Buried Garbage - When Anime Directors Go Live Action

by Justin Sevakis, Aug 7th 2008

Buried Garbage: Anime Directors go Live Action

I was a film directing major in college. It's really a major that gets no respect: directing a film is something that nearly everybody that fancies themselves a creative type dreams that, should they one day get the opportunity, they'd be able to do. It's why every two-bit out-of-work actor in New York and Los Angeles will proudly tell you, "what I really want to do is direct!"

In reality, most people have no idea at all what goes into directing a successful film. This is proven again and again by the thousands of first-time directors every year that somehow manage to finance and make their own movie. As anybody who's ever judged film festival entries can tell you, the results are almost uniformly awful; a mix of ham-fisted comedy/drama, bad technical skills, worse acting, and stories that go nowhere. An appalling number of people are under the impression that their lives would make a good movie. Others tend to ape tired genre formulas and come up with something so derivative that the Hollywood studios could sue them and win.

We think of anime directors as being film directors, but in reality there's not as much overlap between the duties of an anime director and a live action director as one might think. The process, the budgetary restrictions, and the places where creativity comes into play are completely different. The anime director seldom works directly with actors (after the initial episode or so, anyway), has no set, and is used to working within tight confines of limited motion, strict broadcast guidelines, and the demands of a sponsor.

And so, in that rare instance when an anime director attempts the leap to live action, said director usually has no idea what they're getting into. The results are seldom pretty.

Akitaroh Daichi: The Lives of Pretty Girls

I found this DVD while browsing Book-Off a while back. The live action directorial debut of the man who brought us Kodocha, Fruits Basket and Now and Then, Here and There, The Lives of Pretty Girls is proof positive that the ability to create meaningful drama in animation does not mean that one knows how to do so in live action.

The 3-part direct-to-video sitcom had a terrible premise to begin with: six beautiful girls share an indescribably tiny apartment (about six feet by ten feet), sleep a lot and live silly lives. Illustrator Hisashi Eguchi pops in occasionally to annoy them. It aims for a light-hearted slice-of-life feel (a la Honey and Clover), but has no redeeming qualities to keep us interested. The girls themselves are so poorly developed that we can't even tell them apart, the humor is stupid and isn't funny, and the acting is High School play level at best (the girls) and completely unwatchable at worst (Eguchi, who keeps looking off camera).

But the biggest mistake Pretty Girls makes is how indescribably dull it is. Daichi, knowing he had no budget to work with, did what any animator would do: MAKE NOTHING MOVE. Minutes tick by and the girls just sit there, moving only their lips. Sound effects are expected to carry the weight of the entire piece. The camera often stays stationary in that tiny room (looking at the making-of segment, they actually used a REAL tiny room, therefore making it almost impossible to position the camera), and we seldom ever leave it. The result is claustrophobic, uncomfortable, not funny, amateur, and just plain unpleasant.

Worst of all, the part Daichi usually shines, the fast-paced manic comic timing, falls completely on its face. Unable to control the girls directly as he would in an animation, Daichi instead relies entirely on Kodocha-style background music to get his point across. The stuff onscreen, meanwhile, is moving so slowly that it just seems like someone in the next room is watching a cartoon.

The Lives of Pretty Girls is damn near unwatchable. Luckily, Daichi doesn't seem to be making a career out of this sort of thing: his Japanese Wikipedia page doesn't even mention the project.

Mamoru Oshii: The Red Spectacles

Speaking of talking heads, Mamoru Oshii is probably the anime director that's most successfully transitioned to live action. The man is, if nothing else, pretentious. I count myself amongst his fans, but even I must concede this point. While his most recent attempt, Avalon, was a moderate success, his track record has not been nearly so good.

Around 1987 Oshii first managed to get (very limited) funding to make a live action film a small independent outfit called Omnibus Promotion. Taking place in the totalitarian alternate universe of the Kerberos Panzer Cops (familiar to anyone that has seen the unforgettable anime Jin-Roh), the film stars Shigeru Chiba (a live action actor, though well-known to anime fans as Kuwabara in Yū Yū Hakusho and Pilaf from Dragon Ball Z) as a detective that somehow escaped the Orwellian totalitarian state. Years later, he returns to find the city in decay and goes exploring.

