A brief history of Hollywood trying — and mostly failing — to adapt anime

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A weird truth: Even in the midst of the current comic book gold-rush, major studios can’t seem to get a good anime or manga adaptation off the ground—although the influence of those works can be seen everywhere. This weekend’s Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic that’s heavily (perhaps even problematically) inspired by anime and manga. As tangentially connected to the art form as Big Hero 6 is, could it be the harbinger of a sea change in Hollywood’s approach to manga and anime?

Tackling this question can be kind of tricky—after all, “anime” and “manga” are styles rather than the names of genres. While works that fall under those umbrella share a general visual language and similar approaches to storytelling, anime and manga tell all sorts of stories—slice of life, romance, mystery, supernatural thriller, action.

One of the reasons it took so long for American filmmakers to even begin considering adapting manga or anime is because of how long it took for the source material to even become popular stateside. The first anime to find success here weren’t the action-heavy, mind-bending sort that would become prominent in the boom years of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but much lighter fare like Speed Racer and Astro Boy in the ’60s and ’70s. But even during those boom years, anime adaptations usually didn’t fare well. For example:

The GuyverOne of the first notable anime adaptations to be made in the US, this 1991 film starred Mark Hamil and was based off the 1985 manga Bio Booster Armor Guyver, by Yoshiki Takaya. Both the film and manga centered on a young man who discovers The Guyver Unit, an alien device that spawns a sort of biological super-suit that an unwitting young man bonds with in order to fight an evil megacorporation (and also alien monsters). The film was panned both for being B-movie cheese and also for straying from the source material’s far darker, more violent story.

A direct-to-video sequel, Guyver: Dark Hero would stay closer to the manga’s more violent roots, but the rubber-suited aliens still left a lot to be desired when compared to the manga’s anime adaptation.

Street Fighter: While not technically based on an anime or manga, Capcom’s legendary fighting game would go on to inspire plenty of adaptations—including the notorious 1994 Jean Claude Van Damme film. There are many reasons why this did not go well, but at least people saw it—unlike the 2009 reboot, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, which you’re probably remembering for the first time right now.

Fist of the North Star: Another hyper-violent action anime received an unfaithful adaptation that doubled as a really bad movie. Here’s clip from that movie. It is very bad. Unless it’s after 2 A.M., and you’re looking for this sort of thing. Then I suppose it’s great.

The MatrixWhile, again, not technically based on an anime or manga, The Matrix represents a watershed moment in how Hollywood looked at anime. According to producer Joel Silver, the Wachowskis pitched him the film by showing him an anime film (according to Wikipedia, it was Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell), saying “We want to do that for real.” The 1999 film, with its mix of philosophical science fiction and stunning action scenes, is the closest a major Hollywood release had ever gotten to faithfully depicting the medium of anime. Incidentally, while a large number of anime adaptations would enter development in the intervening years, none would make it to the big screen until the Wachowskis’ next directorial effort, five years after 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions.

The debt that the film franchise owed to anime would be acknowledged in the direct-to-video release The Animatrix, an anime anthology of short stories set in the film’s world.

Stronger: Kanye West’s music video for his hit 2007 single heavily references Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark 1980s anime film/manga series Akira. Let’s talk a little bit about Akira. Both the manga and the film adaptation are pinnacles of their respective mediums, cyberpunk masterworks that use their dystopian futures to explore deep philosophical and societal quandaries. Critically acclaimed in the U.S., Akira is largely responsible for popularizing anime and manga stateside. A Hollywood film adaptation has been in development hell since at least 2002—the last update came in February of 2014—but don’t hold your breath for it. It’s quite likely that Kanye’s music video is the closest we’ll get to an American adaptation—and maybe that’s a good thing.

Speed Racer: While it was poorly received at the time, the Wachowski’s Speed Racer succeeds by being exactly what it set out to be—a bright, colorful adventure for kids. Which, in turn, makes it exactly like its source material. Unfortunately, the film’s poor critical reception and box office performance very likely served to further stigmatize anime adaptations to big studios.

Dragon Ball: Evolution: Akira Toriyama’s seminal manga Dragon Ball and the anime it inspired, was, along with Sailor Moon, an entire generation’s introduction to the medium. As such, the series is pretty sacrosanct in the eyes of fans—and even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, it retained a certain heart and charm that never really gets old. The film that came out in 2009 had none of these things.

