Monday, June 27

Live-action anime adaptations don’t work for a big reason

After countless failures to translate the anime into live action, the creators refuse to learn the lesson. The worst kept secret in anime is animation.

Live-action anime adaptations seem to appear and disappear with alarming frequency, almost all stumbling into an ocean of hatred from which they never emerge. One would almost begin to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the logic of trying to force a loved story to work in an entirely different medium.

Twenty days after the premiere of Netflix Cowboy Bebop, the series was canceled. This was a response to the overwhelming reaction of fans to the series, and while the attacks were directed at all aspects of the show, constant taunts accumulated about the very concept of doing live action. Cowboy Bebop.

The gigantic, inescapable, blatantly obvious, rationale every live-action anime adaptation is basically doomed is that animation is key to anime storytelling. Visual storytelling is crucial to all forms of filmmaking, certainly live action film is full of it, but the methods must change with the medium. A live action production faces limits and not just the budget limits that everything must face, but the very limits of time, space and biology. These limits are not present when all aspects of production are created by artists. Every detail is under the control of the team, which means that the only limits are imagination and, of course, budget. At the end of the day, the awful truth is that there are some things a creator can do with a drawing that they cannot do with real human beings. Even with CGI.

It’s tempting to frame this as a purely financial concern. Some figures place the average anime season in the same price range as a single episode of the average Netflix original series, and that change drastically reduces the chances. Without even examining the artistic intent or skillful execution of a particular adaptation, on a logistical level, something as simple as the main character using his superpower becomes a matter of resources.

This bad news comes along with the fact that a large percentage of adaptations never see the screen, many are canceled before production or early in their run. There are dozens of projects that were announced, enjoyed the necessary mix of hype and awe, and quickly went under, leaving nothing behind but concept art. Those who succeed almost always fail. The best seller among them is probably Alita: Battle Angel, a movie that may or may not have broken. So the idea rarely works on a business level, but on an artistic level, it is much worse.

Cowboy Bebop is the perfect example here. In the first episode of each series, an action scene occurs around the midpoint. The scene is comparable in its place in the story, but it is executed very differently. In the anime, Spike meets his target, the drug lord Asimov. The pair have a fist fight in a restaurant’s outdoor seating area, and Spike is able to show off his martial arts prowess for the first time in the series. The pair use the environment, Asimov chases after Spike as he gracefully rolls over the obstructions, Spike maintains an arrogant smile throughout the encounter. In one brilliant shot, the camera takes the point of view of a gun in the hand of Asimov’s wife, Katerina, as she struggles to follow the action and get a clear shot. Spike establishes his confidence and playful nature, but is often distracted by playing games. Asimov shows his strength and ferocity, but he is clearly untrained and relies on raw power. Katerina seems dangerous, but cautious, the cooler head that ends up reacting little. Three characters are established in about a minute, all through fast-paced action anime.

The live-action iteration dropped all of that. Instead, for Faye Valentine to get into the series earlier, she seems to challenge Spike for Katerina’s bounty. The pair have a brief confrontation, they argue over who can claim the money, Spike disarms Faye, the pair fight long enough for Asimov and Katerina to escape, Spike prepares to shoot them but Faye stops him. There is no interesting environment to play so the fighting is boring. Nothing is established about any of the four characters involved in almost the same amount of time. This is clearly inferior, but creators and wallet holders treat it as an honor, and that’s the real problem.

Producers often view animation as a minor medium. It looks like a prestigious brand, sort of an upgrade, to get a live action adaptation. Although fans are quick with cynicism, studios are quick to proclaim their respect for the source without understanding its merits. Animation is key to anime and deserves more respect than it receives. A live adaptation of an animated play is rarely anything but a pale imitation, and to pretend it’s a step forward is an insult to the animators who made these beloved plays what they are today.

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