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Is Hollywood Pillaging Anime And Manga For Material?

by Justin Sevakis,

Eldar asks:

In a wake of Ghost in the Shell whitewashing controversy, I keep hearing rants about how creatively bankrupt Hollywood is and how it's going to ruin every anime ever made. But, I can count the number of anime/manga adaptations on both hands. Franchises as famous as Akira and Death Note have stuck in development hell, HBO has passed on Monster. So, are anime/manga adaptations is the next big thing, or it's just irrational fear/wishful thinking on the part of anime fandom?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the reality as perceived by anime fans on the internet and what is actually happening are two very, very different things.

Feature film producers have been aware of anime and manga for decades. They've been watching the shows, reading the books and shopping around for remake rights for the last twenty years. Japan, by and large, loves the money that they get from optioning the rights to producers (a few years of trauma following the release of Dragonball Evolution notwithstanding). The major manga publishers pay special literary agencies, such as the legendary Tuttle-Mori Agency, specifically to shop the rights to the film industry. They are more successful than most fans would ever realize. Tons and tons of anime and manga have had their remake rights quietly bought by American producers, and the fans are none the wiser.

Most of the time they start with the producers' individual companies (Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way or J. J. Abrams' Bad Robot being examples), and then those producers develop the concept, hire some screenwriters to adapt it, try and get directors and stars attached, and pitch the project to major studios (Disney, Universal, Warner Bros, etc.) and other investors (foreign companies like Pathe, cable networks, private investors and the like). The hope is that a major studio will buy the rights and their development work as a higher-priced package and keep developing it until it's ready to green-light.

The vast, vast, vast majority of projects never get past this stage. Others may get fairly far along in the development process, only to get put into "turnaround" (i.e. movie project purgatory) once or several times. As you noted, Akira and Death Note have been stuck in this development hell (although there have been rumblings about Death Note as of late). Evangelion is dead. Cowboy Bebop, which spent a good 5 or 6 years in development, doesn't currently appear to have a pulse. With James Cameron several years behind schedule on what is now supposed to be FOUR Avatar sequels, I have my doubts we'll ever see a live action Battle Angel Alita. And these are just the projects that we know about.

Is Hollywood "creatively bankrupt?" It depends on how you define "Hollywood". If we're talking about the vibrant film-minded artistic community in and around Los Angeles, then absolutely not -- there's some fantastic work being made, and we're in something of a golden age for both television and independent film. But if we're talking about the major studios, there is a growing consensus even within the movie industry that the process by which ideas get green-lit to become movies is frustrating, ludicrously risk-averse, and in many cases run by people without vision or faith in its creative staff. Which is why nearly every CG family film is about following your dreams, why we have superhero movie release scheduled through the end of the decade, and why many of the town's best and brightest are fleeing to television and original streaming projects. It's also why two of the major studios -- Paramount and Warner Bros -- are in trouble and may be sold within the year.

But the idea that the movie industry is using and abusing Japanese content is one of those silly divorced-from-reality things that otaku say. The Japanese industry spends quite a bit of time and money pursuing these deals intentionally. They're quite aware that the odds that a film will be made, much less be any good, are miniscule, but they want to try anyway. However, this puts the fans in the unusual position of being ignored. When studio executives evaluate an anime property, they are never aiming at pleasing its existing fan base, which is frankly too minuscule to support even a modestly budgeted live action project. They're trying to find a concept that they know can work to make a good story, and turn it into something that will work with a mainstream international audience. Appeasing the hard-to-please existing fans has nothing to do with their agenda.

As for the controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell... sweet Jesus, what a gigantic bag of sewage that whole thing is. I can't decide who annoys me more, the movie studio that allegedly played around with CG techniques to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, or the fans for flying into a self-indulgent rage at a the release of a single still promotional photo.

The studio and its casting decision has been written about ad nauseum by this point. I can only say that there aren't many Asian American actors, and the few that are out there have a very rough time getting cast. The history of Asians getting dismissed and disparaged in movies goes back all the way to the silent era. The first Asian co-starring role in cinema history was in Broken Blossoms, a 1919 melodrama that cast early matinee idol Richard Barthelmess as "The Yellow Man;" it was based on a play called The Chink and the Child. Little has changed since: the risk-averse studio system would rather cast "bankable" blonde/blue-eyed Emma Stone as an Asian in Aloha than take a chance on a lesser known actress, and that's stupid and embarrassing -- it's a pattern that keeps Asian actors from being able to establish themselves or ever becoming a draw, themselves. Even the idea that someone was tinkering with making Johansson look Asian with CG is just plain gross.

But holding Ghost in the Shell up as some sort of scion of Japanese uniqueness is just as myopic. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei's tweets went viral, painting the franchise as this depiction of uniquely Japanese relationships with technology. Which is odd, considering that the first film -- which is what most fans identify the franchise with -- didn't even take place in Japan, and the franchise as a whole takes huge inspiration from Blade Runner, Neuromancer and other Western cyberpunk works.

Moreover, the Major herself is supposed to possess what appears to be a mass-production cyborg body, to be as inconspicuous as possible (as explained in the manga). Imagine if the Major was the only Asian in Ghost in the Shell. An Asian with an artificial sexy body. Given how Western society at large tends to treat Asian women as pliant sex objects, that would be even more problematic, possibly adding a ton of societal baggage to the character that would end up eclipsing many of the franchises' most important themes. So either you cast an Asian and likely don't get your big expensive movie greenlit, or you cast a non-Asian and end up getting screamed at for whitewashing. I'm not entirely sure I'd make a different choice, if this was my movie.

And then there's the endless cesspool of rage that is Twitter, with the hashtag #AsianActressesExist raised as a flag. And Asian actresses DO exist, but people only being able to come up with a single actress who can barely speak English (Rinko Kikuchi). I also find it highly suspect that people only seem to care that Maj. Matoko Kusanagi is Asian; nobody seems to have given much thought that Pilou Asbæk (who is Danish) is playing Batou. Or that most of the remaining cast is not Asian. Why is the Major so special? At any rate, maybe the casting choice was a mistake, maybe it wasn't. But now that the film is being shot, it's too late now. Either the film will stand on its own merits, or it will make nobody happy.

Americans remaking anime will inevitably make something different from the original. An American creative staff will inevitably bring an American point of view to the story, and with that comes an American's sensibilities of societal roles, history, and place. It's almost certainly going to take place largely in the West, among Westerners -- lest it turn into a weird display of the crew trying to ape a culture that isn't their own (and inevitably getting a ton of things wrong). If the original work's creators are open to that, we should be too. It's too early to know if Ghost in the Shell will suck, or be offensive in some way. It very well might. But all this reactionary rage based on A SINGLE PHOTO is holding the project to an unreasonable standard. Yes, the hair they gave Johanssen looks kinda dumb in real life, but that's pretty much the only thing I took from it.

It's important to keep expectations in check, whenever a film project emerges, because the vast majority of film projects do end up kind of sucking. When an early script of the as-yet unmade American Death Note movie leaked a few years back, I told a close friend of mine about it, and that it was hard to tell if it was actually real of an internet hoax. This friend of mine had directed a feature at Fox, written and doctored many scripts for several studios. He asked me, "Is it any good?"

"No," I replied, "it's atrocious."

He grinned. "Then it's real."

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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