Over the last couple of months, I have been inundated with so many announcements of anime-to-live-action adaptations that I all but lost count. And not just small-scale titles that lend themselves easily to being dramatized, like March Comes In Like A Lion, but major-league, effects-heavy, fantasy-oriented stuff: Gintama, Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach. And now, Naruto as well, by way of a prospective Hollywood adaptation.
Some corner has clearly been turned, and I think it's safe to say from now on that for any major anime or manga success story to receive a live-action adaptation isn't just wishful thinking. It might be inevitable. That's apart from whether or not the property in question is even suited to being so adapted, or whether a movie is even the right venue for such a treatment, or any number of other questions that now come to mind.
Let me start by running down a list of the titles that have been mentioned recently, along with what stage of production they're currently in:
- Gintama (shown above). (Teaser here.)
- Naruto. Just announced for a live-action Hollywood version.
- Fullmetal Alchemist. (Teaser here.)
- Bleach. In production.
- Ghost In The Shell. Hollywood version out in March 2017 worldwide. (Trailer.)
- Blade of the Immortal. Out in Japan April 2017. (Teaser here.)
- March Comes In Like A Lion. Two-parter comes out March/April 2017 in Japan. (Trailer here.)
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. In progress. No, seriously.
The striking thing about both of these lists, the second especially, is how many of those titles are A-list properties. These aren't quick little toss-offs done on the cheap, by adapting titles that cost mere pennies to license. These are some of the biggest names out there. By the time I finish editing this essay and the time it goes live, I imagine yet another A-list title will have to be added to it.
Somewhere over the last few years, a dam burst, and now it seems like most every anime of consequence is being turned into a live action version. Here, I will lay out why this has gained such momentum, what it might mean for future projects in both live action and animated veins, and what limitations such projects are inevitably faced with.
1. A live action film is the ultimate prestige project
Little else speaks as much of prestige, or arrival as a cultural landmark, as does a live-action movie version of something. Live-action films are expensive and difficult to make, and at their most costly and prominent involve talent known to most everyone on the planet.
If you're going to have your material adapted into anything, a live action production of some kind is the top of the heap. It shows your work is prestigious enough in its name value to spend millions of dollars on. It's how you know you've really arrived.
It's also one of the last places you can turn to monetize a given property. A successful manga title typically goes through several incarnations: its original serialized form; an animated adaptation (or several); adaptations by way of light novels or drama CDs; and so on. Each one of those is designed to expand the audience for the material a little bit more — there's always people who read light novels but don't really bother with manga or TV shows, etc. A big-budget live-action version, though, encompasses a huge potential audience.
That said, I'm always skeptical how much success can be wrung from such a thing. The general success of comic book movies, for instance, isn't because most of the world consists of comic-book fans; it's because comics have provided a novel source of story and design material for big-budget action-oriented Hollywood blockbusters. Name recognition helps, I'm sure, but only to the extent that it makes those movies about something modestly familiar instead of totally unfamiliar.
With Japan, though, the name recognition counts a bit more, but for different reasons. There's a sense of pride in local cultural products in that country, especially when it comes to competing with big-budget Hollywood material for mindshare or ticket sales. When something like Makoto Shinkai's your name. beats that year's Disney releases at the box office, this is a big part of why. Live-action anime releases have the same cachet, even if they in theory build their appeal on a subset of the mainstream audience.
2. It is easier now than it has ever been to adapt fantastic material to film, and that's the problem
Most anime or manga get attention because they are fantasy or science fiction of some kind, and bringing those things to life has always been difficult and costly. Things that once would have been prohibitively difficult to film convincingly can now be done on even the modest budgets available to Japanese A-list productions — modest, that is, compared to an A-list Hollywood release. (Attack on Titan comes most directly to mind.)
This, to my mind, is also the single biggest problem with the sudden flood of projects we've been getting: Some of them just plain aren't suited to being live action — yes, even live action with a CGI assist.
If you're talking about a story that starts and ends in something we can recognize as our own world (March Comes In Like A Lion), that's one thing. It's not simply that it's easy to film such material, but that the finished product and the original material complement each other readily. Sometimes a little visual exaggerating fits the story (Princess Jellyfish), but not so much so that it's out of gamut. We started somewhere realistic, and we ended up there too.
If, on the other hand, you're talking about something that is openly fantastic, that's a tougher break. Some things that look good as animation or as hand-drawn imagery look silly and literal when filmed, and they simply don't survive the leap across the Uncanny Valley. The live-action Assassination Classroom was a particularly bad example of this. It was so busy being literal it didn't have a chance to develop its own style or approach to the material.
