Badaptations – Why Anime and Videogame movies don’t work

If you’ve been a geek as long as I have you’ve seen your fair share of Badaptations. Hell if you’ve been a geek this past year alone you’re probably sick of them!

It’s no secret that as much as we love series, films and videogames that fit outside the norm of mainstream cinema the transition to the silver screen has always been a rough one. Some of the lauded worst-ever films have been attempts of shoving a popular franchise into a two hour box and calling it a Hollywood release. But is it really so hard to get it right? Are there really so many hurdles between source and screen? Well I welcome you to a brief tour of the absolute chaotic maelstrom of getting ANYTHING right in big screen adaptations. Grab your favourite comic and clutch your Nintendo DS because this is going to hurt.

Let’s start big: Why culture isn’t as cultured as we’d like to think.
The impact of cultural difference may not seem to be a challenging adaptation hurdle outside of the obvious points (like language, locations, common phrases) however there are many possibly alienating differences in your common anime and videogames. Consider for a moment that almost all anime (and most videogames) share a cultural fingerprint with Japan- a country where academic intelligence is lionised, eating at a noodle tent is like stopping by Starbucks and every entertainment label worth their salt is churning out teenage starlets by the dozen. It may not stand out in every moment of action but there are plenty of quirks in the daily life of the Land of the rising sun that outside audiences would find unconventional, and are often removed during the adaptation process… or replaced, as was the case with Pokémon swapping the term Rice Ball with ‘Jelly Donuts’.

After all, compared to major American cinema how many films do you see each year that take place entirely in a high school?

Then there are Theological differences- a lot of ideas tend to stem from the subtle cultural touches that come from a society’s deep routed religious history. We tend to be blind to it, about how even the simplest parts of how we see the world are moulded by it; what should and shouldn’t be illegal, the dividing line between sentient and non-sentient objects, our value against the greater universe. Even issues that evolve over time like the justification of prejudice against others. In entertainment these usually come across in the major themes, like someone’s personal struggle or the formation of the world around them. Movies like AKIRA, Spirited Away, Ghost in the Shell and countless more deeply reflect the theological differences that are more prominent in the east, thus making them much more difficult to translate to an audience that doesn’t relate to them. While the transhumanist philosophies in Ghost in the Shell could still be followed by anyone willing to put thought into their movie experience the more niche messages of reincarnation and the organic spirit may be lost. Cultural and theological differences form the greatest obstacle when it comes to making an adaptation of any property from a foreign country- and unfortunately the Hollywood studio system has a putrid record of translating these ideas.

To address the real elephant in the room I would like to call into question the ‘unspoken problem’ with the movie making mentality of Hollywood and the greater system, however that would be untrue. Audiences and critics around the world have been chastising the Hollywood studios for years now about their inherently flawed means of putting stories and adaptations to the silver screen however it has yet to see any results. It would be more accurate to call it a ‘frequently spoken problem’.
That problem being the curse of studio intervention and attempting to fit all properties through what I can only describe as the Hollywood Bottleneck. With dozens, if not hundreds, of critical eyes on a production from its inception and storyboarding right the way through to post-editing it’s no surprise that the amount of meddling can sink a project before its even reached completion. While we’ve seen countless instances of this in our chosen sample group, such as the more recent Assassins Creed movie being heavily cut for ‘simplicity’ and the Ghost in the Shell movie being entirely re-written from its source, adaptations from foreign sources are not the only victims. The most recent attempt at bringing the Fantastic Four superhero troupe to the big screen fell victim to so much studio dissection that its director Josh Trank released a statement about the film being a failure and not “his story” even before the movie premiered.
An unfortunate truth of seeing well-established stories from other mediums pushed through the ringer of Hollywood is that every step of production will see cuts and changes made for localisation, meeting the standards of the general audience, marketability, hitting the broadest possible age demographic, appeasing interests groups etc.
And while I would love to round off the point here and lay the entirety of the blame on the studio system I sadly cannot, though I will place MOST of it on them.

Let’s not forget the hand of the creator is a powerful thing. The person who forges a story or product will do so through their own lens and much of that creator will be seen in the work- this is an art philosophy that has existed for thousands of years. As such we can understand why there are dangers in passing the work of one individual into the care of another for adaptation, but this is not inherently a bad thing. A new set of hands can make changes that put new perspective on the work or allow a different generation to appreciate its message. An example being the translation of book to theatre; such as Gaston Leroux’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ being passed to Andrew Lloyd Webber for the stage play. However one must be very careful that the artist the work is passed to be appropriate and understands the source material- not something we can say has often happened in nerdy adaptations. In fact some have been downright disasters.

As a case study let’s look at M. Night Shyamalan and his Avatar-less ‘Last Airbender’ movie. While there is no small task in crafting a three-season long show into a few clean cut movies it was not the inclusion of content, or even the changing of details, that destroyed this franchise and left them dead at just one movie out of the proposed three. It was that Shyamalan did not respect the style and voice of the original material and attempted to impose a style on top of it. Anyone familiar with the director’s works can immediately spot the tropes he employs: the colourless environment, the long sequences of slow, heavy sounding dialogue, a reliance on exposition instead of establishing shots or character action. These devices- frequently employed in his other works- starkly contrast the story he’s attempting to adapt and it shows in every single scene. This is a true example of the artist’s voice conflicting with the voice of the original work, something we’ve seen often in similar projects… Rocky Morton and the Super Mario Brothers, James Wong and Dragonball… And anything Uwe Boll touches. Ugh.

This leaves us with the double-edged sword. The curse of production that many would perceive as a great strength and is often used to berate the movie making culture for being unable to turn simple, low-cost source material into a ‘big budget’ worldwide release. The fact of the matter is that movies are a substantial investment of money as well as talent, but that financing is not simply for prettying up the existing material they work with. Everything in film carries a substantial cost, from the crew and actors to the visual and sound design to the intensive editing and promotional side. As a result we often see tens if not hundreds of millions spent on otherwise unimpressive products.