Pacific Rim: Like The Matrix, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 blockbuster isn’t an adaptation of any particular manga or anime. Instead, it’s a Western take on giant mecha-action epics like Gundam. While it’s a pretty straightforward bit of sci-fi action, it is very, very good at what it does—and perhaps clears the way for the genre’s stranger, more complex fare like Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Oldboy: Spike Lee’s 2013 revenge thriller is an unfortunate case of Hollywood’s inability to leave well enough alone. Originally a 1996 manga by Goron Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, the story already received an acclaimed film adaptation in 2003 by South Korean director Park Chan-wook—one that’s far preferable to the American version. Which is a shame, because the U.S. cast is pretty stellar.

Edge of Tomorrow: Although it received really good reviews, Edge of Tomorrow didn’t perform so well in the box office. Perhaps if it kept the name of the manga it was based on — Hiroshi Sakurazaka and Yoshitoshi Abe’s All You Need Is Kill—it would’ve been more more memorable to those watching the trailers. But as the latest Hollywood effort in manga/anime adaptation, it’s quite the hopeful note to end on.

[UPDATE — As some readers have pointed out, All You Need Is Kill was originally a novel. The manga adaptation, by Ryusuke Takeuchi and Takeshi Obata, came out roughly at the same time as the film.]

While this list is pretty spare, it doesn’t include the wealth of optioned material languishing in development hell or shelved for any number of years. James Cameron’sBattle Angel Alita is a great example—the director has the rights to make a movie, but won’t even start thinking about that until he’s done with the next ten Avatar films.

But if you’re not too jaded by the number of non-starters, it’s quite possible that we’re now on the cusp of a new wave of quality Hollywood films based on anime and manga. With the previously-noted critical success of Edge of Tomorrow and reports of Scarlett Johanssen signing up for the lead role in Ghost in the Shell, it looks like Hollywood is finally ready to start looking at comic books that weren’t made in America for inspiration. If they do, then movie theaters will doubtless become a stranger—and more interesting—place.

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Which live-action anime adaptations are the worst? Japanese fans weigh in…

Otaku USA Magazine:

While the top spot for this one is kind of a no-brainer, fans in Japan have taken to the MyNavi Student website to vote on which live-action anime adaptations were the biggest failures. Out of 599 people, the majority of the votes went to Dragonball Evolution, and you can see what else made the pile of shame in the list below.

Folks who helped the much-maligned Dragonball Evolution reach the top spot blamed its failure on the following: “There were almost no elements from the original story,” “The characters and story were a mess,” and “The leaping Kamehameha.”

Or maybe it was this…

The full list:

  1. Dragonball Evolution
  2. Gatchaman 
  3. Devilman
  4. NANA 
  5. Fist of the North Star 
  6. Sazae-san
  7. Kochira Katsushika-ku Kamearikouen-mae Hashutsujo
  8. Casshern 
  9. Rookies 
  10. Yatterman 
  11. Space Battleship Yamato 
  12. Black Butler 

Check out this link:

Which live-action anime adaptations are the worst?

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Famous celebrities you forgot did Anime voiceovers

There are plenty of notable anime properties that are packed to the gills with A-list actors. Many of Disney‘s Studio Ghibli releases are a fine example of this, using household names like Patrick Stewart and Claire Danes as a means to draw audiences to the theaters who normally otherwise wouldn’t have given the property a second glance. Amongst them, Princess Mononoke (Billy CrudupClaire DanesMinnie DriverBilly Bob ThorntonGillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith), Castle in the Sky (Anna PaquinJames Van Der BeekMandy PatinkinCloris Leachman, Andy Dick), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Alison LohmanShia LaBeouf, Uma ThurmanPatrick Stewart), and Kiki’s Delivery Service (Kirsten DunstPhil HartmanJaneane Garofalo) are some of the most star-studded.

But there are a lot more mainstream celebrities whom you might not have realized—or just plain forgotten— also starred in anime properties.

