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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Nine celebrities who you probably didn’t know voiced anime…

9) Jonathan Winters

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It was only recently that this supremely gifted and absolutely mercurial improv comedian passed away. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you know him as the voice of Papa Smurf in that lousy Neil Patrick Harris movie from a couple of years ago. Go back a bit farther, and you’ll recall major roles in TV fare like Davis Rules and Mork and Mindy.

Jonathan Winters was also always a prolific voice actor; he had recurring roles in a number of network cartoons. Amusingly, while kids know him only as Papa Smurf, he was Grandpa Smurf in the ’80s ABC cartoon. But let’s go back, way way back, to the year 1961, a producer named Roger Corman, a studio called American International Pictures, and a film named Alakazam the GreatAlakazam, nee Saiyuki, is an early version of the famous “monkey king” saga that everything from Spaceketeers to Dragonball Z is based on; it was one of the first anime productions dubbed into English, and for its time, it had something of a star-studded cast – along with Winters, fellow comic Arnold Stang (who’d soon become the voice of Hanna Barbera’s famous Topcat) headlined, with songs provided by chart-toppers Frankie Avalon and Dodie Stevens. Interestingly, an entirely uncredited Peter Fernandez (the once and future voice of Speed Racer) played the speaking role of Alakazam – according to him, Winters, true to form, ad-libbed pretty much all of his dialogue as the gluttonous, shape-shifting pig, Quigley. My favorite bit? When the character, slavering over a plate of food, pauses – and Winters’ voice remarks, with a touch of reproach, “I never touch pork! You understand.”

8) Peter Ustinov

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Most of you know Peter Ustinov‘s work. But I’m betting that a large portion know him best from his turn as Prince John in the Disney furry animal Robin Hood flick. Now granted, he was awesome in that crummy movie; easily the best part about it. But man, that’s just scratching the surface of how illustrious this guy was. Not only was he a gifted actor, who won not one but two Academy Awards for best supporting actor (in 1961’s Spartacus and 1965’s Topkapi), but he was also a writer, playwright, stage designer, filmmaker, columnist and goddamn diplomat.

But how did the great Peter Ustinov’s career intersect with Japanese animation? Well, Ustinov was a raconteur who was up for just about anything, and so was a businessman from Japan named Shintaro Tsuji. Tsuji’s greeting card company had experienced phenomenal success throughout the 70s thanks to their new mascot, Hello Kitty – yep, I’m talking about the founder and chairman of Sanrio, here – and one of his many successful side ventures was a stint producing animated films. Lots of them were great – fare like Sea Prince and the Fire Child and Unico, movies which look great even today. But Tsuji wanted to make Sanrio’s movies global hits, and he tried to address this by moving the entire animation production team of one particular film, Orpheus of the Stars, to Hollywood.

And so it came to pass that a small team of ace Japanese animators worked together with a small army of Hollywood’s best cartoon talent to create Metamorphoses, a pop/rock retelling of some of Ovid’s stories meant to be something like an answer to Fantasia. But the movie tested poorly, was edited and tweaked, and eventually hit theaters under the title Winds of Change. There’s very little voice work to speak of in the movie, but narration is needed – so it’s provided by one Peter Ustinov. He acquits himself well and is lots of fun to listen to, but his engaging patter is so much better than the actual film, which is pretty but kind of incoherent, that it just gets distracting. Ustinov also provided his voice for Sanrio’s film The Mouse and His Child, but that movie was actually produced and directed entirely by westerners, so it ain’t exactly anime.

7) Lorne Greene

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He’s been gone now for quite a while, but for fourteen seasons back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Lorne Greene was a household name thanks to his role as Ben Cartwright in the beloved western TV series Bonanza. He’d previously been a newsreader, but the role of Ben cemented him as one of the great TV dads, right up there with Bill Cosby and Dick van Patten.

It was probably that magnificent voice that landed Greene the title role in The Wizard of Oz, a 1982 theatrical film from Toho that was shown to American audiences first on cable TV, and then on video. It’s actually a decent little movie, a bit more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s original story than the famed Judy Garland film, despite the surprisingly blonde Dorothy. Greene, as the Wizard himself, sounds weirdly confident and paternal given the character’s background as an easily spooked con man, but it’s still interesting to hear him. Two other bits of trivia: Dorothy is played by Aileen Quinn, the stage and screen actress most well-known for playing Annie in the 1982 movie musical, and you shouldn’t confuse this Wizard of Oz anime movie with the Wizard of Oz anime TV series, which was narrated by Margot “O.G. Lois Lane” Kidder and ran on HBO.

6) Adrienne Barbeau

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At the peak of her career, Adrienne Barbeau was the “it” girl who parlayed a supporting role in the sitcom Maude into headlining gigs in a broad range of TV movies, horror flicks, and genre cinema. I particularly like her roles in The Fog and Escape from New York. But there are two interesting things about Barbeau – first of all, while her career has had peaks and valleys, she’s still actually quite busy and popular. She played Ruthie in the well-regarded HBO series Carnivale, and only recently wrapped a two-season stint on soap opera mainstay General Hospital. Secondly, Barbeau is a bit like Mark Hamill – she’s long had an interest in voice-acting, and like Hamill, performed especially well in the ’90s Batman cartoon (she was Catwoman in that one).