For example the applauded anime movie Dragonball Z Resurrection F cost a respectable 5 million dollars to produce and making ten times that in profit. By comparison the American production Dragonball Evolution film cost a whopping (though cheap by Hollywood standard) 45 million to create. That’s a considerable distance between the two and the simple fact that one is animated and the other live-action has a lot to do with that. We must remember that animation and digital animation are inherently cheaper than all the components that go into a live-action remake, not to mention the gross disregard for spending that goes into a production of this size.
Similarly the Ghost in the Shell (2017) movie cost 110 million but turned only 20 million in sales domestically, barely 50 more than that worldwide. Proof that with such elevated production costs the inevitable drop when a product fails is much, much more devastating. This also applies in the world of video games, which in their native medium are already more expensive to create that animated films or series. Assassin Creed (2007) cost 26 million to create on console and the movie adaptation a decade later cost more than 100 million above even that!

Is this weight of absurd money-spewing something we simply have to live with in film-making? Actually no, one of the highest grossing films of the last few decades was Paranormal Activity which had a price tag of approximately… 11,000. Barely even breaking five digits. But turned a mind blowing 200 million in profits around the world after audiences everywhere requested their movie theatres begin showings all across America and then in Europe.
The moral lesson to learn here is that the greatest profits come from good movies, regardless of how much they are budgeted. The same will be true of the best adaptations from geek culture once it begins to sink in that multi-million dollar botched projects are not the only way to bring an idea to a western audience. Though there is much speculation at this time the Netflix ‘Death Note’ movie is set to air soon and may be able to set a precedent that lower cost endeavours are actually the more profitable means of ‘westernising’ anime, but only time will tell.

Videogames and anime to this day suffer a taboo in the movie-centric western world. This sceptical eye of the public has thankfully been loosening over the past two decades, with videogames now becoming hot property in the world of media sales (though the actual products themselves are still shown very little regard) and despite anime never finding a mainstream hook it has achieved a loyal fanbase in the western audience- enough so to generate large scale conventions of its own.
While these mediums are not universally beloved in the east, with Japan and Korea being major players, they are not stigmatised for their medium or inherent design- with locations such as Akihabra Tokyo even celebrating them as a major source of tourism.
This same dismissal was only recently shared by the comic book industry here in the west, but with the rise of Marvel and the oversaturation of comicbook movies we’ve seen how vastly this has changed. But why are comic books the exception to this terrible curse while anime and games retain their stigma?

The simple answer is; they aren’t. Comics are not an exception; they have simply been present in the popular consciousness long enough and with enough exposure that we have adopted it into the mainstream. This is partly why the explosive success seems so universal in geek culture here, because it’s one of the few elements of nerd-centric entertainment that has appealed to such a wide fanbase and with constant new content from major studios. That isn’t to say it was an overnight success story- many people applaud comic movies as a running success but this simply isn’t true, there were dozens of missteps and failures leading to this point, with films like Batman and Robin (1997), The Fantastic Four (2005), The Hulk (2003) and Captain America (1990) to name just a few!

One argument often overlooked is the success of the loosely inspired adaptations. These are movies which take the original material as a jumping off point but create something new from them, like the surprisingly great 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow which was based on the light manga ‘All you need is Kill’. Similarly the original Matrix film pledges its inspiration to anime movies like AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell while still forming its own story and narrative, just with similar themes and tropes.
While this method is difficult to pull off and does require a talented writer familiar with the sources it may prove the most effective means of bridging the cultural gap.
But what happens when these kind of changes are made on a property that’s attempting, at least by appearances, to emulate its source material? This is a frequent cause of controversy in adaptations that make alterations to elements people believe to be crucial to the source. Often seen in cases of relocating a story to a different country or entire time period, or the dreaded ‘white-washing’ effect.

We’re in an unfortunate time where controversy can be called on even when the adaptation doesn’t overstep itself- simply because a rough history has conditioned us to be especially critical.
Even though the 2017 movie was terrible it should be recognised that Major Mokoto from Ghost in the Shell (the lead heroine) is SUPPOSED to be modelled after an American woman, and a model no less. So all the claims of whitewashing here are actually more knee-jerk reaction than actual outrage. Many sites have reported this ‘race-bending’ (as appears to be the new term) is a major contributor to the movies downfall, but is it really? Granted many examples of re-casting inappropriate actors has wounded similar attempts, like the appalling ethnicity twisting in Last Airbender which saw the Inuit main cast becoming white and the notably pale Japanese antagonists becoming dark skinned Indian and Arabic… even stranger to note Shyamalan as the director is an Indian man himself.

Before I’m bombarded with pitchforks and flaming love-pillows allow me to draw attention to an important factor; even in their native countries adaptations of games and anime are often BAD. Anyone seeking proof need look no further than the 2015 Attack on Titan movie, which flopped with audiences and critics despite the show being at the height of popularity. Similar issues can be seen with the upcoming Full Metal Alchemist movie which many predict will slump into a similar trap as previous pop-anime films. On the other hand there has also been a history of successes with highly-praised movies like Oldboy and Battle Royale seeing large renown internationally despite being based on a manga, with most people completely unaware of their origins. Also the incredibly popular Death Note live-action movies spawning multiple sequels and spin offs that have reached a worldwide audience.

With our collective minds aching from all these different problems its clear to see why we’ve hit so many stumbling points in our pursuit of perfect adaptations. The source material is rarely fitting of a cinematic runtime, we’re stacking writers and directors on works they have no connection to, the Hollywood studio system is poisonous even at the best of times and most importantly we’re attempting to adapt material that has a fundamentally different philosophy than most of the audiences its being re-directed to. Does this swarm of flies in the ointment mean we’ll never see a golden age of nerd cinema?

