The Problem of Translating Anime to Western Film

There seems to a trend starting, a trend of creating western live action films that are based on a popular anime series. So far, this trend hasn’t started well and all the signs suggest this is likely to continue.

2017 has already seen 2 popular anime series released as western films. Ghost in the Shell was the first release earlier this year and has now been followed by Netflix’s Death Note. Both are originally anime series that I watched and rated very highly. When I found out about the Netflix Death Note film I was extremely excited about seeing it come to Netflix and by following a lot of marketing material, my excitement only grew. This might have been my first mistake.

Netflix has a great track record with their TV shows at the moment, with series like Stranger Things and Orange is the new black, I thought they could be on with a real winner with this new feature film. When I heard about Willem Dafoe playing the part of the demon Ryuk and I was sure of Death Notes impending success.

The same could be said about the Ghost in the Shell movie. I was particularly happy with the casting of Scarlett Johansson, but I went with it. The trailer showed some great visuals and I prayed for a great movie. In hindsight, it appears I was somewhat foolish on both accounts.

It fills me with great sadness to say that so far, Western live action films based on anime’s are flopping. Death Note is the latest nail in the coffin and after watching this adaptation I couldn’t help but feel overly disappointed. I blame myself for not remembering the sour taste left in my mouth by the Ghost in the Shelf movie earlier this year, but all the signs with Death Note seemed to show something a little different.

The problem is that anime’s are so wildly different from any sort of western movie and translating them to film somehow means they lose all their substance. I’m a great believer in that if you are a director adapting something that already exists you don’t just want to straight copy and paste the original. If you’re a creative and passionate about your medium you want your own ideas and your own spin to be present, and I get that.

My issue with the adaptations I have seen is that so much of what made the original anime great has been lost somewhere in translation. The character arcs in the two aforementioned anime’s are a major part of what made them special and enjoyable. Yes, these anime’s aren’t without their flaws but the movie adaptations seemed to throw away the characters in favour of trying to look good. That’s a positive I can take away from these recent movies, despite the major issues I have with them, they both look great and appear on screen as I expected.

Ghost in the Shell, in particular, looked fantastic and the digital effects team who worked on that can be very proud of what they made. Almost everyone I spoke to about the film could not fault this aspect. But for all its looks and beauty, Ghost in the Shell had no substance. Its characters were not likable or relatable, its villain was flat and didn’t feel like the threat it should have, it was choppy and the pacing was really off at times and one of its biggest faults to me was the iconic ending scene. It was so substandard when comparing to the anime, it was almost not worth doing.

Death Note suffered in other ways. By choosing to almost completely ignore the protagonists’ arch from the anime in favour of some watered down arch they immediately alienated returning fans of the anime, of which I suspect the majority of the audience was. Light was so unlikeable, L was just awful and the rest of the supporting cast didn’t add much either. The demo Ryuk felt so different to the one shown in the anime, but this is something I didn’t mind. I thought Willem Dafoe did a great job and his voice was perfect for the role.

Anime are complex stories at times and are not always as easy to follow as western films or TV series and I think this is where Hollywood is losing the battle. They don’t seem to trust its audience to understand what’s going on and follow the plot. There’s too much hand holding throughout and sudden plot tweaks that diverge from a true story about human emotions in favour of looking nice. When you do this you lose so much substance and life and this is what’s happening.

This trend won’t be over just yet either as it looks like there are more anime adaptations on the way. One of my favourite series Sword Art Online set for a live action film. Sources have suggested that Laeta Kalogridis, who worked on Terminator Genisys, is penned in to write the script. I’m not normally a pessimistic person, but I can’t help but feel this is a case of fooling me twice shame on you, fool me three times shame on me.

What this genre need is for someone to come in with fresh ideas, taking the best parts of what made the anime’s special – the characters. That seems so obvious when you say it like that, but it’s yet to happen. Anime adaptations feel like they’re slowly falling into the same place as video game adaptations are and this is something us fans don’t want to see.

There is no short supply of good anime series that can be good live action movies for the western market. It’s just a matter of trusting your audience to follow a plot more complicated than the typical Hollywood flick. Trust your audience and the rewards will follow.

Constantly threatening to write a book, but always with a story to tell. Tom has a typical northern English soul. He may sound as mundane as Jon Snow, but at least he tries to articulate. Lover of video games, comics, geek pop culture and wishing he could play Dungeons & Dragons.