF stories, for instance, weren't hard to adapt because the vast majority of what you were being asked to put on the screen, and the way you were being asked to render it, fell well within the scope of what was possible even with decades-old filmmaking technique.
Now there's a new problem. Filmmaking technology is so advanced that most anything that can be described or drawn can also be rendered and made to look forensically realistic. But that's part of the problem: sometimes the original material wasn't attempting to be that kind of realistic to begin with. That made titles like Bleach and Gintama well-suited to being animated, because they could still do those things effectively in the context of an animated series. But move them to live action, and most of that falls to pieces. There's an inherent clash between two modes of showing things — the realism of the actors, and the unrealism of their surroundings and their actions — that just gets in the way.
It's not that you can't realize much of what happens when you go from animation/comics to live action. It's what happens once you do. Before you make such a leap, the story exists in a different kind of space, one where the audience's imagination was being invited to close the gap. Once it's filmed, though, everything that once only existed because you filled in its cracks and crevices with your mind now exists in the most entirely literal way. Scott McCloud nodded towards this phenomenon a great deal in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Comics and animation both rely on how the human mind can extrapolate from abstractions, and use that to build a rapport with the audience that doesn't exist in the same form in other media.
Live-action filmmaking, or filmmaking that is ostensibly live-action, presumes literality. We're given enough of a hint that things are supposed to be "real" that when they're not, it's jarring and nauseating. Family restaurants used to have vinyl replicas of the food on the menu available in a display. Once, as a kid, I tried licking the "ice cream" I saw in one of those displays, and I got a mouthful of surface dirt and flyspecks.
There are times when you can play with the alienation effect that's produced by wrapping live action in special effects that call attention to themselves. The Wachowskis did this not once but several times, first by way of The Matrix and later through their live-action adaptation of Speed Racer. I'm not a fan of the latter, but I appreciate how freely and ingeniously it toys with the boundary between what's meant to be "real" and what's meant to be representation. But most adaptations aren't helmed by people with that kind of vision and wit; they're mostly put together for the sake of taking what's shown on the page and putting it on the screen, and to hell with the consequences.
The adaptations that do work don't presume literality. Or, if they do, they know where to stop. The live-action Ruroni Kenshin movies are masterful in this way. They give us enough of the look of the original to draw us in, but they also know where to draw the line, to stop being slavishly adherent to the way things looked so that they can function as a film. The few times the movies cross that line, it's only after a lot of goodwill has been built up on the part of the movie, and only in ways that already seem in keeping with what we've seen.
Maybe reality's just whatever you're used to
After writing the above, I revisited one of my assumptions. Maybe a lot of the literality that's presumed by live-action moviemaking is more an assumption on the part of the audience than anything else.
We have whole generations of moviegoers and media consumers who grew up with synthetic imagery that's meant to pass the CGI Turing test (is it live or is it XBOX?), and often does. Perhaps they find the self-conscious jamming-together of CGI and live action, the "live-action animation" style, I guess you could call it, to be less a compromise between two modes of visual storytelling and more a medium entirely unto itself. Maybe the point with live-action projects like Bleach and Gintama isn't to try and reproduce the same flavor of an animated production or a manga, but to build something entirely new, something that isn't necessarily beholden to the specific way animation or comics worked with our imaginations.
The problem is, whatever that new thing is meant to be, most of the time it just looks awful. We know how things that are ostensibly from the real world are supposed to behave — what kinds of weight they're meant to have, what sort of presence they're invested with. When we see them treated like cartoons, it completely disrupts any investment we might have in them. Because they're realistic, we can't move completely into the realm of imagination the way we can with animation, but because they're not behaving realistically, we can't believe in them as being real. There's a fundamental dissonance between what we're being asked to see and what we are actually seeing that never entirely closes over.
When I was a kid, TV was rife with the likes of H.R. Pufnstuf, where live actors in suits would cavort in front of chromakeyed backgrounds. That material had a flavor all of its own, but that very flavor always felt like a bad compromise for the reasons I noted above. It didn't feel wholly real, but it also didn't feel wholly unreal, either. It felt stuck between them, like music that doesn't know what key it wants to be in. It worked as kitsch, as a cultural artifact of a moment in time, but it was harder to say if it worked as anything else — as storytelling, or even entertainment.
Taking it seriously, if not literally
All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of Guideline #2: If you have to be overly literal when adapting a property to live-action, maybe this property isn't suited to such things.
With Bleach and Gintama, this inherent problem is on display right in their teasers and trailers. In Bleach's case, I don't think the problem could be solved by a more judicious adaptation; the very nature of the material all but guarantees a live-action version would look risible. Series creator Tite Kubo once went on record to say he didn't think a live-action Bleach was a good idea; I agreed with him then and I agree with him now. (What happened? Was he merely worried that the state of special effects technology at the time wasn't up to the job? Or did they back up a dump truck full of money to his house?)
In Gintama's case, the problem is more complicated. I wasn't in principle against a live-action adaptation, but it seemed like it would be one of those jobs that was too potentially thorny for most people to tackle well. There was this peculiar tone to the original material that doesn't reproduce well across media, and the live-action version has the flavor of a joke that isn't funny anymore because the person telling it has no delivery skills. It was hard enough having the animated series partake of some of that flavor, and from what's to be seen of the live-action version, it doesn't have any of it. And all this is entirely apart from the way moving the material from comics to live action brings with it a host of literality issues.
There's always the chance this stuff won't matter, and there's a couple of ways that can happen. First is if there's enough raw fan enthusiasm around the material to dispel those concerns. The mere fact there are live-action versions of these projects may be enough to justify their existences for certain segments of their fandoms.
A sub-aspect of that is how Japan sees this stuff as opposed to how everyone else does. One of the things I've long speculated about what sets Japanese visual culture apart from Western incarnations of same is how J-culture doesn't see as much of a need to be forensically literal — that it's OK for something to look a little cheesy or artificial, because it's the intention behind it that matters more than the absolute end result. Think of the stage play adaptations of many properties that are all the rage; what matters is for the audience to be in the presence of something beloved. But those productions, I think, depend on the kind of suspension of disbelief that manifests most in a live space. (Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!) Once you film those things they lose immediacy. They stop becoming a happening, and they become a mere document, an artifact.
There's another way these movies can work. If the stories they tell are so strong and so propulsive on their own merits, it won't matter how they look. But this is a surpassingly tough goal for any movie to reach.
In the end, I'm forced to fall back on one of the first observations I made when live-action adaptations of anime started to come into vogue. Some things are just better left as animation or comics, because those are the media in which the ideas expressed thrive best. Move them out of those media, and they wither, or they need to be put on such outlandish life support that they're not worth keeping alive.