The Red Spectacles is decidedly avant-garde. Nearly the entire film is in black-and-white, and as a narrative one can't even begin to make any sense of it at all. Entire scenes degenerate into complete nonsense, punctuated with bits of out-of-place and over-the-top comedy that don't fit the otherwise somber film. I have no clue what happens to Koichi, his motivations, or why the hell he came back to the city in the first place.

Clearly, verisimilitude filmmaking was not the intent, and The Red Spectacles does have its moments of brilliance. But it's also slow, ponderous and horribly showy and condescending -- anyone attempting to figure out the meaning behind any aspect of the film will quickly find themselves more confused than when they started. Jin-Roh fans might have a few details about the world of the Kerberos filled in for them, but at the end of the day, it's just not worth it.

Hideaki Anno: Shiki -Jitsu

Hideaki Anno's live action directorial debut, 1997's Love and Pop, still holds a special place in my heart. This, despite camera choices clearly made while drunk on the tininess of Sony's then-new MiniDV camcorders. By attaching said cameras to everything from a microwave to a sock to the bottom of a glass plate of spaghetti, Anno drove the big-screen nausea potential easily past Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project. But the subject matter and its handling was compelling, despite the visual mistakes, and so I refuse to make Love and Pop a "Garbage" entry.

I cannot be so kind to his follow-up, Shiki-Jitsu. The name is an antiquated Japanese word for "day of ritual". The film stars one of my favorite Japanese directors, Shunji Iwai, as a director returning to his hometown in suburban Tokyo. Once there he discovers a strange girl, seemingly mentally disabled. She wears strange clothes, and repeats, "today is my birthday," over and over. The director is fascinated by this damaged girl, the dream world she inhabits, and how she tries to make that dream world come to life in the large abandoned industrial complex she lives in. Clearly, the girl is not happy -- she longs to escape this fantasy world she's constructed for herself, and the director takes it upon himself to help her come out of her shell, and into the real world.

Shiki-Jitsu is based on a book by Ayako Fujitani (who plays the girl, and is actually Steven Segal's daughter) after an emotionally trying time in her life, and while the fantasy world is interesting to a point, the film itself fizzles completely. Anno doesn't really seem to know what to do with these characters. After revealing the bizarre "worlds" of the girl's psyche the film falls apart completely. The entire film seems like an experiment that went badly, or hadn't been really thought through from the beginning.

Still, I can't fault Anno for trying. Shiki-jitsu could have been epoch-making had it gone somewhere, had it made a point, or had any relevance to anybody but those making it. The issue is that without those things, it's merely an exercise in masturbatory cinema.


Making a live action film is very, very hard. A shoot, especially one on a tight budget, is a hardship, and many things can and do go wrong. The footage seldom looks anywhere near as good as you imagined it, and some things that may have made sense to you may make zero sense to everyone else; conversely you may have missed something everyone else will surely read into your film. The number of things that go wrong in making movies is nearly as long as the list of people who have tried making them. And to all those who have tried at all, one can only say "good job." Even if the next sentence is, "your movie is a piece of garbage."

HOW TO GET IT: The Lives of Beautiful Girls (美少女生活) is available on R2 DVD with no subtitles. Bandai released Mamoru Oshii's three live action films with subtitles as "Mamoru Oshii: Cinema Trilogy Collection" along with Stray Dog and Talking Head, both of which are also cheap and bizarre. Shiki-Jitsu has never been released with subtitles on DVD (an R2 is out there), though on occasion it shows up subtitled at various film festivals.

Screenshots: The Life of Beautiful Girls © Akitaroh Daichi•Planets•Japan Image Communications. The Red Spectacles ©1987 MAMORU OSHII / OMNIBUS PROMOTION. Shiki-Jitsu ©Shiki-Jitsu Partners.


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