In the past several decades, Japan has gone from an isolated imperial island nation to one of the world’s most technologically advanced and culturally influential nations. So, what is one of the biggest things to come from this society with a long history of craftsmanship and tradition?
Anime – for those that don’t know – is a Japanese cartoon style. It’s quite different from western cartoons in that it is viewed as a serious form of media. Anime can be for any demographic, from small children to fully-grown adults. In recent years, anime has become something of a world-wide phenomenon, especially here in the United States.
But anime doesn’t appeal to everyone here in the states, as we generally view cartoons as childish and immature. So, how do western entertainment companies go about making money off of these Japanese stories?
By making live-action adaptations, that’s how.
I think the most infamous of these awful live action adaptations is M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender.” This is different from most adaptations because its source material is a western cartoon named “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Despite it being made here in the west, “Avatar” shares many themes with anime, and is considered to be an anime by many enthusiasts.
“The Last Airbender” is a complete and total travesty of a movie. From botching small details such as mispronouncing character names (which I don’t know how they did since the original is voiced in English) to awful CGI, to changed plot points that made the movie worse, there is a reason that this movie has a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes.
For the entirety of its almost two-hour runtime, I was in physical pain from how badly they had adapted a show that I grew up with. “Avatar” was so popular for years after it originally aired that it was played through in its entirety almost every month. Heck, I binged the show with my brother after he had purchased the series on Blu-ray over the course of a weekend.
But let’s give Shyamalan’s adaptation the benefit of the doubt – maybe it was bad because it was western. So, what does a true anime adaptation look like? Most of the time, pretty bad.
Once again, this movie is bad. I remember seeing it when I was younger and despite never even hearing of the anime, I knew I hated what I was seeing. It was paced awfully with forgettable characters and dropped plot points. Even years later, having watched the original show, I have no idea how they ended up with this mess.
One of the things that people hated about it was that they white-washed the protagonist, something that it shares in common with the next two films based on anime that I will talk about.
“Death Note” is an anime about a sociopathic genius high-school student who finds a book that allows him to kill anyone in the world as long as he knows their name and face.
The show is a drama full of tension and psychological manipulation as his over-blown sense of justice leads to him murdering the criminals of the world. It is a favorite among many teenagers and has a strong following even to this day long after its original airing.
“Death Note” was also adapted into a live-action Netflix movie about a troubled high-school student who finds a book that can kill people. The movie is a wet towel of a film, with a protagonist that whines and complains, awful CGI and a complete lack of coherent characterization or plot. The movie lacks every quality that made the original so beloved, with a complete lack of tension or stakes.
Yet another whitewashed movie is “Ghost in the Shell.” The original takes place in the future where much of the population has moved over to robotic bodies with human consciousness, hence the titular ghost living in the shell.
The protagonist is a young woman with no memories who was placed into one of the most popular shells in the world. Almost every scene with a crowd has several other people with the exact shell she has. While she fights crime, she also has an existential crisis stemming from her complete lack of uniqueness. She constantly is plagued with questions of her individuality and about whether she is real or not.
The 2017 movie of the same title is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It is gorgeous with thousands of hours of work put into every detail possible. That doesn’t save it from being a bad adaptation. See, in the western version, she is the first person to ever be put into a shell. That’s not bad on its own, because western audiences enjoy a special protagonist.
The problem comes with the fact that she still has the same existential crisis. They try and explain that she just questions her humanity, but her actions just don’t match the theme. Would still recommend seeing though, just not if you are expecting the original.
So, what does a good adaptation look like? Well, the single best adaptation I’ve seen is one that most people don’t know is an adaptation: “Edge of Tomorrow” (or “Live, Die, Repeat” in its earlier marketing).
The movie is based on the manga — Japanese comic/graphic novel — “All You Need is Kill.” Despite massive changes to the story line and characters, I feel that the movie is a great adaptation because of how thematically similar it is to the original.
They made many changes that were honestly needed to sell it to a western audience, such as protagonists that are older than teenagers (a common theme in most popular anime), changing the honestly confusing ending, and adding similarities to more western wars, among other changes to make the story feel more familiar.
However, the heart of the story is still there. The pure dread of facing an enemy you believe is unbeatable, the psychological damage of repeating the same day and dying over and over again, the loneliness and craving for companionship despite the dire setting. Even if the two works are tough to connect on a surface level, underneath they are nearly identical.
I rate movies from -10 to 10, with negative being so bad its good. Here is the lineup:
“The Last Airbender”: -1. Do not watch. Watch the show. Seriously, the show is so good.
“Dragon Ball Evolution”: -4. Not recommended unless you and some friends can laugh at a bad film.
“Death Note”: -2, It’s not good but hey, you won’t have to pay for it so maybe waste a mindless hour.
“Ghost in the Shell”: 8. A seriously good movie as long as you don’t expect the original.
“Edge of Tomorrow”: 9. A guilty pleasure for me. It has great acting, beautiful effects and charming characters. I love it despite Tom Cruise playing the lead, which I suppose is pretty high praise.
This was originally written for The University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon and edited by Margot McClellan.