There is, I admit, a stroke of practical genius in the act of optioning Tiger & Bunny for a Western live-action movie, as relayed by the Hollywood Reporter. Ever since it first appeared on these shores, I figured it would be a shoo-in for just such a treatment — after all, the show is itself loving homage to Western superhero comics. This is as it should be, since culture is cyclical: we influence Japan, and Japan influences us right back. What I'm certain of, though, is that the target audience isn't anime fans, in the same way that the target audiences for the Dark Knight trilogy and the Avengers films weren't actually comics fans either — and that this isn't a wholly bad thing.
Most everyone reading this ought to know the premise of Tiger & Bunny, but a quick recap: The "Tiger" of the title is Kotetsu T. Kaburagi, a long-time vet of the professional superhero scene (They Fight Crime! Live On TV!). With his ratings slumping and his appeal dwindling, his agent hooks him up with a hot young rising star, Barnaby Brooks, Jr. ("Bunny"), and the two go from not-so-cordially despising each other to working together to save the city. The show was tremendous fun — lavishly animated (with character designs by Masakazu Katsura), high-spirited, fast-moving, and rounded out with a great supporting cast. Best of all, it played like homage, not ripoff; it brought at least as many ideas of its own to the table as it cheerfully lifted from its inspirations.
The very fact that Tiger & Bunny stemmed mainly from Western superhero comics automatically made it that much more adaptable into a live-action project. There's that much less work to do to localize the original material; in many ways, it was "pre-localized", and that also made Tiger & Bunny a good way to introduce neophytes to anime generally. What I am less quick to believe is that this is about Hollywood manifesting a love for anime; it's more about them zeroing in on a property that right now has better-than-average commercial prospects.
The most cursory survey of box-office receipts shows that superheroes are hot property right now. Even a relative "disappointment" like Man of Steel can still earn some $500+ million worldwide; the actual profit from such a picture is likely to be higher than many might guess, thanks to cost defrayments like presales, promotional arrangements, and merchandising. What's a little less clear is if superheroes outside of the Marvel/DC Instant Familiarity Zone can get any play.
It's not as if people haven't tried, and with some success. Hellboy, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics, made it to the big screen twice so far; Top Cow's Witchblade not only made it to the little screen in the U.S., but in Japan as well via an anime adaptation that turned out to be a notch or three better than I would have expected. Marvel and DC titles, though, have generally been safe as big bets. Everything outside of that safe zone has had to succeed twice as hard on its own conceptual merit, and be even less dependent on casual name familiarity. The average person on the street knows Superman and Batman. Hellboy? Not likely. Tiger and Bunny? Hold not your breath.
That said, the superhero concept is familiar to most everyone, even the most comic-illiterate. A Tiger & Bunny flick becomes far easier to see as a go picture in that light, than it does because of some notion that anime culture is fast becoming mainstream culture. (Things can be popular — known to a great number of people — without being mainstream.) The target ticket-buying audience for a T&B project isn't going to be anime fans; rather, it'll be the same folks who cop tickets to most every big tentpole event movie.
Anime fans will be in that number, but I suspect they are going to be a statistically insignificant percentage of the people who would turn out for such a thing whenever it does hit theaters. That said, I'd wager they'll be pleased with the end result, and not just because the material lends itself so readily to being adapted. From the article: "During the deal talks, [producer Masayuki] Ozaki's chief focus was to ensure that the original creators would be involved to maintain quality and flexibility."
One other thing this project announcement gave me hope about was that that the Powers that Greenlight are finally waking up to something. It makes no sense to adapt anime/manga projects that have name recognition to a tiny, self-selecting minority, but little possibility of crossover with the uninitiated; it makes far more sense to pick projects that might not have name recognition, but a better chance of being a solid conceptual fit in the West. Tiger & Bunny requires no porting to be coherent; it works as-is. Ditto All You Need Is Kill; ditto Vampire Hunter D; ditto Black Lagoon; ditto Soul Eater, Claymore, Fullmetal Alchemist, and a bevy of other projects that have easy commercial potential.
The future slate of the production company in question, ANEW, hints that most of the rest of what they're putting together is a mix of easy bets — adaptations of existing Japanese live-action properties, mainly — and a couple of eye-opening maverick projects. The Reporter article cited above says it is also working on "the adaptation of 6000 with producer Mike Medavoy, Soul ReViver with Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, a live-action remake of Toei Animation’s robot anime Gaiking with producer Gale Ann Hurd and three projects with Chris and Paul Weitz (Shield of Straw, Birthright and Ghost Train.)"
Interesting mix, that. Those last three are actually remakes of existing Japanese live-action projects. Shield of Straw is a suitably commercial-sounding Takashi Miike film (actually an adaptation of a novel) about cops protecting a killer with a massive bounty on his head. 6000 is, if my research is correct, a manga about horrific shenanigans taking place on board a submarine. Soul ReViver is from Tōru Fujisawa and Manabu Akishige's manga of the same name, about people who can bring back the dead to finish whatever mission they had left unfinished on earth. The one standout is Gaiking; that's the kind of old-school, unreconstructed, "pure" anime title that seems little suited to a Western live-action adaptation, except maybe in the wake of the modest success of Pacific Rim. The fact that Gale Anne Hurd is involved with the latter means there's likely to be big money and marketing muscle behind it, but none of that automatically translates into mainstream cachet.
Whatever happens with Tiger & Bunny, a few things are clear. The project is in the hands of people who are at least attempting to care about where the material came from and why it matters. That and the mere fact it got optioned is great news. For the first time in a long time, we're getting a Western live-action adaptation of an anime that actually deserves that treatment.