If comic books are anything to go by what we’re actually seeing is the growing pains of new genres. The failures that will eventually be recognised for what they did wrong not only as a means of critique but also a means of learning. It may take some time before we see our first breakthrough- our Batman Begins or our Ironman- but once that success comes we’ll see every studio holding rights to major anime and videogame properties doing everything in their power to imitate it. We have to remember that, even though our beloved franchises are outside the norm, if something makes money then everyone wants a piece of it. If cinema is a corrupt game of follow-the-money then we’ll leave a trail of silver dollars.

Also; If they dare mess up AKIRA with a badaptation we will riot.


Dragonball after Toriyama | The Strangest Fan Phenomena in All of Anime

“For all the long running jokes and internet hoaxes, Dragonball AF may have decided the entire future of the franchise!”

A lot has changed as we approach the 20’s once again. We have Dragonball, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman…
Okay so very little seems to have changed. Popular culture has cherry picked its favourite media and chiselled it in stone to live alongside us to old age. But that’s not to say these beloved books, movies and shows haven’t had to adapt to serious changes. Many have lost their original creators or undergone overhauls to stay relevant in our fast-paced entertainment world. Many others are on the brink of such considerable change, even if it is approaching so quietly we don’t notice it.

One such show is the long-standing anime saga ‘Dragonball’. From humble comic book beginnings this action series have branched into multiple anime television ventures including original DB, Dragonball Z and Dragonball GT- with its newest venture Dragonball Super being so jaw-droppingly popular it’s topped the anime listings across Japan. Even after a decade without new content the anticipation of Super was so great it’s sent Dragonball into a new golden age of popularity- enough that Son Goku has been announced the cultural mascot for Japans 2020 Olympic games!

But with the continued popularity explosion of Dragonball Super and all its related spin-offs we have to ask ourselves- what happens when Toriyama calls it quits?

Continue reading “Dragonball after Toriyama | The Strangest Fan Phenomena in All of Anime”

The surprising history of ‘Zombies’ ( REAL and FICTION )



Let me ask you this; have you ever seen a real zombie?
Most of you will say No to such an outlandish question, but what if I told you there are many in history (and even the present) who can actually say they did meet a flesh and blood Walker?

If you are among the living you have probably read or watched a zombie story at some point. Befitting of their infectious nature the undead have infested every corner of popular culture with nowhere to hide! But there’s more to our shambling friends than what we’ve been given in the early twenty first century. What we see now is just the modern interpretation of a creature that has existed in various forms for millennia… but maybe we have more reason to be afraid of it now than we ever did before.

If we jump back as far as possible to where zombies might have first been discussed we’d slip quickly into the realms of mythology, and its rather shocking how many influences probably went into building our modern day Zeds.
The oldest example being the Arabic spirit creature known as a Ghul, or more commonly known as Ghouls today, which were a type of djin (or genie) who inhabited graveyards and were known to consume the flesh of the living! Similar beasts of lore can be found all over the world, with an eerily familiar example being old English ‘Revenants’ which were described as walking corpses that rose from their graves to terrorise the living as far back as the 10th century; probably inspiring the setting for the 1992 classic Evil Dead: Army of Darkness. Also consider the beast known as the Wendigo said to haunt the great lakes region around the US and Canada, described in folklore as a spirit which corrupts human vessels in order to make them commit acts of murder and cannibalism.
So already we have feasting on human flesh, rising from the grave and corrupting living hosts- sounds like a pretty good blueprint for our modern zombie doesn’t it? There’s no denying these ancient tales, along with the more romanticised beasts like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, inspired much of the horror imagery that would later establish the undead. But what about the more true to life inspirations?

To understand where reality may have gotten a little too close to fantasy we need look no further than the 1932 depression era horror ‘White Zombie’, a black and white feature starring Bella Lugosia (of Dracula fame) and yes, this is where Rob Zombie got the name of his band. The movie depicts Lugosi’s mad-eyed mastermind creating a legion of zombies to do his bidding using… what else? Voodoo magic! This was the 30’s after all and America was facing the spectre of cultural integration and all the delightful superstition that comes with it.
But how much of it was based on reality and how much was fearful fantasy? First of all it’s important to know that Haitian faith and many Carribean cultures insist on the existence of magic, both good and evil, and include the stories of dead men being resurrected as killers or slaves. Zombie magic however has never been established as a central part of Haitian practice by their priests (known as Bokors or Houngan). That is however until 1980 when researcher Wade Davis revealed his discovery of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxi in powder form used by societies of Bokors who would take living people and put them under a ‘curse’ with the powder, in actuality causing significant brain and nerve damage, in some cases rendering them suggestible and of sub-human intelligence. These findings were written by Davis in his book ‘Serpent and the Rainbow’ in which he describes the process and how he came upon its discovery.
Davis’ book and his theories suffered wide criticisms to this day however he remained steadfast in his proposal that Haitian belief in zombie witchcraft was based on the poisoning and mental servitude of Bokor prisoners and this is where the ‘voodoo zombie’ concept originated… something which he claims was real, not myth at all!

Despite this, after White Zombie the undead menace disappeared from the popular culture for decades. Why? Because World War II was raging and almost put horror media as a whole into extinction. It was after the war that a series of events occurred which transformed the ‘zombie’ into a distinctly American cultural product.
It started with a bang as Russia began testing its nuclear weapons in 1949, which began the arms race that defined the decades to come. This sparked a whole new cultural boogeyman; the Atomic fear. Not long afterward the novel ‘I Am Legend’ was published and became the first zombie apocalypse story! While the book set into motion many of the zombie tropes we still see today its undead were much closer related to vampires than any of the ghouls or revenants of the past, being afraid of sunlight and allergic to garlic, even being able to speak.

