Anime: Next Big Thing

by Cameron Carlson
May 4, 2010 1:22 AM
6 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Would you buy a ticket for a big-budget, live-action anime feature? What if there were four of them released at the same time?

That could be the plight facing anime fans in 2011, and while the fans of Japanimation recognize the difference between a cyborg and a mobile battle suit, the general public does not. These superficial similarities between projects could turn into a big-time marketing problem. Example: Ghost in the Shell stars a brunette, sometimes naked, female cyborg and her blonde, detective sidekick fighting cyborgs in a city of the future. Battle Angel Alita stars a brunette, diminutive female cyborg and her blonde, scientist sidekick fighting other cyborgs in a city of the distant future. Developers Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, respectively, may have a redundancy issue on their hands. But that’s not stopping big names from turning to Japanese animation for inspiration.

Live action anime adaptations may be the next big movie trend around the corner. The appeal for enterprising producers isn’t hard to understand. Most anime films and television series (like Bleach) are fully developed franchises with established visual styles and story lines, although translating the idiosyncrasies of Japanese animation for American audiences is where the trouble begins.

Hollywood’s Japanophilia isn’t a new development either. Live-action anime projects have been contemplated for decades. Sony considered making a live-action Akira in the 90’s but scrapped the idea over budget concerns, and Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis have been developing the Japanese comic Battle Angel Alita. Cameron happened to go with the original Avatar first, and that film’s massive success might provide the right incentive to resurrect dormant sci-fi anime adaptations. With names attached like Cameron, Spielberg, and DiCaprio, tomorrow’s Americanized anime has big-name momentum, which is interesting considering anime adaptations tend to fare poorly at the box office (see list of adaptation failures below).

The start of Hollywood’s interest in anime goes back to the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix, which was inspired in part by Ghost In A Shell. Their Nipponese roots were even more transparent in the franchise expanding The Animatrix. This collection of animated shorts were screened as promotional events and distributed on DVD.

The Animatrix retained fan boy interest during a Matrix drought and placated the hardcore fan base but the anime was supplementary media; it played second fiddle to the trilogy. The brilliance of the brothers Matrix films was their unique visual style, indebted to anime, but also to borrowing heavily from the bondage subculture, cyberpunk, and western films.

As the Wachowskis proved, the trick is adapting the Japanese visual styles for American moviegoers. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender could be a decent litmus test for future anime projects. Expect to see more on the way if that film does well Adapting Japanese cult cartoons for Western audiences will always have its special challenges. Good luck translating this:

Thompson on Hollywood

[The 2006 Paprika might get a shot at live action. Image courtesy of catsuka.com]

A list of anime adoptions in development:

Akira (2013)
Previous attempts to make this film have been scrapped, but Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights and plans on producing under Appian Way. Warner Bros is distributing and is in talks with the Hughes Brothers to direct.
Production: Appian Way
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Hughes Brothers?
Screenplay: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby

Battle Angel (2011)
Battle Angel may have to compete with The Dive and Avatar for Cameron’s attention. Landau says it will definitely be 3-D and use Cameron’s image capture technology.
Production: Twentieth Century Fox
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis
Producers: Jon Landau and Yukito Kishiro (author of the comics)

Ghost in a Shell (2011)
Still in Script stage, Spielberg’s project could be a direct competitor with Battle Angel. Interesting that both films are using scripts by Leata Kalogridis.
Production and Distribution: DreamWorks SKG
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis
Producer: Ari Arad

Bleach (2012)
Warner Bros. is bringing the massively popular Bleach series to live action. Might be difficult, with the art style and protective fan base.
Production: Callahan Filmworks
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Producers: Michael Ewing and Peter Segal

Cowboy Bebop (2011)
Inspired by popular cult series about bounty hunters in the future. Starring Keanu Reeves…
Production: 3 Arts Entertainment
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Producer: Erwin Stoff
Spike: Keanu Reeves

Ninja Scroll (2011)
The script for DiCaprio’s other Anime property is still being developed.
Production: Appian Way and Madhouse Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Ireland, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, and Jungo Maruta
Screenplay: Alex Tse

Notable Flops and their Domestic Gross (via Box Office Mojo):

Speed Racer - $43,945,766
Astroboy - $19,551,067
Dragonball Evolution - $9,362,785
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li (straddles anime and video game) - $8,742,261

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More: Genres, Guest Blogger, Animation

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6 Comments

  • douglas | September 29, 2010 6:09 AMReply

    None of these adaptations will ever work, why? In one word HOLLYWOOD.

    First, studio execs are clueless. They will never resist the urge to reshape (ruin) the original stories in order to shill to their precious target demographic.

    Second, bad casting is inevitable. God forbid they actually cast asian actors to portray obviously asian characters. Keanu Reeves as Spike in cowboy bebop was a horrible idea thankfully that planned adaptation is dead for now.

    Third, unnecessary rewrites and Americanization are inevitable. Execs and writers always think they know best and have very little respect for non-American source material. The idiots wouldn't even keep bulma's hair blue in that steaming pile of an excuse of a dragon ball movie.

    Lastly audience reluctance is going to be hard to overcome. The awful adaptations sofar will make it very difficult to attract a large audience for even the best, well made adaptation.

