Why Hollywood adaptations of anime movies keep flopping

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  • Anime is a style of Japanese film and television animation with a global fan base of millions.
  • Hollywood studios have largely failed to adapt anime for western audiences.
  • Hollywood's $100 million remake of "Ghost in the Shell" completely bombed at the box office and lost at least $60 million.
  • Watch the video above to learn why anime adaptations are terrible and what studios can do to make them better.

Narrator: During the course of the original anime film, "Ghost in the Shell," director Mamoru Oshii, asks an ambitious question. In a world where humans can merge with machines, he asks the viewer, "What is it" "that makes us fundamentally human?" It's a beautiful film with a sprawling world that, as cliché as this sounds, really makes you think.

Hollywood's $100 million remake falls far short of the original concept. It also completely bombed at the box office, losing at least $60 million. The "Ghost in the Shell" remake is not alone. Virtually every Hollywood anime adaptation is critically panned and doesn't make any money. Why?

Justin Sevakis: Well, for the most part, they're just not good.

Narrator: Justin Sevakis is a writer for Anime News Network. He believes it's the practical differences between film and anime that lend a hand to Hollywood's flops.

Sevakis: When we see an animated character, we're never thinking about the actor, we're never thinking about the day on the set. We very much lose ourselves in that fantasy world. So a lot of things that are really fanciful and interesting in animation just don't work in live action. They're just kinda dumb-looking.

Narrator: The "Dragon Ball" franchise is a great example. It first aired in 1986 and follows the adventures of a human-like, alien child, who protects Earth by fighting otherworldly enemies. As the series continues, the battle scenes become epic as the characters fire rays of energy at each other. As you can imagine, this is absolutely cringeworthy in Hollywood's 2009 adaptation

So why are comic book movies so successful, given that they also feature characters with superpowers and ambitious fight scenes? It has to do with the source material.

Sevakis: Adaptations of the existing comic book is very freewheeling. They don't have to change where it takes place because it's already in a Western land with tropes that are already familiar to filmmakers. There's a lot of shared visual language between American comic books and movies because they've influenced each other greatly over the decades.

Narrator: Our favorite superheroes exist in cities we live in. When some evil force threatens New York City, for example, that means something to American audiences. In that sense, comic book adaptations already have a leg up on anime adaptations.

Sevakis: I think a lot of times, filmmakers go into an anime adaptation without really fully understanding what made the anime or its original manga compelling in the first place.

Narrator: Netflix's adaptation of "Death Note" is an example of this. In the original anime series, the main character, Light, stumbles upon a supernatural notebook. If you write someone's name in that book, that person then dies. Light feels like a judge and goes on to kill hundreds, taking up a pseudonym, "Kira," so no one knows who he is or how he kills.

There are a plethora of rules, though. For instance, you have to write how the person dies within 40 seconds. Otherwise, they'll just die of a heart attack. The many rules for the book and how they complicate things is part of why people loved the series. But the Netflix adaptation foregoes all of this.

The adaptation also fails to understand why viewers of the original series loved the characters, specifically. In the anime, Light is a smart kid from a nice, supportive family. That's what makes his choice to become death sentencer so interesting. In the adaptation, though, Light's mom is killed by people who get away with it, making his motive to kill people much more obvious and straightforward.

It's indicative of how complex ideas are lost in translation when being adapted.

Sevakis: Obviously, a lot is going to be lost because what the original filmmaker wanted to say, example, Mamoru Oshii of "Ghost in the Shell," was not going to be replicated by a director, making a "Ghost in the Shell" film that was not the same movie.

Narrator: Let's look at a specific scene from the anime. Police are pursuing a man who steals and destroys people's memories. At the end of the conflict, they realize the man is part machine and had been programmed to commit these crimes.

Sevakis: So there was this great emotional moment at the end of that fight scene where you're like, "Oh, there was nothing behind that." He's just kind of this poor, lost soul that has been programmed to be this, you know, this foot soldier. And now, he's just kind of this empty shell, lost and without purpose. And that was really haunting.

Narrator: This scene is recreated in the 2017 remake. And while it succeeds in its visual cues to the original, it serves no greater purpose to the story. It's just a fight scene. In general, the remake is streamlined into a simple story about the protagonist's quest for her memories, losing the deeper meaning of the original story.

For better anime adaptations, Hollywood needs to do two things. First, they need to do a much better job at figuring out exactly which anime is going to translate well into live action. Once they do that, they need to be sure of why fans like the anime in the first place.

For a genre of animation chock-full of amazing stories and beautifully complex ideas, this really shouldn't be that hard for Hollywood studios to figure out.

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