It wasn’t until 1968 that George Romero stepped up to the task of building all the famous traditions of the zombie mythos in his landmark indie film ‘Night of the Living Dead’. While the various sequels would go on to be bigger commercial successes, with Dawn of the Dead 1978 arguably being the most influential zombie film of all time, the true success of his original masterpiece wasn’t so much the zombies themselves- It was something that made the zombies much more frightening and that’s the human element. Prejudice, distrust, betrayal… all things that are present in these stories and show something even eerier than walking corpses, it shows what people are willing to do to each other when the status quo breaks. What makes this truly horrifying is that we know human beings are capable of doing such terrible things, bringing most of the fear in the scenario out of fiction and landing it square in the realms of reality.

All that said, surely this is where reality must stop? After all as influential as the shamblers are, if we’re honest with ourselves, they don’t really make sense. How would a body move without flow of blood to the muscles and nerves? Why do zombies ignore each other but can always detect human beings? Why would a creature with no need to eat be compelled to gorge on flesh?
Of course the reason behind this is simple; because zombies are a work of fiction. At least most people are convinced this is the case- but there are more cases of real life ‘zombies’ than those previously mentioned from history. Many exist right at this moment, just not in the form you’d expect.

Let me introduce you to something called ‘Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis’, a fungus discovered all the way back in 1859. This parasitic lifeform is known to infect a huge variety of insects and turns them into very real zombies. Infecting the brain and altering their behaviour the fungus will often compel the host to remove itself from the nest and into a higher elevation- growing unpleasant protrusions from the victim’s body until the host becomes entirely consumed by it. The fungus will then dispel its spores down on the rest of the nest, effectively transmitting itself through an entire population, or leave the host in such a vulnerable spot to be consumed by larger predators (including birds or sheep). The reason behind this secondary behaviour is still uncertain, though the fungus can and often does continue to exist inside the predator’s body.

It’s rather unsettling to consider parasites have evolved to have such abilities over other lifeforms, creating a very real zombie disease. You might wonder, could such a thing ever affect humans? And are we doing anything about it?

Actually, the answer is yes. Two of the most powerful control bodies in America, the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) and the US Pentagon itself have released reports on what to do in the case of a zombie apocalypse, including a full military training protocol outlined in Pentagon paper CONOP 8888 of the U.S. Strategic Command.  In case you were curious, this official pentagon paper for prepping world-leading military personnel has an image of a shambling undead persons on the front cover. It’s everything you might have imagined.
The paper includes a disclaimer which explains the plan is NOT a joke, however it also shouldn’t be taken at face value. As it happens the hyperbole involved in an ‘end of the world zombie outbreak’ was just outlandish enough, but also tactically conceivable enough, that it provided military planners with excellent practice in critical analysis. For this reason the plan was fleshed out to a complete official paper and is still used for training purposes today.

Reading this you might be thinking that zombies are as old as dirt and form part of the background noise of popular culture. While that might be true I want us to understand that we’re living in the ‘Zombie Generation’, where not only is our media saturated with undeath but the genre has a creepy familiarity with our everyday lives. Why? Possibly because we’re not a communal species anymore.

When it comes to zombies both the satisfying elements and the terrifying ones come from the same place- we ARE them. The undead are just human beings who no longer have their capacity to reason. We can harm them and they will harm us and morality plays no part in it. In their best forms zombies are used as commentary, ranging from the brainwashed human condition to the inhuman extent of our treatment to each other- this is why zombie media has exploded in the USA, where cultural consumerism and the plight of the individual vs the masses are bigger concerns than ever.
As Romero once said the undead represent some kind of “global change” which could reflect any of our modern societal fears, because regardless of what the fear itself is caused by the human animal responds to fear in the usual way- by banding together or breaking apart through blame and cowardice.

Instead of fearing whether the undead will truly rise from their graves to eat us, perhaps we should be more concerned that as a society we’re relating each other more and more with the faceless horde with every passing year.

I Went to See Rogue One…Then, the Rebel Princess Was Gone

I saw Rogue One less than 24 hours ago, shortly after knowing that Carrie Fisher was recovering from a heart attack. This update was going to be about the movie itself and the positive impact it had on me, considering the fact that I particularly disliked Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Now, I have come to the keyboard, but I cannot just write what I thought I would. Now my feelings about this update, about the movie, the franchise, my childhood, my own ideas…the just do not feel appropriate anymore. Many have been claiming how 2016 has been the year of the plague. It begun with another big favourite of mine – Alan Rickman – then I mourned a genius of British fantasy at his memorial – Terry Pratchett – to only find out not long after that, that the Goblin King was also dead – Bowie. I thought that was pretty bad, but now it just becomes clear the impact people have in your life. Even these people, who I never met, not in a million years I could have. I only knew them through their pictures, their words, what they conveyed to me through the media. I guess it was not until literally a couple of minutes ago I realised how much Carrie Fisher meant to me, personally. Not for her being her, but for the world she helped me discover.

If you have seen my post on our Facebook page, then you would have read this already, however I will repeat it just in case you didn’t:

Continue reading “I Went to See Rogue One…Then, the Rebel Princess Was Gone”

Superman is still a Hero – What we’ve forgotten about comic book supers?


If I told you superhero movies were big in Hollywood right now, would you be surprised?



I’m guessing no. What with FOURTNEEN currently released Marvel Universe films out, several television and streaming series between the major publishers and DC starting their own cinematic universe… silver screen heroes are pretty huge right now. In fact you might say they’re the biggest thing to hit Hollywood since the romantic comedy.

So why then do I feel unfulfilled in my comic nerdery? Why in the face of the lame-duck Man of Steel and Batman v Superman movies am I still willing to stand on my soap box and say Superman is still worth believing in? That’s because a nagging voice in my head, possibly a symbiote, tells me people have forgotten something important about our golden heroes.

