The Mike Toole Show
Anime In Three Dimensions

by Michael Toole, Dec 5th 2010


On one level, I don't quite understand why film studios and movie buffs are so into the idea of turning animated works into live-action spectacle. There's a certain charm to the spare animation and exaggerated motion of beloved old cartoons, a charm that is, at best, halting and difficult to approximate (The Flinstones) and at worst, dreadful and incomprehensible Baby Huey, anyone?). On another level, though, it's pretty thrilling to see animation's ability to warp the rules of time and physics applied directly to live-action cinema, as the Wachowski Brothers did with Speed Racer. They actually did a really good job of taking the original cartoon's breathless dialogue, exciting and improbable races, and eye-catchingly weird visuals and putting them to film - the resulting movie is very interesting to look at, and enjoyable in its completely unabashed weirdness.

The problem is, not too many people went to see it. Not too many people went to see 20th Century Fox's Dragonball film, either, though that example can probably be forgiven given the quality of the movie. Given those two high-profile examples, you'd think that Hollywood would be backing away slowly from anime-- but you'd be wrong. Instead, we've got Keanu Reeves shepherding a live-action Cowboy Bebop project, Tobey Maguire having a look at Robotech, and Leonardo DiCaprio with his fingers in both a potential Ninja Scroll adaptation and Akira project. These latest examples go hand-in-hand with longer-standing affairs, like James Cameron's oft-repeated promises to create a Battle Angel film and Warner Bros.' interest in revisiting Death Note with a western cast. All of these projects are really exciting and intriguing, and they all have one very important thing in common - none of them are in production, or even close to it.

Of course, the idea of western-backed anime adaptations is a relatively recent one. Live-action versions of popular anime and manga favorites, however, go all the way back to the genesis of anime itself, and its great early architect, "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka actually created a live-action TV adaptation of Astro Boy that aired in 1959, before the worldwide smash hit cartoon series. Bits of that series can be seen readily, and they are fascinating and horrifying; anime historian and friend to Tezuka Fred Patten has said that, when he first met the man, Tezuka denied the existence of the show outright. Tezuka would later admit that he was merely embarrassed by the project, and wished people wouldn't bring it up. Tezuka didn't give up the ghost with his live-action Astro Boy, either - we'd later see TV adaptations of Vampire (hilariously awful; a must-see!) and Ambassador Magma (re-titled Space Giants; campy, fun, and popular in the 70s). Tezuka's magnum opus, Phoenix, would be an early entrant in the realm of big-screen anime and manga adaptations - in 1978 Kon Ichikawa directed an extremely bizarre film adaptation, which mixed weird, poorly-acted live-action segments with animation created by Tezuka himself. Obviously this movie wasn't successful, but that didn't keep it from coming out on VHS in North America. See if you can find it - it's not out on DVD in the US or Japan!

That still wasn't the end for Tezuka based adaptations, though. In the 1990s, there were four separate TV movies based on Tezuka's famous Black Jack character. They're not great, but they're really not that bad, particularly the ones starring Daisuke Ryu (the other two starred the younger, prettier Masahiro Motoki). Of course, certain liberties had to be taken with the source material - in the Motoki films, Pinoko, the good doctor's adorable little homunculus pal, is replaced by a pair of psychic, talking-in-unison twins. It's kinda weird. Tezuka's wealth of material would finally see a truly worthy adaptation in 2009's MW, based on his dark manga masterpiece about moral relativity.

Getting back to the sixties, this decade would also yield an adorably clunky adaptation of Gigantor/Tetsujin 28 before giving way to Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot, based on Mitsuteru Yokoyama's followup to Gigantor, Giant Robo. These are low-budget affairs for kids, so it's not really fair to expect too much from them - in particular, I like the creative name that the Johnny Sokko dubbing crew came up with for Giant Robo himself ("Giant Robot"). As we cruise into the seventies, my information is kind of thin - the fact is, it's a bitch to obtain good intelligence on Japanese movies from this decade, particularly weird genre fare like anime and manga adaptations. But the seventies were marked by a few notable projects, like live-action versions of Lupin the 3rd and Golgo 13 that I've already discussed in their own columns. The biggest deal of the decade, in terms of live-action anime fare, is 1979's Lady Oscar, the first western film adaptation of anime.



