In today’s Hollywood, there is a bubble of films that is continually growing, and it's supplied by adaptations from two specific sources: comic books and young adult (or YA) novels
It’s a significant trend that has emphatically and consistently blown up the box office. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games films; those are just some examples of how comics and YA novels have seen great success critically and financially.
Will this bubble of comic book and YA novel film adaptations eventually burst though? And lose moviegoer interest due to market oversaturation? Maybe. If or when that happens, what source will Hollywood look to for movie adaptations then? I believe there’s actually an easy, and obvious answer to that: It’s anime and manga.
Now I’m not talking about the anime that you might be thinking of. Naruto, Pokémon, The Legend of Korra, or whatever similar series; those aren't the source materials I’d think Hollywood would have the gall to tap into again. Remember, they had recently tried that with The Last Airbender and Dragonball. Both were abysmal failures. Many anime series, particularly mainstream ones, have rabid fanbases that aren't easily appeased. If film studio executives and movie producers eventually decide to go down that road again with mainstream anime, they better tread lightly.
Instead, I think Hollywood should look to a much safer bet in classic anime films and cult-classic manga from some of the great artists and storytellers of our time: Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Perfect Blue), Katsuhiro Otomo (Steamboy, Akira), Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), Yukito Kishiro (Battle Angel Alita), and Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed). Those are just some of the brilliant minds who have set trends and contributed so much to Japanese animation and manga.
There really is a significant amount of amazing potential that Hollywood has yet to get a proper sight of here. It’s clear that Japanese animated movies and manga graphic novels have a rich pedigree that goes back a long way and they span a swath of different genres. It's a source of content that seems primed for the big budget, modern day Hollywood movie makeover.
If you look back, there were a few successive films that started off trends in comic book and YA novel adaptations
I’d argue that the recent and upcoming onslaught of comic book movies can trace back their footing to 1998 with Stephen Norrington’s Blade, followed by Bryan Singer with his first X-Men film in 2000. In 2002 with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the hype train for superhero comic book films was in full effect. Today the genre has undoubtedly become a cultural phenomenon.
For movies based off young adult novels, their success is a bit more recent, but is just as comparable to comic book adaptations. This also makes their lineage quite clear. The Harry Potter books and subsequent films changed the game and opened Hollywood up to an untapped market that could generate huge returns at the box office.
It’s easy to see that writers, producers, and studio execs are continuing to scramble about and find the next Harry Potter franchise. The Hunger Games has proven itself to be a box office powerhouse, and despite being critically panned, the Twilight films generated obscene amounts of money.
So what movie or films will it be for Japanese animation and graphic novels? What possible live-action adaptations will elevate the anime and manga genre to box office phenom?
Here are 5 sources Hollywood could develop that just might make live-action anime a trend
1. Battle Angel Alita
Doc Ido, a talented cyber-physician, stumbles across Alita’s discarded head in a junk heap fully intact. She has lost all memory of her past life, but when Ido reconstructs her, she discovers her body still instinctively remembers the Panzer Kunst; an ancient, deadly, and highly destructive cyborg martial art. For Alita, each day is a struggle not just for survival, but to also understand who, and what, she really is.
If I were to peg the hopes and dreams of Hollywood seeing the inherent potential with adapting source material from anime and manga into big budget films, I would go with Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita manga series. The original manga run lasted from 1990 to 1995, spanning 9 volumes. It’s really a great read, and I highly recommend it if you’re into hard, gritty sci-fi. There is also a great 2-part anime film based on the manga, but it only covers a small glimpse of the original narrative.
Some of you might know that James Cameron has been attached to write and direct a live-action Battle Angel film for over a decade now
According to Cameron, the script is completed and about a year’s worth of pre-production work has already been developed for the film. The thing is, Cameron has gone on record saying that he wanted to complete his Avatar trilogy before moving forward with Alita. Reason being? Cameron feels Avatar contains important environmental messages which would do more good since apparently Alita is just a kick-ass action film. Good enough reason I guess!