I think we’ve forgotten what super heroes were supposed to be about.

It’s impossible to miss the marketing juggernaut the superhero genre has become over the last decade and plans are already in place to capitalise a dozen more popular names in 2017. As such we’re seeing some of the best stories in the medium rolled out pretty quickly, often without the pacing they deserve. But are these classic tales of heroes facing monsters really what made the Golden Age of comics a landmark? Most of the stories we see adapted to film, from Captain America going AWOL to Death of Superman, are lifted from the later (often called Silver Age) of comic books in which flashy stories and big twists were all the rage to keep the medium interesting.
Take a moment to look past these flashy title-grabbers with me and look at what really went into making these heroes, and why they became so popular to span upwards of eight decades; Almost an entire century in popular culture!

If we need a case study in how perceptions have changed for comic leads take a look at our mutant brethren in The X-Men. As a 1960’s publication by Stan Lee the story of societal outcasts banding together and fighting for social justice, pulled apart by two polarising leaders with different ideals, should strike a chord for anyone with basic knowledge of Civil Rights in the USA. The divide between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fuelled much conflict in an already volatile social situation, with the black population of the States struggling to find acceptance in a world that classed them as ‘different’ and therefore bad. These struggles are paralleled in comic form and work as a brilliant mirror for the state of culture at the time – both the good and the bad.
Knowing this it won’t shock you to learn many superheroes were a reflection of their time period, but what if I told you some heroes actually managed to affect the real world as much as the real world affected them?

Let me tell you a little story about when superheroes were about Hope. Not ‘saving the world from disaster’ kind of hope, but the more human experience that so many people are looking for every day. Let me take you back to the 1940’s, Europe was torn apart by war and the United States- at the time heart of the blossoming comic book industry- was entering armed conflict abroad. Let me introduce you to a little someone called; Batman.

This period is still known today as the ‘Golden Age’ of comic books. The medium was fresh and captivating for young audiences who didn’t have many other outlets. It was literature for the youth at a time where stories of adventure and heroism weren’t as easy to come by. Most think-pieces on the period dive into how comic books (and various other mediums) tried to sell kids on the idea of romantic battlefield adventure, often tied in with ads for War Bonds and the American Red Cross. That was more the fault of the market and comics authority however, not the impact of the characters and their stories. Instead I want you to ask yourself something… Why did Batman need a Robin?

There have been decades of comic fans berating the inclusion of the Boy Wonder and fighting for a more independent and less child friendly Bat. Some of you might consider yourself among this number, but consider this, Batman first hit shelves under the Detective Comics title in 1939. His junior sidekick Robin would later join his adventures in 1940. Just one year later!
It doesn’t take much research to find out why, and the truth is actually quite heart-breaking. As the forties rolled in America sank into the war and a time of loss and sadness gripped the real world. Even prior to ’41 so many people in the States were refugees or had familial ties to the conflict, it couldn’t be escaped. One consistency among thousands of young people at the time was simply not having a father figure- whether they were serving abroad or tragically one of the considerable human losses of war. The lack of paternal role models was at pandemic proportions and it was down to Batman, and numerous other funny book heroes besides, to fill that place in children’s lives.
Robin entered at the beginning of America’s war and acted as a self-insert for young readers; getting to be a part in the thrilling adventures of their heroes, beating bad guys and learning important life lessons with each issue. The Boy Wonder was at his peak during these years and notably hit a similar resurgence around the time of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These were times when children needed something more than just adventure stories. They needed a hero in their lives.

Other franchises didn’t adapt to the times but were instead created by them. They are a time capsule of comic writers trying to communicate a message to their impressionable readers- and none more prevalent than Captain America.  Hitting shelves a year after Batman this hero was built from virtues the writers wished to personify about their country. He fights for Truth, Justice and Freedom. Not due to his character, but because everything from his title to his costume to his demeanour was supposed to make children think of America.
This was a powerful tool in the early Captain America comics and an intentional design choice to enforce just how brave and just the war against Axis powers really was to a young and- important to remember- not well informed audience. This was a time period before reporters and camera crews were littering battlefields across the world so the only exposure young people got to the war proper was the propaganda reels in their movie theatres, paper headlines that were strictly controlled for information security reasons, and of course… comic books. Remember that issue of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler (Issue #1, 1940)? This was the first time many kids would have seen what the German Fuhrer even looked like. Mostly because this issue hit shelves an entire year before the United States even entered the Second World War… !

We can see that many comic characters were created as more than just proxies for fighting baddies and having daring adventures. The most timeless of them were created to be something more.
Why then do I still insist that Superman may actually be the greatest of super heroes?

Let’s start by looking at where the ‘Big Blue Boy-Scout’ came from.
As the earliest super hero in the medium Superman was created in 1933 during a climate of fear and oppression around the world- crafted by the offspring of two Jewish refugee families, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. His is the story of extraordinary people forced out of their home and making a life in a strange and often hostile place, people who have strength and potential that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. It’s a perfect ‘outsider’ story from the creative children of immigrant families who fled out of Europe. Many people also insist on relations to the Moses story, of a baby being sent down the Nile to safety; however it’s essential to spot the differences between them. Moses was sent away by innocent peasants and raised by the powerful elite. This is the exact opposite situation to Superman’s tale and recognising that brings us to possibly the most important thing about him…

Superman is the equal of a deity raised by humble peasant folk. The most impossibly powerful man in all the world, yes, but one who’s humanity is his greatest strength.

People have forgotten where Superman’s conflict really lies. It was never about how strong he was, as it was always assumed he was mighty enough to ‘beat’ any enemy, because overcoming villains was never his conflict. Never his deeper story. Superman is the question of what happens if God tried to be mortal. What struggles would he face? What need of morality?
You can tie this in to the very real world fear and prejudice of the time it was created, standing in direct contrast to what Superman as a character was supposed to stand for. We need to consider this hero was written not only as a being of absolute strength but also of absolute Good. Flawed heroes like Wolverine or Batman are easier to humanise because they have more layers to work with, but how do you humanise something that’s better than human?

