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.

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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.