Obviously, Lady Oscar is based on Riyoko Ikeda's famous Rose of Versailles. It was directed by the Frenchman Jacques Demy, and while it was performed in English, the late Demy had the good sense to film it on location in France. Maybe you can point to this movie as the trendsetter for live-action anime movies, because like so many of them, it's not bad at all, but it's also not particularly good. Still, lead Catriona MacCall acquits herself well as Oscar de Jarjeyes, even if she's still just too damn feminine; other characters like Marie Antionette and Andre are credible enough, and the film sticks to the story of the manga. If you're eagle-eyed enough, you just might spot the fairly-famous Patsy Kensit as Young Oscar. While Lady Oscar was created by a western staff, it was still bankrolled with Japanese money - specifically, money belonging to Mata Yamamoto, the same guy who'd go on to produce the 1983 Golgo 13 anime movie and found the Urban Vision label.

The 1980's are tipped as sort of a golden age for anime - Japan's bubble economy ensured that even TV budgets were sky high, a surging wave of young talent led by the likes of Shoji Kawamori, Hideaki Anno, and Koichi Mashimo was creating all sorts of awesome stuff, and the OVA emerged as a viable creative platform for the medium. But in terms of film adaptations, what we got was infrequent and usually underwhelming. Kazuhiro Kiyuchi's Be-Bop-Highschool, a manga that also saw an OVA adaptation, got a lengthy string of film adaptations that are amusing to watch largely because of the characters' ridiculous swaggering, hilarious 50s-esque pompadours, and exaggerated tough-guy attitudes. The same material would be adapted for a somewhat less absurd TV drama in 2004. 1987 would yield a barely-watchable version of Rumiko Takahashi's opus Maison Ikkoku, which would also return in drama form in the 2000s. The same year of '87 gave us Drifting Classroom, based on Kazuo Umezu's fucking awesome horror manga that you should all read.  This movie has been a fixture on tape-trading lists for just about as long as it's been around, mainly because it's mostly in English, but I'm not a fan - it's simply not faithful to its excellent manga progenitor. The decade would wrap with 1988's Sukeban Deka, based on the popular manga and anime featuring bruising schoolgirls and their combat yo-yos, and our bridge to the 1990s would be a series of cheap, tawdry, and fairly hilarious Kekko Kamen movies, based on the Go Nagai classic about a nude female crimefighter. Keep your eyes peeled for the Ippongi Bang cameo in the first film!

Things started to change in the 1990s. I don't know if it was the rise of CG special effects late in the decade, ensuring that even cut-rate productions could be surprisingly cool, or some other factor, but things started with a bang with Zeiram, a pair of snappy, kinetic live-action films based on the same source material as the great sci-fi/action OVA IRIA. Not to be outdone, foreign studios started to jump into the anime-to-film game. Hong Kong's Golden Harvest gave us the awesomely hilarious martial arts epic Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky in 1991, and Jackie Chan himself stepped into the shoes of the famed Ryo Saeba to play the character in 1993's City Hunter. Across the bay in Taiwan, Joe Chan directed a film adaptation of Dragonball in '91. While it's a bizarre little curiosity, you have to give Dragonball: The Magic Begins some credit - it's pretty funny, and unike Fox's entry into the franchise, it actually bears a significant resemblance to its source material.