Do you remember the 1995 cyberpunk quadrilogy Armitage III? Back in ’97, all four OVAs were compiled into one release (called Armitage III: Poly-Matrix) by now-defunct Geneon, who was then called Pioneer. Fans may have forgotten this over the years, but it turns out that Armitage III: Poly-Matrix was full of celebs, including Keifer SutherlandElizabeth Berkley, and Bryan Cranston.

Before Keifer Sutherland blew up as Jack Bauer in 2001 on 24 (but after the incredible 1990 Flatliners, a movie about med students who experiment with visiting the afterlife that also starred Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and William Baldwin), he played Ross Sylibus in Armitage III: Poly-Matrix.

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Co-starring with him was Elizabeth Berkley (Saved by the BellShowgirls), who played Naomi Armitage.

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Naomi Armitage has also been played by Juliette Lewis (Natural Born KillersWhat’s Eating Gilbert Grape), who played the character in Armitage III: Dual Matrix.

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And of course, the one that fans love to pull out the most to blow everyone’s minds is Bryan Cranston who is beloved for his roles in shows like Malcolm in the Middle and most recently, Breaking Bad. He has his fair share of anime credits, though, including Matti Tohn in Wings of Honneamise, Eddie Borrows in Armitage III, and most famously, Isamu Dyson in Macross Plus.

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Meanwhile, action fans might be surprised to learn that the 1986 Fist of the North Star movie showcased none other than James Avery, whom many might recognize as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Or, as Shredder in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

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But wait, there’s more.

Although these examples dip back into the Disney x Studio Ghibli pot, some of these actors and actresses hadn’t yet skyrocketed to fame when these films were released, while other roles just deserve a reminder.

For instance, only a short while after she first played Princess Mia Thermopolis in the 2001 The Princess DiariesAnne Hathaway got to play another princess—this time, Haru, the bride-to-be for the Cat Prince in 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns. Although she only had a couple roles under her belt at the time, she starred alongside a varied cast of noted film actors, amongst them Tim Curry [Rocky Horror Picture Show] (who played the Cat King), Elliot Gould [Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen] (Toto), and Cary Elwes [The Princess Bride] (Baron Humbert von Gikkingen).

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Also on the cast list for The Cat Returns was Kristen Bell, who was still two years away from her breakout role as Veronica Mars. She plays Hiromi in The Cat Returns. She’s no stranger to voice acting, though; she’s also voiced a few video games, including Astro Boy: The Video Game and a handful of Assassin’s Creed games.

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Spirited Away
 had some famous names as well, including Big Love and The Ring actress Daveigh Chase as Chihiro, and Bob Newhart Show co-star Suzanne Pleshette, but fans of Fantastic Four and The Shield might not realize that Michael Chiklis was also in the film, as Chichiro’s dad Akiichiro.

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With Michael Keaton‘s long and storied career, one might forget that he also played title character Porco Rosso in Studio Ghibli‘s film of the same name. Cary Elwes was also in that film, as Donald Curtis.

mkIGPXImmortal Grand Prix is less so “actors you forgot were in the series” as it might be, “series you forgot existed.” A co-production between Production I.G and Cartoon Network, it tried to get audiences to tune in by casting talents like Michelle Rodriguez [AvatarThe Fast and the Furious] and everyone’s favorite ex-child actor, Haley Joel Osment [The Sixth SenseA.I.] (who of course is famous for also playing Sora in Kingdom Hearts, alongside a slew of celebs like Hayden Panettiere, Billy Zane, Mandy Moore, and Lance Bass, amongst others).

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The IGPX dub also included Star Wars hero Mark Hamill as Yamma, who in addition to lending his voice to a billion American-animated series and video games, was also in Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles as Commander Taylor, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as Mayor of Pejite, Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic as Alghiero, Castle in the Sky as Muska, and Afro Samurai: Resurrection.

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Speaking of Afro Samurai, lest anyone forget, that title also made quite the effort to stuff its cast with A-listers, including Samuel L. Jackson as Afro and Ninja Ninja, Ron Perlman as Justice, Kelly Hu as Okiku, and producer RZA as DJ (and music composer). They reprised their roles for the sequel, Afro Samurai: Resurrection, which also added Lucy Liu to the cast as Sio. Jackson has since aligned himself with several live-action anime adaptations, including Kite and the probably-dead-forever Afro Samurai.

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Famous celebrities you forgot did Anime voiceovers