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Why Live-Action Anime Adaptations Don’t Work

Why is it so difficult to translate beloved anime series to live-action?
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In general, live-action adaptations of existing anime are usually… not very good.

We have seen it happen time and time again. Some producer somewhere thinks to themselves, “Hey, people really like this one anime show. I bet I can redo it even better and cash in on that popularity!”

Usually, it’s a producer or a studio that has zero ties, or even interest, in said anime. Then, they change just about everything that fans loved about the original, throw some CGI in there, and call it a day.

Live-Action Anime Adaptations From Hollywood Are Rarely Successful

While this may work for other adaptations, such as all those DC Comics and Marvel characters leaping onto both the big and small screen, it never quite works the same for anime. The success rate is dismal, especially in America. Very few times has Hollywood found success after taking on anime.

Of course, Hollywood has a really bad habit of whitewashing anime in the name of localization. Remember when they cast Scarlett Johansson in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell? In a story taking place in Tokyo, Johansson portrayed Major Motoko Kusanagi.

live-action Death Note on Netflix
Netflix

While I could point out plenty of other reasons why Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of Death Note didn’t work, they are also guilty of poor casting choices. The original anime is rooted in Japanese folklore and other elements that are culturally significant, but for the live-action movie, the majority of the primary cast was definitely whitewashed for American audiences. Does Death Note lose its core identity when so many elements are removed or changed?

This definitely isn’t the only problem facing live-action adaptations of popular anime series, though. If it were, I feel like we would have seen more successful adaptations by now. 

They Aren’t All Bad… Just Most of Them

Clearly, this is a blanket statement, and there will always be exceptions. There have been a few good live-action adaptations, especially those made in Japan. While Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of Death Note was disappointing, Japan already had a great one. 2006’s Death Note and its sequel, Death Note 2: The Last Name, managed to do it right. The adaptations stuck pretty close to the original storyline and appearance of the show.

And whether or not a live-action anime adaptation is good is also subjective. Personally, I enjoyed Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, although it wasn’t a favorite for everyone. I’m not saying it was the best, nor was it better than the original anime series. But at the same time, I don’t really think it was awful by any means.

cowboy-bebop-reboot-netflix
Netflix

Regardless, Cowboy Bebop got the Be-chop only weeks after its debut. I guess other viewers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Maybe next time, Space Cowboy.

So what is it about like-action anime adaptations that make them largely unsuccessful? Something is getting lost in translation. I have an idea or two!

Who Is the Audience?

First and foremost, who is the audience for live-action anime? This confusion is one of the biggest flaws when it comes to these adaptations.

Existing fans usually have little to no interest in these remakes. Most (understandably) believe that there is nothing a live-action adaptation can add, that doesn’t already exist in an anime. In fact, many of the nuances and stylistic choices are lost.

So are they giving anime the live-action treatment in an effort to appeal to audiences who don’t like anime? If so, what is the end game? By the time you try to create a live-action adaptation that can appeal to someone who has never seen the original series, you’ve lost a lot of character depth, subtlety, and lore that made the original anime great. Some of these changes can even alter the core identity of an anime. What’s left is a movie or series that is likely too weird or confusing for people unfamiliar with the original series or anime in general.

It’s almost as if they are trying to please both sides, which is entirely impossible – and leaves the live-action adaptation sitting smack in the middle of both sides and not pleasing either.

Adaptations From Producers With Little or No Interest

Many live-action adaptations suffer from a lack of investment, but I’m not necessarily talking about money here. After all, Dragonball Evolution had a $30 million budget but still managed to be a massive failure.

Dragonball Evolution
20th Century Fox

No, I’m also talking about the investment of time and interest. These adaptations are often signed off on by big companies that have little familiarity with the original series or anime in general. That means they have no clue how to do it justice. Did they even see the original anime series before giving the live-action adaptation the green light? I’m sure we know the answer to that.

In an ideal situation, the producers would actually be fans of the original or at least have seen it. When they have little working knowledge, the end results are never good. For example, let’s look back at that big ol’ botch of a movie, Dragonball Evolution. Writer Ben Ramsey even issued an apology for dropping “the dragon ball” because he wasn’t a fan of the Dragonball franchise. He admittedly was only “chasing after a big payday.”

I went into the project chasing after a big payday, not as a fan of the franchise but as a businessman taking on an assignment. I have learned that when you go into a creative endeavor without passion you come out with sub-optimal results, and sometimes flat out garbage. So I’m not blaming anyone for Dragonball but myself,” Ramsey said. “To all the Dragon Ball fans out there, I sincerely apologize.”

Hey, at least he apologized.

Fantastic Fight Scenes Are Impossible to Translate

My Hero Academia
Viz Media

Anime reigns supreme when it comes to fight scenes and action in general. It is synonymous with limitless strength, blistering speeds, perfectly choreographed movements, and magical weaponry.

Even with the most advanced CGI and editing techniques, these elements simply can’t be replicated. While the fight scenes may look cool in some live-action adaptations, it never quite matches the original anime. Sometimes, the decision is made to change them altogether. But more often than not, these fight scenes feel kind of awkward or diluted when compared to the original.

Anime Isn’t Intended to Be Realistic

It isn’t just the fight scenes that are impossible in the real world. Anime is not intended to be realistic. From locations to technologies, character designs, and even physics, the medium is not intended to look or feel like reality.

A lot of times, characters will have impossible proportions, metal prosthetics, and hair that defies gravity. Maybe they aren’t even human at all. These features are almost always important to the characters themselves and can influence the storyline.

When it comes to live-action adaptations, though, these exaggerated features can be impossible to replicate. Even with a massive budget, the perfect cast, and all the makeup and prosthetics in the world, it never comes out right. Sometimes, the end result can be downright unsettling.

Alita: Battle Angel
20th Century Fox

The big eyes on an otherwise regular person were definitely a choice for Alita: Battle Angel.

It’s the Lack of Animation

The not-so-secret magic element in anime is, well, the animation. I know, it sounds obvious, but hear me out.

Anime isn’t just a genre, and it doesn’t have one particular style. It is an entire medium. And unfortunately, it is a medium that many Western producers disdain. It feels like they are often quick to cash in on a popular anime by giving it the live-action treatment. They pretend like this is an upgrade: Now the series has really made it! It has a live-action adaptation!

I think anime is simply another medium, one that has its own possibilities and merits. And there are a lot of talented artists working in that medium who deserve respect.