The hard truth about live-action anime adaptations

American live-action adaptations of anime are almost always bad. From 20th Century Fox’s Dragonball Evolution to Netflix’s Death Note, few films can claim otherwise. No matter how high the budget or how well-known the cast is, these films continue to perform poorly with anime fans. 

But why?

For starters, people don’t like when drastic changes are made to their favorite stories. Take Dragonball Evolution, for example. They turned Goku into a high schooler played by Justin Chatwin (a man who doesn’t have much of a career left).

Some adaptations suffer from the opposite problem, like when DreamWorks Pictures made Ghost in the Shell. Despite the film being more faithful to its source material, it was criticized for focusing so much on flashy special effects that it forgot to include any heart and soul. In other words, the script was bad, and the acting was terrible.

Both movies also attracted heavy criticisms for casting white actors instead of Japanese actors in the leading roles. This would make sense to me if they were playing Japanese people, but they aren’t. Dragon Ball takes place in a fictional world, and Goku is an alien. Ghost in the Shell takes place in Japan, but Mokoto Kusanagi is arguably not human.

Netflix’s Death Note justified their casting non-Japanese actors by setting their version in Seattle instead of Toyko, and they still managed to fuck things up. I mean, who in their right mind would look at Light Yagami and go, “Yes, that kid from the Naked Brothers Band is perfect!”? Ryuk was still cool, though.

Small changes made for the good of the film are generally more widely accepted. The Wachowski’s Speed Racer and James Cameron’s Battle Angel: Alita, for example, are two very popular adaptations. It also helps that the directors of both films are fans of the source material.

This brings us to the Netflix adaptation of Cowboy Bebop. There have been whispers of a live-action Cowboy Bebop since it debuted on Adult Swim in 2001. For years, it was rumored that Keanu Reeves would play Spike Spiegel in a feature film version. That story changed over time, claiming that Reeves purchased the film rights to prevent it from being made in the first place. Cowboy Bebop writer Dai Sato joked at the 2012 Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits conference in Minneapolis that Joss Whedon already made a live-action Cowboy Bebop when he created Firefly.

Now that it’s finally happening, it’s more controversial than ever.

The first thing that irked fans was the news of Faye Valentine’s over-the-top costume being altered. The most recent thing to upset people was the announcement that the gender of Gren, played by Mason Alexander Park, would be changed to non-binary. In the anime, Gren is a man with gynecomastia (enlarged male breast tissue) from being forced to take drugs in prison. Park took to Twitter to express their frustration with the backlash, but the tweets have since been deleted.

It’s not just anime adaptations that stir the pot of controversy. Percy Jackson was criticized for not casting child actors. Eragon and Artemis Fowl drew ire from fans for being drastically different from the books. Not to mention (motions hand towards…), Game of Thrones.

Here’s the hard truth that people need to understand — live-action adaptations will never be perfect replications of their source material. It’s just too difficult; the mediums are too different. It can take days to read a book. Most movies are only a few hours long. 

It gets even more complicated with long-running comics. When you’re challenged with making sense of multiple timelines and character reboots, it’s often easier to make something new.

That’s why movies like Speed Racer work. The Wachowski’s didn’t try to adapt 50+ episodes of anime into a 2-hour film; they told an original story that had the soul and spirit of its source material.

Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to compartmentalize our feelings when something we love is altered. People tend to prefer whatever they were exposed to first regarding a creative piece of work. I tried my best when I watched the Netflix Death Note, and I still wound up hating it because I couldn’t help but compare it to the manga.

That’s a big reason why adaptations get so much negative feedback. If you change too much, the hardcore fans will get upset. If you don’t change enough, the film won’t work. It’s a delicate balance that most adaptations struggle to achieve.

While I’m not awaiting Cowboy Bebop with bated breath, it’s important to understand that it will not be exactly like the anime. Some changes might work out in the long run; some of them may not.

And that’s okay.

At the very least, I’m confident that we will never have another disaster on the level of Dragonball Evolution. That movie pissed off Akira Toriyama so much that he made Dragonball: Super. Although, now that I think about it, maybe they should do that with Ouran High School Host Club — make a film so terrible it manifests another season of the anime. And if they make something good, we still win. There are literally no downsides here.

With live-action anime adaptations, it’s always better to maintain realistic expectations. If you don’t get your hopes up too high, you’ll be less disappointed later on. You’re also more likely to have something exceed your expectations this way, which is quite pleasant. 

I know we like to bitch about movies and TV shows but at the end of the day, if you don’t like something, maybe you should stop watching it. 

Unless it’s Dragonball Evolution. We should all hate-watch and mock that shitshow forever.

Side note: While writing this, Netflix announced a live-action adaptation of Yu Yu Hakusho, a show about a boy who becomes a spirit detective and beats the shit out of supernatural entities (or something). We’ll see how that works out. I’m going to assume it won’t. However, I did see someone suggest they cast Timothee Chalamet as Yusuke. I don’t know why, but I’d be okay with that.

Luna Hollenbeck
Luna Hollenbeck
Luna Hollenbeck is a woman of many takes, most of which are weird. If you manage to get any words in with her, you'd probably get a 12 hour discussion on the topic of Dokkoida!?. Outside of that, she's smart and kind but more blunt than a magical, talking bullheaded roll of weed.

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