The greatest advantage of Superman’s premise is also what many perceive as his biggest drawback. He is, by design, flat-out better than anyone else. He’s ‘Super’- as the name suggests. But not because he was trained in advanced krypton ideologies before coming to earth. He wasn’t developed  by top government men like so many titular heroes nowadays. He was a baby found and raised by Ma and Pa Kent, two clean living country bumpkins. This is what makes him more than just the circumstances of his time period. Superman doesn’t exist to protect us from a looming threat of his generation- he was a symbol that people can be better. That there is always a chance to be better. It’s crucial to what makes Superman the character he is, raised on the best lessons and morals that we as a society believe in.  He was taught about hard work, loyalty and selflessness. That makes a fascinating character when you consider this child could have destroyed planets before hitting puberty.

Over the 80 years of publication there have been many climactic battles, but just as many smaller moments that need to be addressed. A perfect example is 2006 All-Star Superman, in which the man of steel comes to the aid of a young girl on the brink of suicide.  No fighting, no super abilities, just the promise of a better tomorrow from a symbol of hope.
The real wonder of this? This story and many others like it have become recurring symbols for World Suicide Prevention Day, with many reports of people finding strength in these fictional tales and helping bring them back from the edge- real life people, not just those on the ink. This shows that the heart of what made the Golden Age of comics so lasting is still alive today, heroes having a real impact on people’s lives.

So perhaps the magic isn’t entirely lost to history. But I think it’s important that people remember just what made superheroes so beloved to begin with, all those years ago. It wasn’t just about what happened on paper but also how these characters reflected and even changed the lives of real people.

You might argue some of these ideals are lost in the modern world. That superheroes aren’t supposed to be about inspiring the audiences, merely entertaining them. That Batman or Ironman don’t need to teach or convey anything, merely distract from the real world. I for one don’t believe it’s too late. People might say Superman is too corny for cinema now. They might say that Batman doesn’t need a Robin.

But that’s the beauty of real Superheroes. Even if we turn our backs on them today- they’ll be there for us when we need them the most.






My Favourite Wuxia Films since the 2000s

I may or may not have a thing for Wuxia films…Well, okay, I most certainly do. I am not 100% sure as to why. I think it is a combination of the aesthetic, the music and the incredible martial arts, but also the plots. Some Chinese movies are like nothing you’d ever see in a film produced by a western country. I also love how epic and heroic over the top are these plots are, and the way they get mixed with historical narratives and fantasy. I think this reflects a much older way of understanding and telling stories. Therefore, I have produced a quick list of Wuxia movies I particularly enjoy. You are probably familiar with many of them. I unusually watch these as double or even triple bill, because there is something about watching these stunning scenarios with convoluted combat scenes that makes you want more…

I will cheat though, and quickly skip Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon due to the fact that it is like the corner-stone of modern Wuxia filmography. Nevertheless, I have to say that I have also seen the sequel recently – Sword of Destiny – and, although it is of course no the wonderful work of Ang Lee, it has a competent script. But the best part of the entire thing is the amazing Donnie Yen as Silent Wolf, being badass as always.

-House of the Flying Daggers: I think I have potentially watched every period martial arts movie that has Zhang Ziyi in it. I just like her: she is cool! She has an incredible degree of empathy and evocation that I find hard to find in some other Asian actresses (as much as I respect Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, what they do is slightly different). But what I really like about this movie is some of the fighting scenes: that moment back in the Peonyhouse, when Mei steals Leo’s sword, and it concludes with the amazing Andy Lau doing a grapple of doom and smashing her into the pool. The entire chasing scene through the bamboo forest is just gorgeous, with all the colour contrasts…And the last scene in the blizzard. The triangle between Mei, Leo and Jin (I am usually crying by this stage thinking Jin is whiling to die so Mei can escape but it doesn’t matter cause this could have been written by Shakespeare and it would be the same ending…). The face-off with the daggers, the blood all over the place…And just the story: this is not just martial arts; there is deception, plot twists and romance.

-Hero (2002): Perhaps not the best work Jet Li has been in (and probably not Ziyi’s either), but the rest of the cast has a lot to give, particularly the three assassins from Zhan: Donnie Yen with his masterful, stoic face, demonstrates that a lance weapon is just as beautiful to work with than a sword. I love the moment when Sky and Nameless stop the fight to ask the old man to keep playing music for them. The cleverest part of this film – apart from the amazing budget, choreo, colour use, filming, special effects and music – is the retelling of the story, up to three times – couldn’t help myself and start thinking it was a rather Beowulfian thing to do. You have to get the plot right on a movie to allow yourself to repeat the same story 3 times to actually get what is happening.

-Red Cliff: part 1 and 2 – Do NOT watch the abridged version, there is no point! You actually miss so much meaningful plot and character interaction it is unreal! In any case, the most epic part of this is just the sheer amount of just people at war, it’s just ridiculous. How many extras did they get for this movie, I do not know, but it is massive. And that is actually all the film it is about. John Woo, the director even confirmed he had changed the plot and moved away from the historical reality because he wanted to portray what the battle would feel for the audience. (As a historian, I think that is fair enough). And he does. In fact, the only reason why we can consider this a Wuxia film and not a historical drama is the change of plot, which really puts the film more in the context of the hero’s journey and the beautiful display of martial arts and combat. I think my favourite scene is with the boats in the second part: arrows and flames everywhere, over a beautifully filmed river, full on attack, dramatic poses…So many incredible fighting sequences in here, there is no way I can just pick one. Therefore, I won’t pick one in specific, because that is just really the entire movie. I think all the individual stories really contribute to the wider narrative – so even though the movie is about the battle and the political struggle and unrest within China, the personal perspective of each character gives it a back bone that makes it stand out and not just become another big fighting scene that lasts for hours with no aim.

