Unholy Alliance: Hollywood Anime Adaptations We’re Glad are in Pre-production Hell

Hollywood is a strange beast; it’s constantly raiding the cultural toolbox of every other form of fandom out there – from board games to kids toys to comics to Disneyland rides – and yet there are just some things that it never seems to get right. I don’t know whether it’s just a case that they don’t understand the geek culture they’re adapting, or that they get so caught up in making things NEW and FRESH and AWESOME and lose the very thing that makes the original property so great.

Video game movies are, of course, notorious for this. And it’s with a heavy heart that I’ve concluded that, at least so far, anime movies look to have the same problem.

Not that it’s impossible to make a good live-action movie out of an anime; on the contrary, the Japanese have been making pretty stellar movie adaptations for ages. The upcoming Ruroni Kenshin movie looks fantastic, and I know I’m not alone in saying that the two-part movie version of Death Note is probably the best version of the story out there. But Hollywood… eennnhhh. So far, their initial toedip into the turgid pool of anime has produced some pretty uninspiring results, from the polarizing Speed Racer to the overwhelmingly “blah” Astro Boy to the truly heinous, jawdroppingly bad Dragonball Evolution.

But if you think what they’re releasing is bad, consider some of the strange mutant hybrids that lurk in that dark hole known as Pre-production Hell. While not every movie in there is necessarily going to be bad, chances are that something in the project raises red flags in the average anime fan. Thus, I present my own personal list of NO JUST NO Hollywood anime adaptions currently stuck in limbo, and why I think they deserve to stay there.

Worst Application of “Whoa” to an Anime Franchise: Cowboy Bebop

Keanu Reeves as Spike Spiegel. That is all.

No, seriously, that is all, as Keanu went on record several years ago to say the project was going nowhere and that it would cost ridiculous sums of money to make, so this one seems pretty dead in the water. A shame, in a way, as Cowboy Bebop has consistently proven to have huge mainstream appeal, bringing in non-anime fans with its quirky aesthetic, strong characters, and awesome music.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Keanu Reeves – he seems like a nice guy, he’s an anime fan, and in the right movie, he’s okay. But the guy can’t act. Trust me, I saw Dracula, I know of what I speak. The idea of him monotoning his way through a character as cool and dynamic as Spike just hurts my otaku soul in places I didn’t even know it had.

Worst Chance of Epically Missing the Point: Evangelion

Let’s face it, Evangelion is not a “kids” show. It has disturbing content of both the violent and sexual kind, its characters give new meaning to the term walking dysfunctions, and the theological and psychological content gives first year university students either conniptions or screams of joy. Yet the frame of it – kids pilot giant robots to save the world! – is, at least at first glance a pretty “childish” concept, the sort of thing you’d expect to see in shows and movies meant for children or teenagers. Evangelion was able to make it work in anime format because A) anime already approaches the whole teenage mech genre with some adult maturity, and B) it’s deconstructing the genre in a way that its audience – otaku who grew up with that kind of anime – can connect with.

Hollywood, though? I’m not so sure they would get it, or be able to present it properly. I imagine a boardroom of producers and Hollywood bigwigs sitting around, scratching their heads and saying, “Okay, all this theological-psychological-sexual content is really, REALLY adult and meant for a mature audience… but then we’ve got to make them watch kids piloting big giant robots and saving the day?” I can almost hear the snap of that disconnect in their mind, the thought that “mature” audiences won’t want to watch kids-with-mechs and teenagers who do want to watch kids-with-mechs will be scarred for life by everything else. They might feel they’d have to go one way or the other… and the only way to go would be down.

To be fair, Hollywood seems to be evolving in this respect; they didn’t shrink from making the Batman movies unflinchingly brutal despite the idea that “comics are for kids”, and the popularity of The Hunger Games may help ease more viewers and producers into the concept that adult audiences don’t mind teenagers doing “super” things in a really horrific, adult world. If they decided to ignore the “teenage” concept (but not the teenage characters!) and got someone like David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky to really play up the psychological and body horror, that’d be one thing. But I can’t shake the idea that what we’d be left with is Transformers Lite, a defanged and declawed Evangelion with teenagers SAVING THE WORLD IN BIG ROBOTS OMG where, between action sequences, our hero reconciles with his father and learns a valuable lesson about family and friendship.

