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Why Are So Many Live Action Anime Adaptations Terrible?

by Justin Sevakis,

Mitchell asked:

I've heard the Fullmetal Alchemist movie is bad, it has become clear to me that both America and Japan are having a tough time making a good live action film based off anime/manga. I know that superhero movies based on comics are able to work (thank you Marvel), so why is it that movies based of Japanese comics are doing so bad? Also is there any anime/manga series that has yet to be attempted that you think could be done right? If so, what would it need to do in order to work?

First, I haven't seen the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie but our correspondent liked it just fine. But to answer your question, simply put, a lot of what makes anime good is exactly what makes it not very effective in a live action format. People are drawn to anime and manga because of its surrealism, its world building, its unique sense of style, and its long, involving storylines. Most of those are very difficult to translate into a live action feature in a convincing way.

Anime and manga characters, particularly those that populate youthful action shows, do not act like realistic people. They're not supposed to. In the original medium in which they appeared, that's OK. Anime and manga (and light novels) allow for a separation from reality. Their very nature is other-worldly, their features are heightened, their space they inhabit often is completely separate from our own. When we view the original, our brains are not expecting reality and isn't judging what's happening by the rules of our world.

The minute the same thing happens in a live action film, our brains snap to, and immediately see all the cracks where a fantasy world don't mesh well with real life. We see that a Japanese man is playing a Western teenager named Edward, and speaking Japanese. We see the (possibly low budget) CG and make-up effects work. We see pacing and scripting choices -- characters making grand speeches or dumping out expository dialogue that might've worked in a manga or an anime TV series, but in a live action film just seem like a ridiculous waste of time.

Two hours is not long enough to build out a convincing fantasy world of the scope of most long-running anime series. Any movie adaptation must be forced to severely truncate the action, speed it up, or compress a lot of events, all of which severely impact any potential the film will have of actually working like a film should.

Then, working within a studio system, you get all of the creative compromises that exist to make the film "sellable" and "commercial," At worst, it ends up like the live action Ghost in the Shell: a bunch of pretty re-created set pieces that fans will recognize, stitched together into a story that's a hollow shell (sorry) of what came before.

Perhaps there are ways of doing some or all of these things a "right" way that wouldn't take us out of the story. Perhaps, as a well-funded vanity project in the hands of a very capable director and creative staff, something good could yet come out of a movie anime adaptation, if it was allowed to go in its own direction and do its own creative heavy lifting. It arguably happened once, with Speed Racer.

There are probably anime and manga properties that would work well in live action. Guillermo del Toro's aborted attempt to produce a live action adaptation of Monster would've probably been very good. I'm still holding out some hope for Alita: Battle Angel. But in my opinion the best anime and manga to adapt are the ones that cut the closest, visually, to what's already easy in live action. Stuff like Heroic Legend of Arslan, Bunny Drop, and House of Five Leaves. But nobody wants to adapt those because they're mundane. They're not the giant, attention-getting properties that everybody who's into anime knows.

American comic books work well for movies, because while every outing is technically part of a larger narrative and cinematic universe, most characters and back stories are relatively simple and easy to explain. Most of them are set in an America not much different from our own. Not much time has to be spent on world-building, establishing a huge cast, or complicated rules. But most importantly, very few of them are actually trying to faithfully recreate a long, complicated story arc from the comics - Marvel movies are very, very loosely adapted from the long-running stories they're based on. They're allowed to do their own thing, and often follow a very clear cinematic formula that's been proven to work in movie form again and again.

Ultimately, anime, manga and live action TV series are very different art forms. Different ways of telling a story work in each medium, and when one tries too hard to ape the other, the end result ends up feeling awkward and lackluster. Making a film that works is a very difficult thing to pin down, and it's very difficult to say that such-and-such concept doesn't work with absolute certainty. But you're right in that what seems like a natural thing to adapt to live action simply isn't as natural as one would think. If the final film isn't going to be ungainly and kind of crappy, it's going to have to break away from the original and be its own thing. Easier said than done.

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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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