I’ve been following the progress of Battle Angel’s venture into live-action since 2008, and based on what Cameron has said in several interviews, audiences most likely won’t see the ultra badass Alita until around 2020. Is 2020 the year that the anime and manga movie adaptations in Hollywood go mainstream? It very well might be.
2. Ghost in the Shell
In the year 2029, the barriers of our world have been broken down by the net and by cybernetics, but this brings new vulnerability to humans in the form of brain-hacking. When a highly wanted hacker known as 'The Puppetmaster' begins involving brain-hacks in politics, Public Security Section 9, a group of cybernetically enhanced operatives, are called in to investigate the hacker's exploits.
I’ve personally never read Masamune Shirow’s manga, but 1995’s Ghost in the Shell anime film is arguably one of the most beautifully animated movies in the past 20 years. Highly regarded, and critically acclaimed, I don't think any other anime film in recent memory has come close to achieving the kind of renown Ghost in the Shell has. It’s a thought provoking and haunting story, embellished with great action, jaw-dropping art direction, and a badass female protagonist to carry it all with both grace and ferocity.
Niels Matthijs of Twitch Film said it best in his movie review. "Not only is Ghost in the Shell an essential film in the canon of Japanese animation, together with Kubrick's 2001 and Tarkovsky's Solyaris it completes a trio of book adaptations that transcend the popularity of their originals and a new meaning to an already popular brand."
Honestly, I'd be ok with a straight up frame-for-frame adaptation of the original anime film to live-action; it’s that good. Consider it a required viewing experience if you haven’t already seen it as it's most definitely one of the top 10 anime films of all time.
Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks acquired the rights to the manga back in 2008, and the Ghost in the Shell film adaptation is currently in development under the helm of Snow White and the Huntsman director, Rupert Sanders. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) was rumored for the lead role, but the current buzz suggests that Scarlett Johansson has been officially tapped to play Major Motoko instead.
With the recent backlash that Ridley Scott’s Exodus got for whitewashing the core of its cast, I would hope that DreamWorks will eventually reconsider their options. Nothing against Scarlett, but it’s not like there aren’t any great Japanese actresses currently working in Hollywood. I say give Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) or Tao Okamoto (The Wolverine) a chance!
3. Attack on Titan
Set in a world where humanity lives inside cities surrounded by enormous walls as a defense against the Titans (gigantic humanoid creatures who devour humans seemingly without reason), Eren Yeager and his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, along with their childhood friend Armin Arlert, join the military to fight the Titans after their home town is invaded.
The live-action adaptation of Attack on Titan is set to be released overseas soon, but the likelihood of the film reaching worldwide audiences is fairly slim
Maybe Netflix will eventually get it? Either way, I’ve read 5 volumes of this manga thus far, but I’ve watched the series twice over and it is righteous. If a live-action adaptation of this were given a Hollywood budget around the $200 million mark, I can imagine just how absolutely insane it would be.
Unfortunately, it seems like most live-action films to come out of Japan, or any foreign country for that matter, rarely get a significant foothold worldwide. At best they manage to garner a cult following or are relegated to VOD or streaming services, and maybe given Criterion status.
However, there is the precedent for Hollywood doing American remakes of foreign films relatively quickly after their foreign release. Let The Right One In is a 2008 Swedish horror movie that was remade into Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves and was released in 2010 to American audiences. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, another Swedish film, was also remade for American audiences 2 years after its foreign release under the direction of David Fincher. I see a pattern! Maybe in 2 years after its initial release we’ll see Hollywood adapt Attack on Titan and give it the budget it deserves.
4. Barefoot Gen
A powerful statement against the horrors of war, Barefoot Gen depicts World War II in Japan from a child's point of view revolving around the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima. It follows the main character's first hand experience of the devastating affects of an atomic bomb.