Directed by Michael Bay.

Excuse me, I need to start screaming and never stop.

Worst Use of Blue CG Aliens to Set up a Cyberpunk Dystopia: Battle Angel Alita

So, remember Avatar? That movie that half the world was insane about for a bit under a year, and then we all moved on? Well, here’s something you may not know; James Cameron actually considered that movie a testing ground to develop the tech for a movie adaptation he’s had his heart set on for years – Battle Angel Alita, or Gunmu in Japan.

I’ve already talked at length about my own interest in this series, and part of me wants to be excited that not only it might get made but that Cameron is taking it seriously enough to put that level of tech detail into it. But… seriously, Avatar? First off, if James Cameron wanted to test whether CG had evolved to the point of making convincing cyborgs and futuristic cities, maybe he should have, I don’t know, made a movie about those concepts instead of about blue space aliens with USB braids? Don’t get me wrong, Avatar is beautiful, but in terms of aesthetics, it’s about as far from Battle Angel Alita as you could get. Moreover, after seeing Avatar, let’s just say I am NOT holding out hopes for Cameron’s actual storytelling and adaptation skills. Avatar’s weakest point was its story and characters, painted in way too broad strokes and hammering in a message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; am I really expecting the complex and subtle narrative and characterization of Battle Angel Alita to survive?

Lastly…. Cameron, seriously, you don’t need to develop this new screaming edge of CG graphics and tech. There’s another movie that did a great job of creating a gritty, depressing, cyberpunk garbage city of the future with models and a bit of fancy camera work. You may have heard of it; it’s called Blade Runner!

Worst Whitewashing of an Japanese Movie: Akira

For those that may not be familiar with social justice terms, “whitewashing” refers to the practice of casting white actors for characters who were people of color in the original property. This can range from borderline examples of just one character (e.g. Katniss in the Hunger Games, who had “olive” skin and dark hair but was played by a white blonde actress) to incredibly obvious and uncomfortable shifting of entire casts (e.g. everything to do with the Last Airbender, where “fantasy” Tibetan/Inuit characters became snow-white teenagers and the bad guys were somehow all Ambigiously Brown). While the underpinnings of this phenomenon are rather complex, one thing that often pops up is that movie producers want the cast to be “relatable” to audiences, as if the idea of identifying with people of different skin tone would make our heads pop (I wonder how they think PoC fans manage to enjoy movies with white heroes?)

The current production of Akira, hopefully buried in pre-production hell (no one can decide on a budget; last news said it was slashed by 90%), looks to take this to depressing lengths. The original movie and manga is so quintessentially Japanese that it’s inconceivable for it to work without that Japanese connection. The world is meant specifically as contemporary commentary on Japanese culture of the ‘80s, of Japanese consumerism, of Japanese disillusionment, even of Japanese cityscapes. Japanese Japanese Japanese. Are you seeing a pattern?

Now take a look at the shortlist for the Kaneda and Tetsuo (NOTE: JAPANESE) characters:

-          Michael Fassbender

-          Joaquin Phoenix

-          Chris Pine

-          Justin Timberlake

-          James McAvoy

-          Andrew Garfield

-          Robert Pattinson

If you are noticing a general lack of, oh, I dunno, Japanese-ness to that shortlist, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Only thing is, I’m not sure what’s worse, keeping the characters’ obviously Japanese names, or Westernizing their names to something like “Ken” and “Tanner” or god knows what. In Neo New York, naturally… can’t get people interested if it’s not an American city, gosshdarnit!

Oh, and they signed Kristin Stewart too. How nice for them. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go vomit copiously before curling up in a blanket and watching the original subbed Akira, thanks.

What anime adaptations would you hate to see reach the light of day? Conversely, any anime you think Hollywood could do a good job with?

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