Hollywood’s Next Golden Goose: Live-Action Anime
Hollywood is a fairly simple institution to figure out. It’s driven by a few simple factors – namely money and fame. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand, sometimes they are drastically different. It’s not a complicated formula. Hollywood is also very much an industry based on following the leader.
When a studio stumbles onto a money-making idea that can be reused, it’s only a matter of time before others try to copy it. We’ve seen the pattern repeatedly countless times over the years, from the young adult craze to fantasy movies to comic book adaptations and countless others. And now we may be on the verge of the next big trend: live-action anime movies with a Hollywood flair.
There have been attempts at this already, several of them, without much success. Dragonball: Evolution and Fist of the North Star are at the top of many “worst of all time” lists. What’s different this time is how seriously the studios are taking these properties.
There are several anime films (and by extension manga) currently in development in the Hollywood studio system with an eye to be released in the next few years. Netflix will release Death Note later this year, Scarlett Johannsson stars in the Ghost in the Shell adaptation, Sony is looking to create a new franchise from Robotech, and there is always talk of an Akira live-action movie to name just a few.
You can now also add Attack on Titan to that list. Warner Bros. is currently negotiating for the rights to the recent Japanese live-action films (which were, in turn, an adaptation of the anime which was itself an adaptation of the manga). The legal specifics don’t really matter as the end result is another live-action anime adaptation. And to add a little more credibility to it, the project is being championed by David Heyman, one of the producers of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
This isn’t a new trend internationally, just Stateside. Japan (unsurprisingly) has something of a cottage industry when it comes to adapting anime properties. There are dozens, some going back decades, but they rarely make it overseas, and when they do they fall into a niche category.
At the moment, anime hits the Hollywood sweet spot. Like the recent rash of YA adaptations and superhero films that have swamped theaters, the medium offers a hint of the fantastic for audiences of all ages. Most have action and adventure, along with the possibility for special effects to make for a spectacular looking film. Many of them also have the potential for a franchise.
There is a significant hurdle, however. At the moment, live-action anime films are in the same category as video game adaptations. They have a built-in audience (albeit not a huge one in America), but they haven’t had that one or two breakthrough films that prove their viability – at least not yet. Once there are, however, it will open the floodgates in the same way that arguably X-Men and Spider-Man arguably did for superhero films.
If Ghost in the Shell is a hit (which even with Johannsson seems like a 50-50 bet at best), it could kick off a feeding frenzy among Hollywood studios that begin to gobble up anime licenses – moreso than they already are. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will all begin making movies out of those properties, but they will buy them – if for no other reason than to make sure no one else gets them.
There is a huge world of anime that American audiences will eagerly consume in theaters and on TV, from fantasy epics to futuristic worlds to space operas to weird high school dramedies. The lack of mainstream name recognition will hurt, but Hollywood has defined itself by one other trait: laziness.
If there is a huge library of stories that fit the public hunger, and if there is some proof that they can be profitable, prepare for an avalanche of live-action anime adaptations. It also helps that huge chunks of the ideal Hollywood demographic audience – young adults with money to spend – grew up with anime, far more than any generation before them.
Names like Starblazers (aka Space Battleship Yamato), Bleach, and Naruto (all of which have been optioned by Hollywood studios) have a good chance of being embraced by an audience that grew up with them, or is at least familiar to a degree. And their kids will have even greater exposure to the properties and even stronger recognition.
All it will take is one spark, and there are plenty of potential flames coming this way soon.