Not all anime and manga are set in dystopian futures or are about cyborgs or giant robots with big guns, or ninjas and swords, or fantasy and magic... it can be much more than that
1983’s Barefoot Gen is testament to that notion, and as such, is one of the most emotionally stirring films I’ve ever seen. Period. It’s a definitive masterpiece, and a master class in storytelling through the artistic use of animation that touches on a very poignant mark in the history of mankind. This is definitely another must-watch film you need to add to your cinematic bucket list if you haven't already seen it.
There was another anime film by Studio Ghibli released several years after Barefoot Gen, titled Grave of the Fireflies, which has some similarities. For example, both films are set in World War II and both gut punch you with a big bag of emotions. Barefoot Gen is definitely much harsher in its depiction of war, but either anime film would make for a great live-action adaptation.
As an aside, I don’t think there’s ever been a big budget adaptation of a film that details the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While American audiences might not be keen on seeing a film about one of the more depressing acts in America’s past, I believe it’s important to point out the cause and effect of that particular event from the other side. Much like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, sometimes looking into our past and seeing history from another point of view gives some much needed clarity. Barefoot Gen would be a shoe-in for a great live-action Hollywood film in that regard.
5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
In the far future, man has destroyed the Earth in the "Seven Days of Fire" and has left a Toxic Jungle in its wake. Now, there are small pockets of humanity that survive. One pocket is the Valley of Wind where a princess named Nausicaä tries to understand, rather than destroy the Toxic Jungle.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and based off his own manga of the same name, while Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind might not be one of his best known or highly recognized films, I personally think its story is one that would translate amazingly well into a live-action, post apocalyptic adventure. The world and the creatures could make for some visually delicious scenery that VFX companies like Weta Digital or ILM would have a field day with.
As with both Battle Angel Alita and Ghost in the Shell, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has a strong female protagonist carrying the story. We are seeing a rise of strong female characters in current Hollywood thanks to The Hunger Games and Divergent, and I think anime and manga could definitely lend some great stories to keep up that particular trend.
Now some of you might be wondering why I wouldn’t suggest Princess Mononoke from Studio Ghibli’s body of work instead. Nausicaä does have thematic similarities with Princess Mononoke, most notably the environmental issues and the strong female lead, but I feel like Nausicaä’s post apocalyptic scenario would fare better with general audiences and cater to their current obsession with "end of the world" type settings. That said, as with Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, both Nausicaä and Mononoke would certainly translate into great live-action adventure films.
Bare in mind that all these possible live-action adaptations have the potential to be completely terrible and fail spectacularly
Comic books and YA novels are enjoying plenty of success in the movie business right now, but let's not forget that there have also been plenty of bombs: Catwoman, Daredevil, Green Lantern, The Spirit, Sin City 2, Cowboys & Aliens. Those are just some of the comic book adaptations that have flopped in the last 10 years.
YA novels arguably had it worse when it came to live-action adaptations that have either failed critically or financially, or both. Some unfortunate casualties in the frenzy of finding the next Harry Potter were The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Inheritance Cycle, and Inkheart. Plenty of potential in all those IPs, but all had terrible execution. The upcoming sequels to Divergent and The Maze Runner look promising though.
Having a few flops here and there eventually leads to grand success though, that much is certain. Anime and manga adaptations have so far endured the horrid live-action versions of Fist of the North Star, Speed Racer, Oldboy (Spike Lee's version), and Kite. I’m sure there will be plenty more bumps in the road.
Any smart person would bet that it’s going to be be James Cameron’s Battle Angel film that starts the anime movie craze
But who knows, maybe Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell will actually be amazing. Maybe both films will be the catalyst for the trend? Either way, I really do believe Hollywood is going to eventually oversaturate the market with too many superheroes and too many young adult novel movies. When that happens, prepare to see a massive influx of Japanese animation and graphic novel adaptations destroying the box office worldwide. Are you ready?