Despite past follies in the same vein, two major studios have announced plans to adapt anime/manga franchises into big-budget, live-action films. Legendary Pictures will be moving forward with My Hero Academia, an absolute juggernaut in the industry, and Warner Bros. is eyeing Attack on Titan, a similarly large franchise.
What enters into every otaku’s mind instantly are the memories of former attempts to pierce the Japanese bubble for the Western market. Most recently, an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, met extreme criticism from both film buffs and anime connoisseurs. While visually stylish, casting choices and script changes caused a great deal of concern about the integrity of studios to honor the source material. Likewise, I cringe at having to bring up Dragon Ball Evolution, the infamous adaptation of the legendary Dragon Ball series. I remember seeing it in theaters, and as soon as the credits rolled, a fellow patron expressed my exact thoughts – “MY CHILDHOOD IS RUINED!”.
So the question is, can it be done? Can a Western live-action anime adaptation succeed? Let me explain why we might be in the best possible position for it to happen.
Attack on Titan surged into the market with its strong first season in 2014. Sporting extremely high quality animation, an intriguing premise, and one of the best scores in the industry, it gained a popular following anime fans. One of the biggest strengths of the franchise is its relatively universal story: In an alternate history, the entirety of humanity is brought to the brink when mysterious, massive humanoid creatures appear that want one thing only–to devour people. The remaining survivors barricade themselves behind a series of giant ring walls, establishing a new government, and enjoy peace and safety…for a time.
One of the biggest gripes with critics and fans has been the “white-washing” of casting choices in previous films. Most anime and manga obviously revolves around Japan, including both Japanese characters and the general cultural zeitgeist of Japan. But, in Attack on Titan, one of the characters is literally the last person of Japanese descent alive in the narrative’s world–the rest are largely European. It seems like a cop-out to the general issue of white-washing and westernizing, but the fact remains there. What gives me the most faith is that Anthony Muschietti, director of IT and Mama, is being drafted to direct. If the writers can get around the series’ notorious proclivity for abruptly killing off characters, which could be a major problem within 90-120 minutes, I think Attack on Titan has a chance.
My Hero Academia has quickly become one of the strongest franchises in the anime industry. Infinitely more accessible by younger age groups, it’s taken traditional and established superhero tropes and tweaked them into something new. In a world where 80% of the population are born with special powers, known as “quirks”, natural factions of villains and the heroes that combat them form. The naturally-resulting niche of ‘Pro Heroes’ requires young prospects to enter schooling and train to meet the demands of the public.
What makes My Hero Academia an interesting prospect is both the manga and resulting anime are heavily influenced by Western superheroes. All Might, the fabled Symbol of Peace, even studied abroad in the United States, with many of his signature moves borrowing the names of US states. The series sports so many unique characters that it bodes extremely well for merchandising (it’s already got a great rapport in that regard already), so American studios would be wise to treat it seriously. Not too much has been released in the way of production credits, but I wouldn’t doubt big names being attached to it.
At the risk of going too far into depth, adaptations of anime and manga haven’t been so bleak in the past. The Wachowski Sisters’ version of Speed Racer, despite being a box office bomb, has gained acclaim over time for its visual faithfulness to the series. It’s a cult favorite of mine for sure. Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm, adapted as Alita: Battle Angel (directed by Robert Rodriguez and written/produced by James Cameron) will be releasing in February of 2019.