Live-action anime films have an unfortunate habit of turning out rather badly. But why?
Live-action anime films. To see a good one is on many an anime fan’s wish-list. Unfortunately, things seem to go more like this:
It’s happened! Your favourite anime series is getting a live action film. It’s so exciting!
Then, panic sets in. Live-action anime films have a history of being, well, less than good.
But it will be different this time, right?
Your fave series has it all. There’s no way they could possibly screw it up.
You sit down in a theatre… to a movie that has cut all the best parts of the source material, with only the most tenuous links to the story you came to see.
Despite the all too common scenarios above, there is hope for any future anime adaptations, if they recognise the mistakes of the past and try to correct them.
Having writers/directors with little to no knowledge of the source material.
One of the biggest problems facing live-action anime films is that, all too often, those put in charge of making the films have very little knowledge of the source material.
On top of this, they have studio heads breathing down their necks to make the film a hit. The deep, complicated, meaningful stories of some anime do not always mesh with what makes a blockbuster. Things are inevitably changed or cut, and fans are left disappointed.
Nowhere is this issue more apparent than in the disastrous effort that was Dragonball Evolution. Fans of the anime are happy to pretend that this film doesn’t exist.
Both Evolution’s director, James Wong, and it’s writer, Ben Ramsey, have admitted to knowing very little about Dragon Ball before working on the film.
Ramsey has even apologised to the franchise’s fans.
“I went into the project chasing after a big payday, not as a fan of the franchise but as a businessman taking on an assignment,” says Ramsey. “I have learned that when you go into a creative endeavor without passion you come out with sub-optimal results, and sometimes flat out garbage.”
If anything good came out of the horrors of this movie, it was inspiring Akira Toriyama to produce the Battle of Gods and Resurrection F films, and later, Dragon Ball Super.
So how do you fix the live-action anime film problem?
This issue has an easy and obvious fix.
Where possible, studios should find writers and directors with a love for, or at least knowledge of, the source material.
Such people would have a greater sense for what absolutely needs to be included in the film, and what elements could be cut without harming the story too much.
A perfect example of this is the recently released Ready, Player One, based on the novel of the same name.
The film’s screenplay was written by Ernest Cline, the novel’s author. This results in a film adaptation that, while changed from the book, retains the feel of the original story.
Put people in charge who care about the story they are telling, and that should be reflected in the film. Fans of the original anime will appreciate the effort, and will support the finished movie.
The lack of diversity in casting
Another common issue with live-action anime adaptations is lack of diversity in the cast.
The problem is more than just white-washing. Films made both in Western countries, and in Japan are guilty in this.
It is not always a problem. Japan’s series of live-action Death Note films are set in Japan. It makes sense for the cast to be Japanese.
Netflix’s Death Note shifts the action to the USA. This makes its casting forgivable, even if not much else about the film is.
The white-wash casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell, followed by a twisting of the plot to accommodate said white-washing, ruins what could have been a great film.
On the other side of the coin, the all-Asian cast of the live-action Attack On Titan films ruins the story of one particular character above the others.
In the Anime, Mikasa Ackerman is the final person of Asian descent known to be alive in the world. This forms a huge element of her character’s backstory. Her rare ethnicity made her the target of slave traders in her youth, before being rescued by series protagonist Eren Yeager.
Mikasa’s background also affects how other characters behave towards her when she becomes a soldier. Mikasa is by far the most talented member of her squad, yet she is sometimes treated as being in need of protection by others, because she is the last of her kind.
In the live-action films, everyone is, or looks, Asian. A vital part of Mikasa’s character is lost.
To fix this diversity problem, for starters, don’t white-wash roles that should have belonged to Asian actors.
Aside from disrespecting the culture of the source material, inaccurate casting can destroy the word of mouth feedback the film could have gotten from fans of the original anime.
I understand that racially diverse casting is a bigger ask for Japanese-language films, made entirely in Japan. However, sometimes the effort may be worth it to keep a great story intact.
Trying to cram a 60+ episode story into a single film
The greatest problem for many adaptations, not just live-action anime but books or video games as well, is how to condense the many hours of content into one film.
The longest films usually run at just over two hours. Some anime can run for over one hundred episodes. How do you fit all the important bits into two hours?
Well… you don’t. So you only include the really important bits. Unfortunately, that’s not usually enough to tell the story as well as it was told in the original anime.
This was a big part of the problem with the recent Fullmetal Alchemist live-action film. It mixed many early characters and plot points with events that did not happen until quite a bit later.
Here, we have another easy fix.
Most longer anime series are divided into different story arcs. While tied into the series’ larger story, they will usually have clear cut beginning and ending points.
Filmmakers need to choose just one or two arcs, and focus their movie around them.
Yes, a few plot threads may be left dangling this way, but it’s better than losing the depth of the story through cuts. On the upside, if the movie is successful enough to earn a sequel, the filmmakers will have a ready made starting point. Just head into the next story arc.
Live-action anime films could be the next big thing in the movie industry. There are so many anime that could be awesomely brought to life on the big screen.
All movie studios have to do is listen to the suggestions I have listed above.
Learn from the mistakes of the past, and live action anime adaptations could have a bright future in film.