If the Netflix adaptation of Cowboy Bebop was a lesson, it was well taken by everyone except Netflix. Feature film One Piece, Yu Yu HakushoEven Death note crowded the red streamer’s 2023 slate, like a convoy ascending the ramp towards a massive pileup.
This is the fulfillment of an earlier false start, the original pursuit of anime during the boom period of the 1990s. Keanu Reeves was set to Spike Spiegel, Leonardo DiCaprio was going to be Kaneda. Nicolas Cage, presumably, was a Gundam. Few of these projects ever materialized, and the reasons seem obvious: anime is so specific, so crazy, perhaps incompatible with American cinematic language. And yet, Netflix isn’t alone in trying. So instead of going down that highway of broken dreams and “welcome to ouch” the producers can consider these more compatible titles.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
For longtime fans and those who caught on Evangelion when it came to Netflix in 2019, this is a serious proposal; mental pain doesn’t just disappear because it’s spread around. While this anime icon is full of stunning, budget-friendly visuals, it’s also based on realistic character designs and an obsessive focus on military hardware. In fact, this seemingly super robot series takes fewer cues from the animated one Gundam or Mazinger Z than do live-action properties such as Ultraman and Gerry Anderson show. A photorealistic interpretation would just be closing a bow, and the proof of concept exists in fantastic form.
However, that still leaves the challenge of the story, which morphs into a psychodrama with a child protagonist whose inability to act has been driving viewers crazy for decades. Evangelion may draw on too many foreign traditions for a mainstream American audience, but as with Octopus game (even an amalgamation of Battle royale and countless manga), there are universal themes and a beating heart that drive the story. Underneath all the robots eating giant alien hearts, Evangelion is truly an intimate conversation between creator and audience.
imagine Game of Thrones but if Khal Drogo was the main character and the only thing bigger than him and his muscles was his sword. Like the HBO blockbuster, Berserk takes place in a medieval Europe where palace politics ignore an apocalyptic demonic threat. It centers on a one-eyed mercenary named Guts, who seeks not to stop the demons and save the world, but rather to cut a really bad man in half. In addition to the oversized sword, Guts carries around an epic revenge, whose inciting incident has spawned hours of tearful, limp reaction videos on YouTube. It’s like the Red Wedding times a thousand. When it’s over, and the story begins properly, the title “Berserk“makes a lot of sense. It creeps into your legs and just sits there beaming forever.
Berserk is one of the few properties that would actually work better in live-action than in animation, as anime studios have struggled to translate the hyper-detailed artwork from the late, great Kentaro Miura. In 1997, the creators left Pokémon cartoon brought bloody Berserk to screen for the first time, and create a memorable adaptation where the strength of the source material outweighed any production flaws. In 2016, Berserk returned with computer-generated 2D animation, drawing more blood from viewers’ eyes than Guts did with his sword. The workload was presumably lighter, but the results were widely criticized. Recreating the ultra-violent saga with actors and a physical setting would solve the problem, making for an outstanding show even in a crowded genre.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Medieval Europe would certainly be right at home on Netflix, but give the streamer some credit for funding Eastern-style fantasy, which Sneaking Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel (maybe not too much credit). IN Moribito, the kingdom’s prince is infected by a mysterious demon, so the king plans his assassination. Secretly, the queen hopes to bring the young boy to safety, and there is no one better for the job than the spear fighter Balsa, who has vowed never to take another life. Seeking repentance for a violent past, Balsa shepherds the prince beyond the palace walls into the vast world of a fictionalized medieval Japan.
Moribito may be too out there, but it our aired on Adult Swim in the late 2000s, and also happens to be a masterpiece. Its themes of redemption and parenthood should ring familiar to fans of The Mandalorian and The last of usbut Moribito is about a mother and son (sorry, Pedro, you can’t play Balsa), and she has her own family problems that place the relationship within a larger study of society and heritage. Perhaps the people of this country have lost their traditions, or perhaps they have convinced themselves of misinterpretation.
