** POST UPDATE, 5/17/19 — Continue to end of article
Here’s the thing: Hollywood live action remakes are generally terrible. We all know this. But for some reason, when it comes to anime specifically, it’s like all common sense and understanding of how stories work is thrown out the window. This is, quite frankly, baffling to me — there’s no reason that these adaptations should be as bad as they are. With the announcement of Netflix’s upcoming remake of the popular 90s anime Cowboy Bebop, I felt that this was a topic that deserved some time. Personally, I haven’t watched Cowboy Bebop, but I know about its clout in the anime world and how important it is to a lot of people. Additionally, I know that all anime adaptations Hollywood touches turn to dust, so I was already feeling for these longtime fans. So what keeps happening here? Let’s take a look at some of the most famous failures in anime adaptation and see exactly what it is that Hollywood just can’t get right…
Let me preface this by stating outright that I am a white person who hasn’t watched all that much anime (I’m a casual fan, I’ve watched a bit), but I hope my credentials as a Media Studies graduate and media analysis writer will reassure you that I can tell when something is absolute garbage. Unfortunately, almost every Hollywood live action adaptation of an anime series falls into that category.
My first encounter with this specific problem was of course, the 2010 live action Avatar: The Last Airbender remake (yes, this is a Western animated series, but it’s still a good point of reference). I was very shocked and confused by this film, because it missed the mark in every possible way. It was cheap, poorly acted, completely disjointed in tone, and the characters were nothing like the original. What was so mind-boggling to me was the fact that it was not adapted from a book (which allows more room for different and unique interpretations), but from an existing series with a distinct look and feel. They even pronounce Sokka’s name wrong, which is just ridiculous because it’s pronounced in the series. This (and everything else) left audiences feeling that the film creators hadn’t watched the series at all, but perhaps read a synopsis and looked at some images. The breakdown of every inexplicable decision would take a post of its own, but the point is that the film diverged greatly from everything audiences loved about the series.
But despite this massive failure, the trend of adapting animated series continued, and Hollywood went after some of the most beloved anime works they could find. Attack on Titan, Ghost in the Shell, Dragon Ball Evolution, and Fullmetal Alchemist were all given live action remakes. The problems ranged anywhere from whitewashing (just stay out of this Scar. Jo.) to the dumbing down of complex characters, to the convoluting of clever stories as they tried to fit hours of story into 100 minutes of film. These adaptations range from pitiful to insulting, and the future isn’t looking too promising (we’re all a little skeptical of the upcoming Detective Pikachu).
But the worse disgrace of them all came in 2017 with Netflix’s adaptation of the beloved series Death Note.
Now, I had been aware of Death Note for a while but hadn’t actually watched it until recently. I knew it was a very popular piece of pop culture, but seeing as I wasn’t a huge anime fan myself I never watched it myself. And then, in 2017, came the announcement that Netflix was making a live action adaption that was to be set in the United States, and this is what it would look like:
I hadn’t even seen the series, but from the very first trailer I could tell that this was going to be a disaster. What I didn’t realize was just how badly a story could be butchered.
After reading all the criticism of the film, I decided it was finally time for me to sit down and see what the hype was about with the anime, and I was not disappointed. Death Note is an epic, twisted, cat & mouse battle of deduction and wits. And the show? Well… it’s basically the exact opposite of all of those things. So again I had to ask, how did this happen?
Everything about the live action Death Note confused me — who exactly were they appealing to with this film? Certainly not the already existing fanbase, as nearly everything from the show is changed. The characters are hollow shells of their anime counterparts, and the tone is almost silly, as if they were making a joke of it. If they were appealing to people who had never seen the anime, they still did a poor job because the film didn’t work on its own. It’s been suggested that at one point maybe the live action version was meant to be written as a kind of farce, but why on earth would Death Note be chosen to be adapted in that way? The original series is contemplative, philosophical, and smart. It doesn’t lend itself to satire (or whatever they may have thought they were going for).
But this seems to be a problem in anime adaptations — rather than simply adapting the anime, Hollywood often decides it needs to be altered somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problems with changes in adaptation, but they have to make sense and work towards a goal. Instead, these changes often directly work against the ethos and tone of the source material. The characters in Death Note are supposed to be the smartest humans on Earth, and that’s what makes watching them so fun. In the adaptation, though they show the protagonist, Light, solving math problems, he’s far from the manipulative super genius he is in the show.
This is the one true fact of all adaptation — change the plot as you will, but don’t screw up the characters or the tone.
So again, why does this happen so regularly with anime? Perhaps it is because Hollywood is trying to appeal to a certain kind of Western audience, but in doing so it suggests that this Western audience isn’t interested in the complexity and creativity of the source material, which is insulting to all audiences.
The problem is not live action remakes. The problem is the “for the masses” attitude of Hollywood production companies who fail to understand that butchering a cultural product in an effort to appeal to new audiences will not only fail with the existing fanbase, but also with that new audience because they can tell they’re being served a cheap knockoff of an idea.
Netflix has announced their casting of John Cho (Searching) in a leading role for their adaption of Cowboy Bebop, which has some people believing that the adaptation may actually be faithful and that they are actually taking care to do it right. I too hope this is the case, but I have a strong feeling that Netflix has yet to really learn their lesson.
POST UPDATE: Hello readers! I previously wrote this piece when news of the Cowboy Bebop remake was released and at the time I had not watched it (as stated before), but I have now finished it!! I have a couple more thoughts on the matter now that I’ve seen the show:
I am very wary of this adaptation. I think this will be an incredibly difficult show to remake, as its very much unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I echo the sentiment I’ve seen around the internet — John Cho is great, but is he really capable of being Spike?? I’m not so sure. My main concern is going to be the casting/writing of Faye Valentine and especially Radical Edward. Please someone protect this precious child!
I really hope they manage to do this well, because if they do I think it will be really cool and fun. However, I have very little faith it can actually be done well. I hope I’m wrong, but I won’t be surprised if I’m not.
Tell Us: Are you looking forward to the Cowboy Bebop remake?