Speaking of Hollywood, New Line Cinema would jump headlong into the game with 1991's direct-to-video The Guyver. This is the first anime adaptation that I saw, and I still remember it well; I'm not sure if it's because of the fantastic monster costumes and decent practical special effects, or if it's for the unintentionally-awful story and dialogue and weak performances by Mark Hamill (yep, Luke Skywalker himself) and Jimmie Walker (yep, JJ from "Good Times" himself!). Despite being hilariously bad, The Guyver did well enough on the emerging DTV circuit to spawn a sequel, which is better in every single way - better costumes, better effects, better story, better acting. The first half of that can be attributed to Steve Wang, a stunts n' fights guy with decades of experience doing eye-catching martial arts and practical SFX. The second half is thanks to the films new lead actor, some kid named David Hayter. Yes, the David Hayter: Solid Snake actor and Hollywood blockbuster scribe himself. He's fun to watch, but everything else aside, Guyver 2: Dark Hero is an honestly decent movie. Wow, progress!

Fans had even more reason to hope for good stuff with 1995's Crying Freeman. A French-Canadian joint, this movie was directed by Christophe Gans and starred Iron Chef USA host Marc Dacascos as the titular hitman. Again, it's not a great film, but it's generally decent, a small-time movie that punches above its weight and is pretty entertaining throughout. Gans and Dacascos would team up again for the superb Brotherhood of the Wolf. Confusingly, while Viz readily promoted the film (to help sell their Crying Freeman manga, natch) in the pages of Animerica magazine, it never came out in the US - it didn't even show up on cable TV over here until well into the 2000s! But that's OK, because 1995 would also see the blockbuster straight-to-SHOWTIME premiere of Fist of the North Star!

Fist of the North Star is a terrible, terrible movie, and I love it. Featuring an unquestionably bizarre cast (Downtown Julie Brown? Dante "Rufio" Basco as Bart? Melvin Van Peebles? Malcolm "anything for a paycheck and catered lunch table" McDowell, as Ryuken?! Fat Christopher Penn, and Clint goddamn Howard?!? Oh, yeah!!), the movie still tries its best, and is recognizably based on the famed Hokuto no Ken. In fairness, Costas Mandylor is quite solid as bad guy Shin, but he's offset to a hilarious extent by Gary Daniels as the heroic Kenshiro. Now, Daniels is actually perfectly good at onscreen combat and has used that proficiency to star in a long string of dumb DTV action movies, culminating in what is probably a career high point as one of the bad guys in this year's hit The Expendables, but the problem is, the best special effect in Fist of the North Star is his face.



I mean seriously guys just look at it. I can't stop laughing. Capping things off is the mysterious Isako Washio as Ken's love interest Julia. The actress, about whom I can find no other information clearly cannot speak English at all, and so reads her lines in this deadpan, hilarious, phonetic tone of voice. Several years back I was privileged to meet Akira Kamiya, the original voice of Kenshiro in all the great Fist of the North Star cartoons - at one point in our conversation, he mentioned that the voice cast was reunited in 1995 to dub their parts for the Japanese version of the live-action movie. Unthinkingly, I blurted out "That's a terrible movie!" Kamiya smiled and nodded, silently. The DVD is easy to come by; don't miss the commentary track, featuring extended bitching about slashed schedules and special effects budgets from director Tony Randel!

So there's the 1990s for you: one step forward, two steps back. Over in Japan the decade progressed with few standouts: 1993's 8th Man was kind of interesting but kind of awful (best scene: male lounge singer belting out "Natural Woman" during the 'romantic' part), Great Teacher Onizuka got turned into a really terrific TV drama and theatrical film, Hana Yori Dango was... quite good, actually! ...and they actually made live-action movies out of the tentacle-tastic La Blue Girl. They're pretty much what you'd expect them to be. 