Sensitive and often tearful, Moribito is attuned to the human heart, and boasts a full-time action heroine with a handful of fantastic fight scenes; who knew a spear duel would be the coolest thing in the world? While a Japanese live-action Moribito premiering in 2016, the story could use the pace of a streamer’s eight or ten episodes. No fluff from the middle of the anime, and enough time to set up these plot developments both devastating and uplifting.
Ghost in the shell
This one has already been done – or has it? Maybe it was just an implanted memory. The 2017 American adaptation of the Ghost in the shell was basically a teaser trailer for Blade Runner 2049and if anything, it proved that the source material doesn’t need to be broken into shape. Ghost in the shell is a clever post-cyberpunk police procedural featuring the anime’s other action heroine, The Major, set in a world where cyborg bodies are so common that even brains can be hacked into. The Scarlett Johansson the film tried to play with backstories and really obvious themes, and took a hammer to what required cyber-surgery.
The plan for a proper Ghost in the shell series on American television was canceled in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, way back in 2002. This anime balanced “standalone” episodes with longer, more “complex” plots, a structure that marries the comfort of network juggernauts at CBS with the challenge of prestige television. Of course this would be it Law and order where there is sometimes a spider tank, but genre television has evolved to the point where a basic text like Ghost in the shell may actually feel familiar. “Is this a rip-off of The matrix?”
As with Evangelion, Black Lagoon takes a number of cues from existing live-action media, but instead of tokusatsu, it’s Hong Kong and American action films. Everything from A better morning to The stone was thrown into the anime blender for this one, all with an all-timer action here – wait a minute. Well, true enough, the anime industry is built on marketable female characters, and sometimes those characters are super tough too. So let’s see: Dragonball, Death note, Fist of the North Star, Speed Racer, Cowboy Bebop – I think it’s the ladies’ turn (although Battle Angel was fantastic).
The star to Black Lagoon, Revy, is a Chinese-American mercenary covered in tattoos and just seething with anger, but in truth she shares the spotlight with mild-mannered Rock, a Japanese mercenary caught in a world of assassins and organized crime. Occurs mainly in Southeast Asia, Black Lagoon imagines an intricate criminal underworld where an enemy one day is an ally the next, provided no one takes a kukri to the face. That was essentially it John Wick ethos before John Wickthough its philosophical bent and surprisingly gripping drama better sell the humanity of professional killers.
After Iron manwhose next thought was “Bubblegum crisis?” The visual effects are on point for this rock and roll fable about four women who don robot suits to beat up robots. The original eight-episode anime is well remembered for its soundtrack and for having an infectious sense of fun, and there’s not much more to it than that. No real plot to screw up or complicate, but there are areas to expand on; less a blank canvas than it is a playground. The only problem with Bubblegum crisis is that its debt to other intellectual works may be liable to action, with a city that is only that Blade Runner city, an opening scene lifted out of Streets of Fire, and Terminators for the bad guys. But what’s more rock and roll than copyright law?
Of course, Studio Ghibli is hallowed ground among anime fans, and there has never been serious talk of Americanizing the classics like My neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away. Notorious, the great director Hayao Miyazaki sent Harvey Weinstein a sword as a threat to edit Princess Mononoke for its American release. However, Studio Ghibli has always experimented with forms beyond animation, including live-action television and even stage plays. Ocean wavesconsidered one of the lesser entries in the canon, is nevertheless a heartfelt drama and could benefit from live-action performances. Ocean waves is a slice-of-life romance centered around a love triangle and traces how immature teenagers become adults who can look back and smile. While this sounds perfect for The CW, it has a surprising bite that brings it closer to the FX dramas.
Live-action anime is no longer a matter of if, but when. Is it too much to ask the studios to choose their next victim based on anything but name recognition? Naturally, but at the same time, Hollywood is in a different place than it was during the original anime gold rush. The Weta Workshop concept art for Evangelion put whitewashing on paper with their cast of Ray, Kate Rose and Susan Whitnell. At least they’ve learned their lesson Ghost in the shellwhich must have inspired the cast of Korean John Cho like the Bruce Lee-inspired Spike above anyone who has played Bruce Lee recently (Andrew Koji was there!). An “elsewhere” might not be the best place, but the next batch of adaptations will also provide lessons in this endless, heroine-deficient spiral.