Hollywood's Anime Problem

Games Editor Liam Ferguson takes a deep dive into Hollywood’s obsession with adapting anime and manga for Western audiences, and why nothing seems to stick.

Anime is one of the most popular genres in the world. In recent years, particularly since 2013’s Attack on Titan blew the Japanese format of animation into the pop-culture zeitgeist, anime has only become more and more popular. Even before Attack on Titan, Studio Ghibli movies were beloved by many globally and 90’s excellence such as Dragon Ball and Pokémon remained evergreen. However, Hollywood has only grown more and more hungry for a piece of the pie as consistently failing live action adaptations have been churned out to a much more egregious extent over the last decade. There does not seem to be a grasp on what makes the source material of anime series’ work so well within the head of Hollywood executives and these projects have continuously felt like soulless rehashes.

The way I see it, there are two major camps of Hollywood anime adaptations and I want to focus on two films from camp and discuss why neither ever works. There are the Americanised adaptations where anime heroes will be taken out of their very Japanese settings and plopped mercilessly into the land of the free for a movie. Dragon Ball: Evolution and Death Note are two of the most shameless examples of this trend. Apart from these, there is the type of adaptation that attempts to stay faithful to its source material yet fails to capture anything about what made that material so special in the first place. Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop are two excellently awful examples of this.

To start, let’s talk about James Wong’s 2009 masterpiece of garbage, Dragon Ball: Evolution. Goku is one of the most recognisable characters in pop-culture with his spiky black hair and signature orange Gi being instantly identifiable for a large number of people, even those unfamiliar with the series itself. So, why not turn him into a generic high schooler trying to manoeuvre his love life while saving the world in a tracksuit? He’s a goofy but loveable hero with an unbeatable amount of power. Naturally, it only makes perfect sense to basically try and turn him into a Peter Parker type character but without any kind of discernible personality. On top of this, the film tried to turn the franchise into a run of the mill teen comedy adventure filled with awkward, quirky humour and boring romantic B-plots. 

“It’s especially obvious how ignorant of an approach this movie had to the subject as a wide variety of Japanese live action Death Note adaptations have managed to successfully capture the spirit of the original.”

Additionally, the heart and soul of Dragon Ball has always been the gigantic amount of effort put into its battle sequences as Goku fights gods and monsters seemingly far above his skill level. This movie somehow made Dragon Ball fights boring, which is undeniably its biggest sin. Filled to the brim with awful and dated (even for 2009) CGI and meaningless choreography, the battles of Dragon Ball: Evolution failed to impress on any level. There really is nothing to like about it and it exists as a template for why inherently Japanese productions such as Dragon Ball should not be Americanised in order to make a quick buck.

Nevertheless, in 2017 Netflix reared its ugly head by releasing an American live action of the acclaimed anime and manga series, Death Note. While the casting of Willem Dafoe as Ryuk is genius and perfect, everything else pales in comparison to the animated counterpart. Death Note is an extremely Japanese orientated drama, taking many cues in its plot from social commentary on the country’s justice system. It has a deep, beautifully crafted story of a brilliant student with the power to kill anyone trying to take the law into his own hands and raises interesting and engaging questions regarding morality. The Netflix film just has an edgy and horny high school kid with a bad dye job trying to get a girlfriend and his father’s love.

A more hopeful reading of the film is that Netflix was trying to do a bold reimaging of the story and just fell flat in the writing department. It’s clear that Natt Wolf’s Light Turner is not remotely close to the original’s Light Yagami in terms of character or motivations. However, any nuance or socially relevant themes are thrown aside as this movie aims for an overtly angsty vibe that cements it as a lifeless husk that should have never made it past its initial pitch. It’s especially obvious how ignorant of an approach this movie had to the subject as a wide variety of Japanese live action Death Note adaptations have managed to successfully capture the spirit of the original.

“The characters have the same names and cheap cosplays of their iconic designs, but it’s clear that each actor winces at every line in the script they were given

Netflix wrapped up 2021 with a live action series adaptation of one of the most influential and highly regarded anime of all time, Cowboy Bebop. They poured millions into the budget of the show and marketed it constantly, trying to recreate the magic of the original series in a new format and billing it as an extremely faithful adaptation. The only good thing about this show is that original composer Yoko Kanno returned to score it, as her music truly could not be replicated. In many ways it is safe to say that the showrunners tried too hard with this one to keep it as close as possible to the source material and in many other ways it’s easy to look at this as a 60-million-dollar self-aggrandising dumpster fire.

The characters have the same names and cheap cosplays of their iconic designs, but it’s clear that each actor winces at every line in the script they were given. It’s honestly hard to see where the budget went for the series. The special effects are almost entirely eyesores, the costuming has less effort put into it than many cosplayer’s attempts and the choreography is dazzlingly dull. Cowboy Bebop would be an extremely difficult task to adapt to live action in any sense, the animation is so fluid with lanky character designs that it would be impossible to recreate in any satisfying way with real people. 

On top of this, the characters within the show are very over the top at times in a way that works for an animated property but only comes across as ridiculously cheesy in a live action setting. The defence that has been argued for the show by the vocal minority who enjoyed it before its swift cancellation is that it is a campy take on the original series, intentionally designed to be cringe. The argument against this is that a campy take on Cowboy Bebop already exists, it’s an anime called Space Dandy and it is fantastic.

I have come to the unfortunate realisation that I don’t have enough words left to properly discuss Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, but that whitewashed travesty does not particularly deserve many words, even if they’re all negative, devoted to it. It’s clear without a doubt that Hollywood has a major problem with adapting anime properties to the big or small screen and should be stopped at all costs unless they truly start to buckle down and come up with any semblance of well executed ideas. Now to wait for JJ Abrams’ upcoming take on modern classic Your Name…yay.