For live-action anime films in Japan, this very decade has been the kindest by far. There's been a long, long list of adaptations, including Casshern, Devilman, Cromartie High School, Cutie Honey, Tetsujin 28, Detroit Metal City, SHINOBI, Dororo, Kamui, NANA, Yatterman, and 20th Century Boys. The neat thing is, most of these movies have been released in North America and Europe, and that's because most of them are good - or at least decent. Okay, Yatterman isn't that good - the gags and visual style are reproduced well, but it still fails to hang together as a movie. And yeah, Devilman TOTALLY sucks. The poster boys for Japanese films making the jump to the west are probably the Death Note films - they actually start slowly, but Kenichi Matsuyama's mesmerizing performance as L elevates otherwise frequently mediocre fare. Interestingly, Matsuyama is in danger of being typecast as anime hero dudes - he's since appeared in Detroit Metal City and Kamui.

Outside of Japan, we've gotten the aforementioned Speed Racer and Dragonball, which seem to hint at a soft market for anime adaptations - but the beat goes on. Director Chris Nahon has delivered a movie adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire that is eye-poppingly true to the source material and not bad at all - it barely made an impression at the box office, but turned into a hit on DVD. Hong Kong has chipped in a similarly jaw-droppingly exact visual copy of the source with Andy Lau's 2005 adaptation of Initial D. Despite being a merely average movie with some neat CG car stunts, Initial D was a blockbuster in Asia and didn't take long to show up on video in North America.

That brings us right up to the present day, where two very interesting things are happening. First of all, the brand-spanking-new film adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato has dropped in Japan just this past week, to packed moviehouses and highly favorable critical reception. I have multiple friends who made the trip to Japan specifically to see the film several times, and none of them are acting the least bit disappointed about it; quite the opposite, in fact. Based on the buzz, if Yamato is handled well internationally, it might turn into a legitimate crossover hit worldwide, which would be a pretty cool thing - it might help those proposed Akira and Bebop movies get made faster. The other interesting thing is the film adaptation of GANTZ set to hit Japan early next year. Thanks to some careful planning, US audiences are actually going to get a peek at the movie earlier than Japanese ones - an encouraging sign that the producers value the audience over here and think the popularity of the GANTZ anime and manga is going to help fill their special preview screenings. As for the movie itself, it stars... Kenichi Matsuyama! Go figure.

One last thing I'd like to address is the rather pointed remark I made in the introduction: most big-deal, big-budget anime productions never got off the ground. That Speed Racer movie that we all didn't go to see in the theatres was originally attached to Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp to play the title role; this was in 1992 or so. Speaking of Burton, during the same period he was attached to a proposed musical film adaptation of Kudo and Ikegami's Mai, the Psychic Girl. This project hasn't disappeared entirely, but it's been in development hell for almost twenty years; the musical scribes, new-wave rockers Sparks, are still raring to go, but Burton isn't. During the mid-1990s, Disney expressed some interest in a live-action Star Blazers movie, but that never happened, either. Before the money dried up and the company imploded, ADV Films claimed to have $50 million in funding and a deal with Weta Workshop to help create a live-action Evangelion movie. Didn't happen. So if you find yourself panicking at the thought of an over-the-hill Keanu Reeves playing Spike Spiegel or Leonardo DiCaprio using his star power to create an Akira movie that takes place in New York and stars Justin Bieber as Tetsuo, don't fret just yet - until there's a budget, director, cast, and shooting schedule, these exciting proposals are just that - proposals.

At the same time, Speed Racer, despite its box-office crash, had critics singing its praises, and its production introduced a number of cinematic innovations, like the ultra-wide lens cameras used to create its distinctive pan-focus look. Space Battleship Yamato is definitely going to hit in Japan - the only question is, are the sequels going to be any good? Anime in live-action has a high miss ratio, but the hits are somehow making it worthwhile, and that's pretty much where we are right now. I know that I've missed a few (some stuff, like Kazuo Koike's sprawling gekiga epics Lone Wolf & Cub, Lady Snowblood, and Hanzo the Razor deserve their own column), so don't be afraid to bring 'em up in the comments. Finally, I'd love to tell you all not to spend hours speculating about your casting choices for that Bebop movie - Reeves still wants to go, despite reported problems finding a good script and production partner in September - but it's gonna happen regardless. So speculate away!


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