    I love anime but American producers are clueless, too bad

  • Anne Thompson | May 7, 2010 4:01 AMReply

    Brian - I don't have much hope either. My friends and I debate the live action viability of GITS, and it really comes down to whether or not the finished product stays true to the spirit of the original. Unfortunately, that relies on so many variables working out perfectly, especially Hollywood's grasp of cyber-punk as a visual medium (which makes me think of Johnny Mnemonic, eh). I think these anime franchises and films were, and are, compelling because they contain awesome visual and thematic innovations. I feel like the powers that be will suffocate all of the weirdness and color of the source material. That's why I'm not sure if a live-action Ninja Scroll is possible. And the final segment of Akira? Imagine trying to pitch that one. 'So there's this giant mass of flesh that, well it pops this girl and... reaches quantum singularity?' But I could be wrong - Some of those GITS scenes could be amazing, like when she's chasing the one-legged dude through the water. Damn it, the debate continues...

    Ken - The possibility that we could have a bunch of anime adaptations at the same time is sort of distressing. It'll be challenging enough to make the films good, without inducing anime fatigue.

    Most new "scifi" is a slasher rehash in space. Which is doubly unoriginal.

    Jaeson - You're right, and Robotech is badass.

    I look at something like Blade Runner and acknowledge its innovation, singularity, etc., but why hasn't there been a great cyberpunk movie since? There has, but I mean a major studio undertaking (then again, I did like Fifth Element).

    If Hollywood treats these adaptations seriously, gives them big budget money, and the RIGHT talent (especially art dept.), I mean, think of how that will change SciFi for the better! But that's probably not going to happen. Hopefully Cameron will go back to grit and machines with Battle Angel at some point.

    -Cameron Carlson

  • DavidC | May 5, 2010 1:06 AMReply

    The most promising of these projects is probably GITS, simply because it's content is the most mind-bending -- or at least it was, when the manga was first published in 1989. Now Hollywood comes to the table, 20 years late, and turns out a series of films that Joe Beerbong will probably assume were ripped off from Hollywood. Feh.

    Of course, if the films are brilliant in their own right all bets are off. The Hughes Brothers take on "Akira" certainly has promise.

  • Jaeson Koszarsky | May 4, 2010 8:42 AMReply

    You forgot to include Warner Bros licensing of Harmony Gold's ROBOTECH series for live action films. Unlike the FX spectacle Transformers was, ROBOTECH has a story with real meat on its bones, it's character driven with obviously cool supporting mechs. In 1985, Harmony Gold delivered American audiences something very unique with their ROBOTECH saga and it just screams for a live-action adaption on the scale of LOTR.

  • Ken | May 4, 2010 4:50 AMReply

    This is a great article. I'm glad there is some coverage on the new Battle Angel movie, which I've literally been looking forward to since 2004. I am also glad to hear the Ghost in the Shell is still being considered. I do sincerely hope that Avatar renewed an interest in sci-fi. I'm getting tired of all these fantasy/epic Lord-of-the-Rings wannabes.

    However, I am a little concerned too with the large number of anime adaptions, which may hit cinemas within months of each other. Battle Angel concerns me the most because we all know that Jim Cameron likes to wait so long between film productions. Will BAA be considered an "ordinary" film by the time its released?? I'm also a bit concerned about American filmmaking in general, and their lack of direction. In addition to re-making their own American sitcoms and classics, they're now looking at foreign films for inspiration. Cannot filmmakers do something original these days?

    Another flop that you might add (though I wouldn't exactly call it an anime adaption) was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. As much as I loved that film, the general public did not.

  • Brian | May 4, 2010 3:29 AMReply

    THE ANIMATRIX worked as well as it did because it had strong story ideas from the American side mixed with animation artistry from the Japanese side. I wish it had been released theatrically. Same with HIGHLANDER: SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE--franchise, story and production financing from the west well-served by one of the great anime directors, NINJA SCROLL's Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who also worked on ANIMATRIX. Again, why no theatrical release? It was arguably superior to many of the HIGHLANDER live-action films. Enough films like these (and BATMAN GOTHAM KNIGHT, which followed the ANIMATRIX model) in theaters and you help prepare the audience for more complex Japanese-originated fare.

    Instead, what DOES get theatrical release? Those awful live-action adaptations listed as Notable Flops, made by filmmakers who didn't understand the source of the originals' appeal or, in the case of the Wachowskis and SPEED RACER, simply had their own ideas about how a live-action version should look and their vision, elaborate as it was, basically didn't appeal to anybody else. THE MATRIX worked because they took all of its myriad anime/comic-book/kung fu/sci-fi influences and incorporated them into a heartfelt story which made for an original and compelling sci-fi action film. I saw THE MATRIX on opening night at a sold-out Times Square theater and the crowd was gripped from start to finish, silent during the long exposition sequences and cheering during the action sequences.

    I don't hold out much hope for the various projects listed. COWBOY BEBOP could work if they simply went back to William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, "Neuromancer," an obvious influence on CB, and designed the film along those lines. What would the future look like if today's countercultures and subcultures simply went out into space? A lot of COWBOY BEBOP drew on American pop culture anyway, including various 1970s drive-in and exploitation movies. So a live-action film version needs someone at the helm who understands those various influences. (Tarantino, are you listening?) Keanu as Spike is an interesting casting choice and could make it work, although he's getting a little old for the part, if this takes much longer to get going. Samuel L. Jackson (or Jason Statham) as Jett, Spike's mentor could work. Ellen Page as Ed. And for the sexy, duplicitous, vulnerable Faye Valentine? You KNOW who I'm gonna say...and she'd be (almost) perfect. Ms. Fox has just gotta work on the vulnerability part.

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