Like a villain intent on world domination, Western film studios have grown dangerously bold: In recent years, more and more anime has been adapted for wider (read: American) audiences. But, like the plans of that same supervillain, the adaptations fail again and again.
There are the obvious flops — the bizarre, Brett Ratner-produced Dragonball Evolution, Scarlett Johansson’s starring turn in Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s tween Pacific Northwest Death Note — but there are going to be more. Detective Pikachu, a live-action Pokémon film, is technically a video game adaptation, but evokes nostalgia for the immensely popular children’s anime; 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb is adapting global hit Your Name; Netflix has announced a live action version of hall-of-fame anime series Cowboy Bebop starring John Cho. Taika Waititi’s version of Akira, perhaps the most iconic anime film of all time, is finally going into production — produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Putting aside the question of whether the American entertainment industry should be trying to pillage the history of anime, it’s undeniably good business: Sailor Moon, Naruto, and One Piece are functionally enormously popular superhero properties, and American moviegoers have turned out a little for even the worst adaptations. These adaptations have been unsuccessful not because there isn’t an audience for them, but because they’re bad. Why have Western anime movies been so awful, and how can we fix them?
I would like to present a grand unified theory of anime adaptations: they need to be deeply, profoundly, almost unbearably corny.
For the moment, let’s gloss over a point that should be obvious: Much of the best animation is simply not meant to translate to live action, no matter what the blue Will Smith wants you to believe. Many, if not most, anime classics would be inscrutable messes if remade with flesh and blood actors, simply because animation is a distinct medium with access to distinct artistic tools. But other anime — in particular, lots of shōnen, the genre aimed largely at young boys — lends itself to the structure of Hollywood blockbusters.
Broadly speaking, anime, and in particular, much of the anime that is popular in America, uses an artistic grammar and tonal language similar enough to most Western TV and film to convince lots of people they know how to speak it, but distinct enough that they actually cannot. If this seems complicated, think of it as someone who grew up with the internet from 2008-2012 believing they could converse confidently and fluently with today’s 17-year-olds — the difference between using Vine and TikTok.
This language is fundamentally earnest, and expressionist. If you don’t understand the genre, you’ll be overwhelmed by the crash zooms, action lines, and dramatic poses. You might become bored rather than mesmerized when a character narrates their backstory in voiceover, backing a slow pan over their intense, unmoving expression. And you might find it ridiculous when someone draws the exact card they need to win a game of Duel Monsters, or learns the upgraded version of the kamehameha technique just in time to blow up a monster. This is the kind of grammar you pick up instinctively watching Toonami for most of your childhood, training to watch Dragon Ball Z like a hyper-masculine soap opera.
In the right hands, doing your taxes should be sufficiently gripping to bring an audience to tears.
Part of this process is just learning how to feel the contours of a medium. Much of live action TV thrives on close-ups, because they’re easy to film and effectively communicate the emotional states of the characters. Likewise, anime often relies on static images that, with a bit of voiceover, transform into enormously dramatic moments that freeze time — not for nothing is Dragon Ball Z approximately 95 percent composed of scenes of characters powering up by standing in place and yelling. Much of the Western animation that tries to adapt or work within the tonal language of anime (like Steven Universe, Neo Yokio, and the Avatar-Dragon Prince family) are working through how to pay homage to these constraints while not necessarily remaining beholden to them, and working under constraints of their own.
Many of the anime series that have found mass popularity in America owe their success in large part to the extent to which they commit to the foundations of their worlds, no matter how silly or trivial they may seem. Is this show about a children’s card game with mystical properties? Then that card game is the most important thing in the universe. Is it about teenagers learning how to cook? Then their culinary battles need to happen on moving trains, and be represented using samurai duels as a visual metaphor. Is it about adorable gay ice skaters? Then the characters need to be followed and flocked by adoring admirers at all turns, because they’re figure skaters.