But where does her career intersect with anime? In 1987, the famous Hanna-Barbera animation studio teamed up with Tsubaraya Productions, the guys who brought the world the live-action Japanese SF classic Ultraman, in order to create an Ultraman that could be marketed all around the world. The resulting 90-minute film features not one but THREE Ultramen, a team of crack pilots who can all turn into towering, silver and red, bug-eyed defenders of justice when the situation calls for it. Adrienne Barbeau provides the voice of Beth O’Brien, the one lady Ultraman. But Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (simply known as Ultraman USA in Japan) never made it past the pilot phase.

5) Jean Reno

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These days, Studio Ghibli dubs are always star-studded affairs. Starting with Princess Mononoke, the films of Miyazaki, Takahata, and their compatriots have boasted the likes of Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and of course, The Shield‘s Michael Chiklis. But Ghibli was a worldwide brand for years before they broke big stateside, and other countries sometimes made the leap of using celebrity voice talent to fill the roster. In France, for example, the titular Porco Rosso, ex-WWI ace Marco Pagot, is played by none other than Jean Reno.

Jean Reno is something of a celebrity treasure in Japan, where he’s recently appeared in a series of goddamn amazing commercials where he sulks and wears a Doraemon costume. The incomparable Shinichiro Moriyama voices Marco in the original, and while Michael Keaton does a good job in the U.S. dub, there’s something charmingly rough and naturalistic about Reno’s French performance.

4) David Hayter

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David Hayter is an A-list Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor; not only did he handle screenwriting duties for the first two X-Men movies, he’s also lent his talent to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film and that weird Mummy spinoff, Scorpion King. He’s got a suspense thriller called Caught Stealing in the works, and has also been showing off his own writer/director project, Wolves, which is finished but not quite ready for prime time.

But even before he blew up as a scribe, David Hayter was his own kind of weird nerd celebrity, shooting to notoriety as the voice of Solid Snake in Konami‘s many Metal Gear Solid games. The character is iconic, and his performance has been reliably excellent throughout the series. Before that, he was an anime voice actor. His most notable roles were probably as lovable thief Lupin the 3rd in the Manga Entertainment dub of Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro (a previous dubbed version employed Bob Bergen, the usual voice of Porky Pig these days, as the character. How about that?) and as bishonen heartthrob Tamahome in Fushigi Yuugi. Nowadays, Hayter sometimes exercises considerable influence over movies with eight and nine-figure budgets, but he used to play the dopey kid in Moldiver.

3) Kiefer Sutherland

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In 1997, Kiefer Sutherland‘s star was kinda-sorta on the wane. His last big hit, Disney’s Three Musketeers, was a crowded affair, and since then he’d motored along in fair-to-middling flicks like The Cowboy Way and Eye for an Eye. I guess this made it relatively easy for Pioneer LDC, the guys who were publishing hits like Tenchi Muyo! at the time, to sign him up as one of the leads for Armitage III: Poly-Matrix, a high-shine redux of one of their direct-to-video properties. With Sutherland played against the somewhat infamous Elizabeth Berkley (she of Saved by the Bell and Showgirls) as the title character, his billing gave the Armitage III film some surprising and welcome star power. Hollywood actors in Japanese animation are rare in any case, but it was particularly rare in ’97.

Sutherland would permanently establish himself as a household name with 24, but it’s neat to experience this role from just a few years prior.

2) Bryan Cranston

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Before Malcolm in the Middle and way before his Emmy-winning turn as Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston used to do anime voices. He’d often use the pseudonym “Lee Stone,” and for the most part, he did walla and small, one-episode roles. He did some voice work for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which he mentioned on a Reddit AMA a while back. But he did have a few significant roles dubbing anime into English – he was Matti, one of the slacker would-be astronauts in GANAX’s classic Royal Space Force. He was Condor Joe in Eagle Riders, Saban‘s unsuccessful attempt to turn Gatchaman II into something worth watching. And best of all, he was Isamu Dyson, protagonist of Macross Plus, certainly one of the best anime shows of the 1990s and arguably one of the best ever.

Years and years later, he’s a huge Hollywood star – and he’s still pretty good at voice-acting, as the Batman: Year One OVA demonstrates.

1) Orson Welles

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 Orson Welles is, to this day, one of the greatest screen actors of all time, as well as a gifted auteur director who brought us the singular classic Citizen Kane, and numerous other great films like The Magnificent AmbersonsA Touch of Evil and The Stranger.

But Welles did some voice-acting. He voiced the trailers for the original Star Trek movie. He played the narrator and the evil snake Nag in Chuck Jones’ TV special of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki Tavi. You’re probably kind of expecting me to talk a lot about his turn as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, one of his last roles, but that was actually developed in the US – only the animation gruntwork and some of the designs were outsourced to Japan. The scripts, storyboards, and other stuff were drawn up here. However, Welles did star in a single anime feature film – a 1981 movie called The Adventures of Glicko. It was dubbed into English under the title The Enchanted Journey. In this children’s tale of a curious city chipmunk going back to nature, Welles played the role of Pippo the pigeon.

Welles took every job in stride, and Enchanted Journey was no exception.  Shortly after production of this movie wrapped, Welles died of a heart attack.

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Nine celebrities who you probably didn’t know voiced anime…