This past week, Netflix announced a new live-action adaptation of Japanese manga and anime series Death Note. The Duffer Brothers will produce the series under their production company Upside Down Pictures (inspired by their wildly popular series Stranger Things).
You might be thinking, “Didn’t Netflix already make a live-action Death Note?” They did. It will be Netflix’s second attempt after the streamer’s 2017 film starring Nat Wolff at Light, Lakeith Stanfield as L, and Willem Dafoe as death god Ryuk. Critics and fans panned the film, while Death Note’s creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata gave it good notices. (I called the film a “staggering, disgraceful failure.”)
A History of Violence (Against Anime)
Netflix’s gall in producing another live-action Death Note adaptation after the first failed is impressive. Their resolve might be admirable if a path of rotting, live-action anime carcasses wasn’t trailing behind them. Last year, Netflix canceled its Cowboy Bebop series starring John Cho a month after its release because of its poor reception. They released adaptations of Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist to little fanfare in the U.S., despite the enduring popularity of the series on the service. Despite its poor batting average, Netflix is still developing live-action adaptions of Yu Yu Hakusho, Pokémon, Sword Art Online, and One Piece.
Netflix isn’t alone; Hollywood has a legendary history of poorly-received anime adaptations. Dragonball Evolution was a critical and commercial disaster. Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, fared better but courted controversy with whitewashing accusations. Contemporary critics have been kinder to the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, but its $93 million gross against a $120 million budget made it a box office bomb. The most famous blunder of all was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, based on Nickelodeon’s beloved anime-influenced cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. The film was such a notorious failure that fully detailing its deficiencies would be unkind; its 5% approval on Rotten Tomatoes says it all. (The Last Airbender’s shame hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying again. A live-action adaptation is in the works at – where else – Netflix.)
Despite evidence to the contrary, Hollywood insists that it can bring anime to life. But why? Why can’t Hollywood leave anime alone?
The Need for IP
Hollywood is currently an intellectual property (IP) market. Movie studios, still skittish from the pandemic, want projects with loyal, built-in audiences to fill movie theaters. It’s more than adapting a best-selling novel or a Broadway musical. Hollywood wants properties that can sell everything from physical and digital media to merchandise. They want memorable characters to carry the banner into an increasingly hostile entertainment future.
Anime and manga fit the bill nicely. In the ‘90s, the art form blew through millennial after-school audiences with seminal hits like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon. It has since exploded from a popular niche into a multi-generational cultural force. The internet and social media made anime accessible beyond Cartoon Network. The demand for shonen anime (series primarily marketed to young teenage men) like My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen is at unprecedented levels. 2021’s Demon Slayer: Mugen Train grossed $47 million in North America, the second-highest-grossing anime film of all time. Hayao Miyazaki had an Academy Museum exhibit dedicated to his beloved work at Studio Ghibli. Anime has even influenced American animation, evident in series like Steven Universe, Craig of the Creek, and Avatar.
Anime is not just culturally and financially relevant. It also taps into Hollywood’s favorite pressure point: nostalgia. Anime’s Western presence is old enough to warrant the warm and fuzzy feelings that studios can convert into dollars. Fans who grew up in the ‘90s and ‘00s look back fondly on Naruto, Bleach, and Inuyasha, among others, from their days on Toonami. Nostalgia has already taken hold, with reboots like Sailor Moon Crystal, sequels like Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon, and Bleach’s final “Thousand-Year Blood War” arc airing in October 2022. Of course, Hollywood would want in.
The Hollywood Strategy
Hollywood taps the anime well by adapting the stories into live-action films and series. Studios can fulfill fans’ desire and curiosity to see their favorite characters in flesh-and-blood form, re-enacting their greatest triumphs and losses in the real world. With this influx of revenue, they can build these projects into widespread universes far exceeding the source material. 20th Century Fox intended Dragonball Evolution to be a trilogy before its failure scuttled those plans. Still, the tantalizing possibilities are enough to warrant the effort. Surely, someone will crack the anime-to-live-action pipeline, right?
Why Hollywood Keeps Getting Anime Wrong
Hollywood’s inability to bring anime to life indicates fatal misunderstandings of the art form. Anime is a highly evocative medium. Animators push character design, location composition, and overall art direction to their limits to realize a creator’s vision. Whether that vision is realistic or otherworldly, anime is aesthetically fearless for its distinctive stories and characters. Real-life can’t replicate much of what anime accomplishes without looking cheap, flat, or lifeless in comparison. Put animated Goku side-by-side with Justin Chatwin’s live-action counterpart, and it’s honestly embarrassing. Directors who manage decent replicas still lose something in translation, a problem that plagued the look of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop.
Another problem complicates the adaptation process further: fidelity. A standard benchmark for any adaptation is its “faithfulness” to the source material, visually and narratively. Fidelity is essential for projects trading on nostalgia: fans typically want their expectations met, not subverted or ignored. Anime is complex, and it’s difficult to translate its rules, conventions, limitations, and possibilities into a live-action format. Creators must either recreate the experience or mold the source material to fit a live-action context. That doesn’t even factor in Hollywood’s penchant for Westernizing the material so that it could be accessible. (Of course, that ignores the reality that audiences can appreciate Eastern pop culture, hence anime’s success in the first place.)
The struggle for balance shaped the biggest anime adaptation failures. Ghost in the Shell successfully utilized the live-action medium to bring the Major’s story to life. However, Scarlett Johansson’s casting and the plot’s justification were distractingly tone-deaf. Dragonball Evolution turned Goku’s journey into a hokey high-school farce. The Last Airbender traded the playful, kinetic style of the cartoon and replaced it with hideous visual effects, leaden cinematography, and incomprehensible everything else.
Should Hollywood Keep Trying?
It isn’t Hollywood’s fault that anime is hard to adapt. It is their fault that they keep trying to, badly. Every failure makes anime fans, and casual audiences lose faith that it can be done or that it should be tried. Ultimately, anime favors the bold, and Hollywood’s big-budget faction doesn’t tolerate risk well. Studios will spend hundreds of millions of dollars, but will they commit to the necessary due diligence? Will they find someone with a vision for the source material that balances the demands of the two mediums without losing what made it unique in the first place? Will they allow for the vision, even if it doesn’t gel with Western tastes? History speaks for itself.
The Duffer Brothers are gifted storytellers, and are singlehandedly responsible for distracting people from Netflix’s myriad business problems. They could correct past adaptations’ mistakes and deliver a live-action experience that does Death Note justice. It would be momentous if they did. However, the skepticism is fair, especially since Hollywood is slow on the uptake when it comes to what they should and shouldn’t do. With so many stories to tell, IP-driven or original, perhaps anime is a bridge too far. Maybe anime should exist in its original form, an immutable, admirable object free from the whims of balance sheets.
Or, we can bury yet another anime adaptation in the graveyard and learn nothing from the carnage.