-Legend of Zu (2001): now, a lot of people hate this movie, and in fact, it was not incredibly popular in cinemas in the West, but I think it is pretty cool. It is much more concern with mythology, which I appreciate as it is one of those Chinese legends you do not get to hear as often as say Journey to the West and the Monkey King, and the Jade Emperor. So I really think the coolest part of this movie is the story. Of course it is full of awesome fight scenes, but if you want a Wuxia movie that gives you something different, you should come to this one – or if you are lucky to find it Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain from the 80s which is, let’s say, its predecessor, or the first attempt to bring the story to the screen.

Of course there is many more, but this is just a quick list of my favourites and why. If you like it however, I will come back with other movies, more obscure ones, and more martial arts to keep you jumping around!


Why the West will never understand Anime and Manga


Hold thy rage keyboard warriors. For I bring you not an otakus view on the culture of the rising sun, but a curious thought that occurred to me. Something that made me step back and really look at the imported comics and TV we watch today…

Do we really get it? Of course we can understand the stories we’re experiencing and relate to its characters, but is that all that goes in to a tale? Remember that stories are not merely distractions, but landmarks in time that forever immortalise the culture in which it was made. Religion, experience, history, prejudice… all of these go into crafting the backbone of a story, and today I want to draw attention to the first part; Religion. Why? Because when you stop to read between the lines a lot of what we take for granted in anime and manga is heavily influenced by a faith we in the west know remarkably little about. In fact some stories are so deeply rooted in this pre-existing knowledge their meanings are entirely lost on a European or American audience.

The first thing we must accept is that religion may not mean the same thing in Japan as it does to us. Our primary source? The centre of most worship and spiritual cosmology in Japan known as Shinto.

The traditional ‘faith’ in the Nippon realm is Shinto which focuses on ancestral kami and spirit worship. Shinto originates from the 8th century and means ‘Way of the Gods’.
The central belief in Shinto is easy to grasp, but its impact on society is not. Shinto tells that every element of our cosmology owns a spirit- which is in its own way divine- and these sprits are not entirely separate from the souls of ancestors. To take our first easy step into anime connections most people will recognise this theme from the Studio Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In Spirited Away the characters enter a spirit world in which all these ancestral powers gain a physical form, living and interacting like social entities. We see multiple examples of spirits embodying not only animals but also locations and even emotions- such as the foreboding ‘No Face’ which is a spirit of greed and consumption. There is also an implication that is more of a natural leap for domestic audiences, which is ‘ancient’ spirits such as those pertaining to mountains or lakes being considerably more powerful than others. This is seen when the polluted lake spirit arrives at the bath house, demonstrating both power and immense wealth.
Both sides of the globe view spirits and their place in the world very differently. The Western view of ‘spirits’ is largely derived from Celtic ideas of the ‘fairy’ folk, which now describe a specific type of supernatural creature but during the Late Middle English period included all mythical or magical beasts including elves and spirits. Such creatures may be celebrated in the Shakespearian tale Midsummer Night’s Dream but have always been affiliated with mischief, paganism and- in Irish folklore- tales of driving the spirit folk beneath the earth to be exiled from humans!
As such, our idea of where spirits belong in the world has developed very differently.

Princess Mononoke also exhibits traits we, culturally, view differently when it comes to spirits/deities. They are portrayed as neutral beings In Mononoke, with spirit animals being indifferent to humans unless trespassed upon or ‘corrupted’ through the industrialisation and violence against sacred land. This can be seen with the boars being infected with an almost demon-like corruption brought on by the iron from manmade weapons. The Forest Spirit as a key example is entirely passive in his role until harmed.
In most places of the world it is typical to assume a good or evil duality for supernatural creatures- largely influenced by the beliefs of traditional African religions like Santeria and Haitian Vodou. In these faiths spirits and the veneration of the dead are huge elements, with proto African religion commonly focusing on a single Creator God with these spirits, in either good or evil capacities, acting as intermediaries with the living. They are not, unlike in Shinto, seen as divine in their own right.

While not so black and white there are some examples of evil spirits in Shinto, though these are largely not evil by design- rather by circumstances of a previous life or even just neglect.
One of the more interesting case studies is the anime property ‘Ghost in the Shell’ which raises the question of human souls in artificial bodies. On the surface the implication here appears obvious and one most cultures would debate over- what constitutes the soul, and in what forms can it exist? But there is also another theme running through these movies, the second in particular, which ties in with our discussion: Dolls. Throughout GITS in all its forms dolls are a prominent element and are often used as a parallel to describe the artificial bodies the characters use. This isn’t simply visual metaphor either, as dolls are a huge icon of spirituality in Japan. Dolls are seen as perfect vessels for souls, both human or inhuman. As such dolls are a constant of ceremonies for all religions in Japan, extending even into Japanese Christian culture, and there are hundreds of stories of supposedly ‘cursed’ or possessed dolls. There is even a ceremony performed in majorly Buddhist communities where old toys are collected and burned to prevent lost spirits inhabiting them, which continues every year.

For the sake of brevity anime like ‘Bleach’- who’s premise is based entirely around the spirit world and passage to the afterlife- will be filed as “Goes without saying” since their cultural bias is clear even to an outside audience.