It's possible to offset some of that awkwardness by way of existing film history and tradition. One of the fine lines trod by the live-action Rurouni Kenshin was how it leveraged the worlds of chambara, wuxia, and martial arts cinema generally to go over the top when it was warranted, but always came back down to earth. But that's not a trick that works everywhere, and it's still way too easy for something anime- or manga-derived to look foolish by design. Contrast that with the awful live-action adaptation of Kamui, where ninja tricks that worked on paper were translated to the screen with deadening literality. The whole thing looked laughable instead of exciting, and that was deadly to an adaptation of a franchise that had as much significance for its leftist politics as it did for its action scenes.
Animation pre-emptively suspends our disbelief in the way live action, even CGI-powered live action, does not and cannot. The instant we recognize something is hand-drawn, we accept many more things as being not only possible but plausible. Our imagination is being invited to meet the material halfway. With something that's billed nominally as live-action, we expect literalism — we expect to see everything, and we expect it in a form that's all but a rotoscoping of the original. This was, I suspect, what Bleach creator Tite Kubo talked about once upon a time when he claimed he didn't think his story could be adapted as live action — it started as a manga, moved to anime, and worked in both of those realms for reasons that just don't transplant out to something resembling reality.
My greatest fear with something like a live-action Bleach or Naruto is along these lines. Much of what happens in it could translate to live action, but it wouldn't be convincing live action; it would be so obviously a bunch of actors in front of green screens. (Kamui again comes to mind.) It's not impossible to overcome such problems, it's just that the deck is stacked all the more against you in live action. The things we accept without question in such a story can be conveyed to us all the more frictionlessly through a medium primed to allow such things. It takes finesse to do it right.
3. ... but don't tell that to the creators
So why would projects like these start becoming more prevalent, if it also means a greater risk of them being awkward or downright awful? Simple: most of the people involved in creating them aren't concerned by questions like that. Their job is to take a property that has name value attached to it and monetize it for the largest possible audience.
That brought to mind a possibility I hadn't thought of when I started writing this. If we are destined to have that many more live-action anime/manga adaptations, and that many more of them turn out to be more like Kamui than Kenshin, does that mean the whole question of how to adapt this stuff gracefully will eventually fall by the wayside? I hope it doesn't; I hope the tackiness and gaudiness of any bad production, no matter what kind of prestige is attached to it, will be its own lesson.
The other thing that comes to mind, though, is that some of those negative qualities are always going to be subjective.
I felt dismayed when I saw the teaser for the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist; it looked too much like a cheesy cosplay reel, and not enough like an attempt to take us into another world. In the end I attributed that to two things: one, I'd only seen a teaser, not a completed product, and it was easy to draw the wrong conclusions from a snippet like that. Two, I'd long harbored a prejudice about this particular franchise — that the "best" way to adapt it would be a Western live-action version with the scope of something like Lord of the Rings. After all, hadn't the original material looked to countries and cultures other than Japan for its inspiration? But projecting my own aspirations on the project is a mistake; I need to encounter the end result on its own terms — yes, even when the end result feels nothing like the original material, as was the case with Attack on Titan.
Now, there is one project out of those I mentioned above that has the chance to buck the odds, and in the largest possible way. I refer to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, currently being tackled by none other than Takashi Miike — he who just brought us Blade of the Immortal, but also the live-action Phoenix Wright. (Terra Formars, we won't talk about in polite company.) Out of almost all the directors operating in Japan today, Miike understands how to take material that is fundamentally outlandish and film it in a way that hangs together internally. He's the perfect man for a project that looked weird and exaggerated even in its original form. If he makes JoJo work, and if Immortal works as well as it's promised to, the examples they set could further aid others in striking the right balance. Think about how the original X-Men film struck a new tone for how superhero-derived movies could work, and how Batman Begins further evolved the idea.
The ideal end result for such work wouldn't just be a great movie adaptation, but a step towards establishing a new kind of film language, one where we've learned how to transpose anime and manga's visuals to live action without breaking either one. We're most of the way there, but a project like JoJo done right could be another major leap in that direction.
4. When it works, it's wonderful
That brings me to what I want to preserve, above and beyond my analysis and criticism of this trend: a sense of hope and a feeling of wonder, because when these things do work, they work magnificently. The live-action Rurouni Kenshin is not only a great adaptation but a great piece of work in its own right, a goal for any of these projects to strive for. Princess Jellyfish, which I'm long overdue to talk about, did justice to both the silly and serious sides of its source material. I have similarly high hopes for Blade of the Immortal, given that it's in the best possible hands I could imagine for it, and it's the kind of material that lends itself very elegantly to being filmed well.
Sure, I'm skeptical about some of what's to come. I'm lukewarm at best on this now-looming talk of a Hollywood Naruto film. The live-action Ghost In The Shell project may have been made with the best of intentions, but it's all too clear how sometimes you can love something to death; being a fan of something does not guarantee you understand it (see: Gary Whitta and AKIRA). It's always dismaying to think that a product of a franchise I hold dear will turn out to be laughable, or even worse, forgettable. But the bar has been raised a few times already (Kenshin), and I can't help but look forward to how it might well be raised even further — and perhaps by projects I would never have expected to go so far and fly so high.