Why MOST Live-Action Anime Adaptations Fail

Netflix’s “Death Note” adaptation, confronted by the original anime (photoshop by Joseph Kim)

ive-action anime/manga adaptations, whether they be feature-length films or serialized programming, have had a bad reputation for awhile. From poor CGI to casting controversies (which we’ll address later), anime’s anticipated transition into reality has been met, and probably will continue to meet, with disappointment.

Which is unfortunate because anime has proven itself to be extremely artful and profitable. There’s already an established audience for the content, with plot threads and characters tested in their original animated form. So, how come the live-action renditions don’t succeed as often?

Limitations

Well, tasteful transition from one medium to another can be challenging. By translating a work, understandably, you have to prioritize the essential elements of the work itself, sacrificing other parts to better suit the new format.

So, adapting a long-form television series into a 2 hour movie will rarely do the show justice. A film needs to compress a large amount of information into a short amount of time, in order for the audience to digest and be entertained. M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, for instance, has the trouble of expediting an entire season worth of storylines, main character development, side characters, history, and lore, so that anyone can understand and enjoy the franchise, regardless of prior knowledge. Unfortunately, most of the time, the film rushes through information, sacrificing pacing and depth for “checklist completion”.

Other adaptations may take out elements that radically alter the medium without any realization. For example, like any other medium, anime is comprised of genres, and those genres comprised of tropes. A commonly used trope is the comedic interruption of the standard animation with a cuter version. This trope creates a clear contrast between the comedy and drama of the work. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood handles this trope really well. Below are two photos of the same character, in the same show:

(“Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”, Yasuhiro Irie, Funimation)

And sure, the tonal contrast can be jarring, but the drastic difference succeeds in context, as it endears the audience to the character first, and raises the stakes later. Yet, live-action is unable to make the exact same distinction, due to actors’ inabilities to make those adorable animated expressions. Animes such as Ouran Highschool Host Club, that rely on exaggerated features for key comedic moments, don’t translate well to reality. Yet, adaptations still attempt to recreate those moments, keeping the tone of the dialogue while not delivering the contextual visual component. This isn’t to discredit actors’ talent or credibility, but a critique towards creators, who continually use this trope when they should know better.

In most cases, the sacrifice itself isn’t the issue, but what they’re sacrificing is.

One of the biggest obstacles for these adaptations is the special effects budget. Most adaptations originate from action-oriented content, which heavily relies on action set-pieces and spectacle. So, the most affordable resource for live-action spectacle is the use of computer graphics. Still, this can run into some problems.

For smaller studios, CGI doesn’t automatically create beautiful moments. Some digital effects charter the Uncanny Valley, forcing audiences out of possible immersion, like in Shusuke Kaneko’s Death Note. This is most likely due to budgetary constraints, in an attempt to produce the best possible product within a constricted amount of time.

For bigger studios, though they have the proper resources to create stunning visuals, they may not take enough risks to embrace the original source material entirely, thus limiting the full potential of the work. Now, I understand that at the end of the day, the film industry is just that: an industry. It’s going to have financial interests close to its chest. But how often has “playing it safe” secured both the bottom dollar and a strong reputation?

(from left to right) 2015’s “Attack on Titan”, 2014’s “Black Butler”, 2009’s “Dragonball Evolution”

Misunderstanding

Directors, whether it be pushback from studios or their own creative vision, seem to lack an understanding of what made the original work interesting. Some only look at the visuals, and ignore the story; some look at characters’ actions but not look at their motivation; and some just rewrite the story all together, disrespecting what came before.

The Last Airbender, in story, is straightforward: a child Messiah figure returns to the world after a century of war, and must learn to use his powers to stop a tyrant. Even with the shortened plot, the core narrative was still present in the final movie. But the film doesn’t portray the true scope of the world, or its potential for interesting characters and inventive feats. Ask yourself this question. When abilities like “earthbending” come into mind, which seems more epic: one man clearing avalanches of rock, or five men lifting one medium sized boulder?

While Last Airbender missed out on awesome possibilities, Netflix’s Death Note rewrote characters, specifically portraying its protagonist with uninspiring motivation. In the original anime and manga, high-schooler Light finds a supernatural death-dealing notebook, and wields it as a tool to enact a twisted form of vigilantism. His characterization raises questions that challenge our perception of modern morality and justice. Meanwhile, Light’s film doppelgänger uses the book to romance a girl with dark tendencies. By turning Light’s primary goal from justice to romance, it makes the plot less compelling. In both cases, of Last Airbender and Death Note, there was a need for care when interpreting the original works, because you’re not just creating a film, but you’re representing the original creators and the fans who helped support a live-action movie to begin with.

(from top to bottom) 2010’s “The Last Airbender”, 2017’s “Fullmetal Alchemist”, and 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell”

While I’m talking about misinterpretation, I can’t ignore the most publicly criticized choice of the anime-adaptation industry: white-washing. Over the years, critics have rightfully panned many of these films for casting white actors in Asian roles, like Scarlett Johansson in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. Most view these casting choices as erasure, eliminating proper representation for many Asian-Americans. Although this is very much true, I believe, when it comes to live-action anime adaptations, that this is a minor issue. The more fundamental issue is whether the casting is in service of the story.

Movies like Ghost in the Shell and The Last Airbender recast their films without any regard to their settings or backgrounds. Although the franchise was knowingly built upon East-Asian influences, from Buddhist philosophies to similar geography, Shyamalan cast two white actors as Inuit-based characters. This would make sense if the entire village looked like them, but no: the background actors were all Asian, removing any possible explanation for their origins. Ghost in the Shell commits worse, as the plot of the film eventually reveals that Scarlett Johansson’s character was originally a runaway Japanese teen, and that the government literally white-washed her, moving her consciousness into a white, cyborg body.

These choices don’t serve the story, but clips its wings, eliminating any authenticity and thematic relevance. And this doesn’t solely happen to Asian characters. 2017’s Fullmetal Alchemist casted an all-Japanese cast as characters who were originally European. This eliminates the historical relevance of the show, as both show and movie take place in an alternate, World War I setting, where ethnic and political tensions still run high.

Getting furious with white-washing is completely valid. But there’s no point getting angry at the action if the intent isn’t examined as well.

There’s Still Hope

Even with a large number of anime adaptations being either critical or financial failures, there have been exceptions. Films like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (based on the light novel All You Need is Kill) can either elevate the original source material or reinterpret it, all while keeping the core of their respective properties. If there has been precedent for successful adaptations, there can be more in the future.

It’s a fitting time to write this article: Netflix, along with announcing a sequel to Death Note, is releasing a live-action adaptation of the Shonen anime Bleach, one of the biggest animes to reach internationally, next September. So, the film will have high expectations to meet from fans across the globe. And although my doubts are settling in my opinions, I hope that this adaptation keeps the original’s spirit.

We’re a production company comprised of dedicated professionals, making quality content for brands in New York and beyond. We’d love to hear from you!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store