While Shinto might play a subtle part in almost every corner of anime it is far less confusing on a philosophical level than some of its counterparts- my favourite example being the strangeness that is Japanese Buddhism. Contrary to popular belief the two faiths are not all that similar with Buddhism arriving in the late 6th century from Korea- specifically the kingdom of Baekje. It might be expected that Buddhism’s influence runs deeper than Shinto given its earlier formalisation in Japan, however Shinto faith is not strictly a religion in the same way; With several Shinto-based churches across the nation but a considerably lower number of participators compared to Buddhism, which makes up almost 40% of the population, it’s easy to think Shinto lifestyle is overwhelmed.
Stick with me and I think you’ll be surprised.

A good distinction to make with Buddhist influence into anime is the divide between Philosophy and Cosmology. Or, as I’m going to document it here, the divide between AKIRA and Dragonball.

The animated movie AKIRA was a smash hit internationally; however the true extent of its message is conveyed in the paperback manga. While the movie merely hinted at a spiritual ascension by its major antagonist Tetsuo the books explore a much more complete cycle- taking him through turmoil, meditation, purification and finally ascendancy. This is a strong parallel to the ideas of ‘Enlightenment’ that are reinforced during the story by frequent discussions of his power and its place in the universe. In fact, AKIRA is drenched in this philosophy and left most readers confused as central Buddhist theory is not a common reference point to international readers. The character Lady Miyako, only present in the manga, is a focus of such teachings and represents the human pursuit of such divine power and understanding- going so far as to berate Tetsuo for his artificial attainment of such power without the knowledge to control it.
All this and more only became clear after the third time reading through these books as, without a significant amount of research to back it up, their exploration of the self and its meanings on the universal scale can be called confusing at best.

On the other foot we have Dragonball, which is a show many have watched, but not everyone will know that Dragonball itself is inspired greatly by the Chinese epic ‘Journey To The West’, a story of Son Wukong (the Monkey King) and his journey to deliver Buddhist scrolls from India through a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist spirituality. While this sounds like a perfect chance to inject all kinds of religious subtext, with the original epic exploring many elements from Buddist ideals of purity right through to the Eleven barefoot Immortals, Dragonball takes a different approach. Its story is a much simpler shonen  adventure that happens to involve numerous characters and symbols from the original tale. Common elements such as a shapeshifting demon and three eyed adversary are present, however these direct parallels mostly fall into the background after the first saga.
This might be an obscure reference to us, however in a culture that is so enamoured with the source material it still has frequent stage plays of Son Wukong’s journey called ‘Monkey’ making circulation, and the successful martial arts movie ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ starring Jackie Chan and Jet Lee still popular through Asia, these are familiar references to their target audience.

So is it all going over people’s heads because of foreign culture? Not necessarily. To raise a counter-point there are plenty of western influences in anime and manga that aren’t readily apparent. For example, there are plenty of Shinto concepts present in Death Note- from the existence of the Death Gods ‘Shinigami’ to the reveal that they may in fact be closer to ‘Urami’, kami spirits of humans who were wronged or dishonoured and exist through violence against the living. However some of its largest subtext is actually Christian in nature. Outside of the artwork which often includes crosses, statues and religious imagery (mostly Catholic) relating to its characters a central example can be seen where the antagonist ‘L’ cleans the protagonist’s feet after stepping out in the rain. This draws parallel with Jesus washing the feet of Peter in John 13:1 of the Bible, which occurred much like this at the highest room prior to their final meeting. In the Bible this was used to express Jesus’s mortality and acceptance of his human side, something we see reflected in L’s humble attitude as he ultimately moves towards what he suspects will be his death. A rather substantial symbolic event, but one often overlooked.

So what do I want us to take away from this?
Really that it’s all a matter of our cultural lens. That we may view things in ways they weren’t intended, or miss subtext that is outside our scope. This is upsetting yes, however it does mean other cultures will often apply their own perceptions on a piece- be that anime or anything else- which puts the art in a different light. To see why this can be a good thing let’s turn out attention to video games for a moment and the horror title Fatal Frame. It’s considered one of the scariest games of all time in the west… but not as popular in Japan where it originated. Why? Because much of its style and mythos are based on old school Shinto mythology and are steeped in its iconography. To an outside audience this is both super interesting and adds a new level of alienation: It’s something we aren’t familiar with, aren’t comfortable with. To its native users these symbols are linked to the history they learned in school and the religion of their forefathers, not a mysterious culture filled with possibilities (and often, terror). This is an example of our outside lens changing how we see the game and, in this case, actually making it considerably stronger than its original form.

And if you think this only applies to horror just look at Yokai Watch! To us this may seem like another Pokémon imitator but in Japan the term ‘Yokai’ literally means Ghost/Demon/Apparition and refers to a variety of demonic spirits that come in a huge variety of forms- including neglected toys and house appliances! In its home country Yokai Watch is a game about turning ancestral dark spirits into digital pets. How’s that for culture shock?

After reading this you might be wondering how far the religious influence spreads in anime- after all not every manga artist is religious, right? That raises a fascinating point I alluded to earlier. Studies in 2008 by the Dentsu Communications Institute in Japan showed that over 40% of its populace identify as ‘non-religious’ BUT still adhere to the traditional ceremony, worship and prayer to spirits and gods- increasing to 80% with crossovers into shinbutsu-shugo (Shinto-Buddhism). With only 4% identifying as part of an organised sect of Shinto religion!  Meaning even people who do NOT consider themselves religious in Japan still abide by the Shinto culture! It’s a part of daily life that we in the outside world have difficulty grasping.
Stranger still? Scholars Isomae Jun’ichi and Jason Ānanda Josephson found that the Japanese term and concept of ‘Religion’ itself is called ‘Shukyo’ and appeared as late as the 19th century! Meaning Japanese culture does not view religion the same way as the west and, prior to this point, worship of kami was never considered a religious act to begin with.

With this in mind most of what we perceive as religious/cultural messages in anime and manga is simply reflecting the very unique world it was created in. It’s clear to say that a considerable amount of subtext in the stories we love really is lost in translation- and not just because the dubbing sucks.