By now, you’ve probably already witnessed the Internet’s reaction to the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Makoto Kusanagi.
Thousands are crying out that Hollywood is “white-washing” a role that should’ve been given to an Asian actor, while thousands more are pointing out that the Major is a cyborg and that her physical racial appearance isn’t that big a factor. Movie critics and prominent industry vets on both sides have shouted their opinions to their respective audiences, and the debate will no doubt lead to either the movie’s success or inevitable downfall.
But the bigger question for me is this: should we even be adapting anime into live action films at all?
As evidenced by my previous articles, I am an avid consumer of anime media. It is my preferred source of entertainment, but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to watching live action stories at all. The problem, however, is whether the type of stories that are written into anime form are suitable for being adapted into live-action movies compatible with a western audience. There are also so many things that anime can do because they aren’t technically bound by the laws of physics and reality, allowing them to pull off action sequences or psychological breakdowns bigger and better than even the best live action movies.
Before we move on to my actual argument, let’s first address the elephant in the room. Yes, you can argue that there is a “race problem” in modern Hollywood, but there’s no one person to blame, and this problem can be linked to why Johansson specifically was picked for the starring role of this movie. As screenwriter Max Landis recently pointed out, there are only about five actresses currently working in the industry that can sell a movie on their name alone, and after mastering the role of Black Widow and debatably being the biggest positive point in Lucy, Johansson has shown that she is definitely one of those actresses.
The problem now is that, surprisingly, there are a lot fewer A-list stars than there used to be. There was a time when Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Lucy Liu were all really popular in the same general time frame. Now, however, I honestly can’t name any really popular Asian actors off the top of my head? Ken Watanabe maybe? The scientist in Jurassic World? That crazy guy from the Hangover movies? The field of actors who can sell a movie with just their name is extremely sparse, and practically nonexistent for Asian women.
This leads us to the second problem: Ghost in the Shell is an unbelievably risky project. It requires an extreme amount of world building and thousands of hours of CG construction and rendering, coupled with thousands, possibly millions of dollars worth of practical effects like explosions and car chases. All of this is being crammed into what, supposedly, will be an intellectual dive into a cyberpunk future with an emphasis on artificial intelligence, body modification, and the human consciousness.
GitS ain’t exactly Fast and the Furious and is not an easy movie for audiences to digest. Is it what the industry needs when it comes to thematic depth? Maybe, but combined with how much money needs to be poured into the movie, it’s definitely not what the industry wants to take a risk on without some insurance. In the eyes of the movie industry, a premise like GitS would be practically dead on arrival if it were a brand new property. This is why, in the minds of the film industry, the movie absolutely needed an A-list actress in the lead role, even if the choice wasn’t culturally accurate.
But the problems don’t even end there, as western adaptations of anime have yet another hurdle to clear: their terrible, terrible track record. Think of how we tend to view movie adaptations of popular video games like Hitman and Super Mario Bros. in terms of quality, multiply that awfulness tenfold, and you get the general consensus on movie adaptations of anime, despite they’re being very few of them at all.
Dragonball: Evolution has, unfortunately, become the poster child for bad adaptations of anime, often topping people’s “Worst Movies Ever” lists.
The Last Airbender, while technically an adaptation of an anime-style American cartoon, can still be grouped in with this lot, and M. Night Shyamalan’s legendary mistreatment of the source material scarred fans of the original Avatar TV series for years to come. There are also smaller movies like Kite, which I haven’t seen personally, but the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes scores paint a horribly unflattering picture.
The sad part is that there are some good adaptations of anime and manga to be found, though, unsurprisingly, none of them were marketed as adaptations of anime and manga. Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from a manga titled All You Need Is Kill, was a definitive hit with both fans and critics. While the roots of Black Swan are still in question and its exact status as an adaptation or an original work is debatable, it was still surprisingly intense and thrilling, and its, as well as Darren Aronofsky’s, ties to the late Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue are rather striking.
It is also important to note that both of these films had huge stars in them as well; Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, and Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis respectively, as well as two fairly noteworthy directors, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). As for Ghost in the Shell, all we have is Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) in the director’s chair. Not exactly batting a thousand right now.
My point is that anime adaptations without huge name recognition are literal cyanide from a financial standpoint.
However, I do believe there is a fix for this, and it takes just a little bit of thinking to understand. You see, most of the really popular anime fall into either the fantasy or sci-fi genres and also usually have some kind of magic or supernatural power. Fullmetal Alchemist, Code Geass, Naruto (currently in the works at Lionsgate), and Attack on Titan are all heavily steeped in world building that requires a megaton of intense CG and set construction to be convincing, making the projects exponentially more expensive and more likely to fail at the box office.
My solution, then, would be to stay as far away from the fantasy and sci-fi genres as possible, and it can still be done with really popular anime. I actually think it’s pretty great that Death Note is getting a western adaptation, as it’s already had several Japanese live action adaptations, both for film and TV, with varying degrees of success. While the cast and crew could do with quite a few more stars, the only really complex things that they would need to do are CG builds for Ryuk and the other shinigami’s (death god) character designs (and even these could just be swapped out for regular actors), so the complex and morally-challenging plot could keep audiences riveted throughout its run time.
As for other possible adaptation, there are quite a few titles that spring to mind.
With a few tweaks to character personalities, Toradora! could very easily be made into a charming and heart-wrenching rom-com. My favorite anime of all time, Your Lie in April, could effortlessly be made into a two-part music-romance drama, a treatment that it is currently receiving in Japan as well. Period pieces like Rurouni Kenshin and Samurai Champloo could go over fairly well here as action/drama stories, with the former having already received several critically-acclaimed live actions adaptations in Japan.
The Future Diary could very well become the next Hunger Games with its battle royale-centered plot and psychologically deviant characters. Horror fans could delight in the gory atrocities of Another, Elfen Lied, and Higurashi. Even popular sci-fi series that wouldn’t be as action or CG intense like Steins;Gate could be very popular with an American audience as an intense time travel thriller. To further cement my point, all of the anime I just mentioned are in the top 60 Most Popular anime listed on MyAnimeList, save for Kenshin currently sitting at #161. And, even better, none of them absolutely have to be set in Japan (save for the period pieces), and therefore do not require a racially accurate cast.
In short, if you’re dead set on adapting an anime into a live action film that probably isn’t even going to be an accurate representation of the source material anyway, don’t put so much strain on the production committee by choosing something that’s obviously going to take a ton of money to put together and has a massive risk of failure. Instead of immediately bolting for the action/adventure titles, take the road less traveled and siphon out some decent romances, dramas, and thrillers.
Why worry about “white-washing” and sky-high box office dreams when there are a plethora of equally low-budget and equally popular options ripe for the taking?