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Anime: Next Big Thing

Thompson on Hollywood By Cameron Carlson | Thompson on Hollywood May 4, 2010 at 1:22AM

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?
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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

This article is related to: Genres, Guest Blogger, Animation


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.