In each case, the central activity is both a tentpole holding up the characters’ hopes and dreams and a lens that allows those hopes and dreams to be kaleidoscopically refracted back at us. In engaging in these activities, the characters show us who they are. At their best, all dueling or cooking or fighting scenes are, fundamentally, expressive magical girl transformations, using visual pyrotechnics and over-the-top imagery as a way to dazzle us while saying something about the internal states of the characters. In the right hands, doing your taxes should be sufficiently gripping to bring an audience to tears. Action is always affect.
The important thing about these shows is not that the show wants you to think about how silly it is that everyone is obsessed with this card game — quite the opposite. Instead, the show demands that you meet it where it lives, if you’re going to expect to get anything out of it. And even at the most absurd heights — the current story on Food Wars, a show about teenagers competing to be the best at cooking, involves culinary battles held on moving trains blazing through Japan — the show itself never acknowledges how ridiculous everything is. In order for this tone to work, you have to believe that whatever is happening on screen is the most important thing in the history of the world, or at least that it eventually might be. Most Western adaptations of anime, by contrast, want you to know they’re in on the joke, and make repeated winking asides. (Lots of Neo Yokio is fun; the up-skirt shot in the first 30 seconds is not.) It is, literally, irony poisoning.
Of course, the act of adaptation is not a linear transposition — or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Instead, it requires making something different, something that evinces a fundamental understanding of what makes an original thing special and a willingness to deviate from that in the interest of saying something else. So yes, Western anime adaptations should try to at least partially deviate from the source material, but that’s not Scarlett Johansson moving through the empty beats of Ghost in the Shell. (Without going too deep into critical conversations around Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, it feels like enough to say here that, in addition to whitewashing concerns, there are other specific pieces of Japanese cultural context the film misses, as this essay by Emily Yoshida explains.)
Really, the task of a successful anime adaptation is to grasp what it feels like to watch anime, then translate that feeling using the tools available, rather than simply putting boy band Goku on a big screen. This is why the best anime adaptation is also the one that is most willing to seem — to be — childish, to wear its goofy heart on its goofy sleeve: the Wachowski sisters’ 2008 version of Speed Racer.
Everything about this movie screams racing. The animation styles clash, from the simple schoolbook doodles that track young Speed as he fantasizes about his racing future to the Windows screensaver tubes that make up the film’s version of hyperspace. There are countless splitscreens, talking heads slowly pushing across the frame, and editing that seems like it could be on a public access parody. There are dramatic speeches, flashbacks that exist as backgrounds, aggressive anti-capitalist messaging, and literal video game controllers that allow Speed to use his car’s extra powers. The racing sequences are commonly compared to Mario Kart, but no Mario Kart game ever included evil business meetings on trucks full of piranhas. None of this is happening because it’s been focus-grouped or because it needs to hit an audience quadrant. It’s because it fucking rules.
Admittedly, it is also a lot. Speed Racer’s “cult” popularity has grown over the years, to the point where calling it an unsung classic feels like more of a mainstream opinion than the original critical consensus that it was a mess. The problem, I think, is that people just didn’t realize what kind of mess it was. A friend of mine has posited a theory I think about constantly: that work produced by the Wachowski sisters does not, in fact, exist on a traditional aesthetic scale running from “good” to “bad,” but instead from “not very Wachowski” to “very Wachowski.” In Speed Racer, moments that are very Wachowski — the aforementioned piranha truck, Roger Allam’s performance as evil executive E.P. Royalton, the final race backed with dramatic narration about how Speed doesn’t drive, he’s driven — converge to, at the same time, become moments that are very anime.
I know I’m using a lot of italics to describe Speed Racer, but the whole movie takes place in italics — that’s the point. It’s also a reasonably accurate description of Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, which is, if not a masterful version of what live action manga or anime should look like, then at least a pretty good attempt. There are lots of things to dislike about that movie, but Rodriguez and James Cameron certainly went for it as hard as they possibly could. If you’re looking for a metaphor to guide future Westerners attempting to adapt or work within the language of anime, you could do worse than Alita literally taking her heart out of her body to offer it to her bewildered, unworthy boyfriend Hugo. The joy, artistic wonder, and rich texture of anime is, by now, functionally a heart being offered to studios hungry for something new to adapt — if they’re willing to go all the way.