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Idiot Savant Japan: Lost in Live-Action Translation

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Idiot Savant Japan: Lost in Live-Action Translation

Akira, Robotech, Dragonball, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Fist of the North Star and Speed Racer. All these titles are notable anime that range from the mainstream to the art house and serve as an introduction for most American audiences to the world of big eyes, speed lines, and Little Boy theory. But more importantly, these are the chosen few animated features unlucky enough to be plucked from 2D and uncomfortably forced into a 3D, live-action mold that not only looks garish, but ruins its source material.

Sometimes anime adaptations can survive the translationDeath Note and its sequel, Death Note: The Last Name were two of the highest grossing films in Japan for 2007 despite a vast difference between their endings and the source anime/manga. Other times, you have utter failure: 1995’s straight-to-video Fist of the North Star, which managed to cast every character with a Japanese name as European, every European as Asian, and to embody Hokuto master Kenshiro? Gary Daniels.

Speed Racer, which will close The Worst Local New York Film Festival on May 4th during a private screening, is expected to be one of the first major summer blockbusters. Perhaps the definition of 1967 kitsch classic, the story involves the impeccably named Speed Racer (or G? Mifune in the original, whose name was further played on in the title Mach GOGOGO) as he hopes to become the world’s greatest racer, manning the Mach 5 and dealing with obstacles ranging from girlfriend Trixie in peril, his younger brother and pet monkey stowing away in the trunk, or his trademark “OH!” exclamation before a cliffhanger ending.

The Wachowski Brothers have taken the limited animation style and—through John Gaeta and Dan Glass—created “poptimistic photo-anime.” Whereas before an episode of Speed Racer looked like someone was handling a five-cent flip book in front of a camera, everything is now in such crystal clear frenetic focus that even a single still image looks like it is in constant motion. While there is referencing by Gaeta and Glass to Miyazaki as an influence—with me highly doubting that Castle of Cagliostro, while entertaining, is more of an influence than later Studio Ghibli work—they call attention to the main problem with translating animation into live-action: realism.

The Mach 5 is a reference to the old Stingrays, the “death race” climax of the film is a reference to the Elvis feature Speedway and some throw-away pop references to David LaChapelle and Warhol. In animated form, we could take everything that Speed Racer had to offer with the inherent concept that it was re-imagining such real world concepts on a much greater level of fantasy.

Despite CGI being such an easy tool for filmmakers now to expand on fictional worlds or let Frank Miller piss on Will Eisner’s grave, animation is a world of its own; the boundaries being pushed constantly for more elaborate simulacra. Japanese Animation, under such a concept, can be another universe. It is a medium that incorporates comic-panel style while working within its main constraint—limited animation abilities. Why not, as Osamu Tezuka originally planned, create a “moving manga”?

Anime’s accessibility comes from a suspension of disbelief, mainly the same reason why most American audiences never expect a live-action adaptation of Bambi or Fantasia: there is no point. Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon is a continuation of themes from Ghost In The Shell, namely user interface and online-vs-offline lifestyles. But it still isn’t Ghost and we aren’t expected to think it is—mainly because, when you think about it, Ghost is unfilmable.

Not to be negative, but there is no way Spielberg will ever agree to direct the “3D” version. He is a director that doesn’t take chances, at least anymore. And why bother to remake a classic in a different medium? This is where the crux of the problem lies.

Akira is a classic—yet it is getting some respect: a two-picture deal from Warner Brothers, a director who may be able to handle the subject matter even though John Brownlee (ex-Wired blogger and current hired gun at SciFi Scanner and BoingBoing Gadgets) admits that the director, Ruairi Robinson, is “meek and soft-spoken.” And already it is being shifted and reformatted. Neo-Tokyo is now Neo New York. Will the film follow the anime’s condensed and reformatted plot line, or—since it is planned as two separate films—follow the manga? How will Robinson and writer Gary Whitta (whose sole credit is Akira’s adaptation) handle the diverse storyline? How will they even film it? Better yet: why bother.

Ruairi Robinson’s Oscar-nominated short film, The Silent City.

Animated translations have an uncanny ability to fail. Whether it be Tobey Maguire’s plans to remake Super Dimension Fortress Macross or Dragonball being pushed back into 2009. On one hand, the argument is that the nerdy “cool kids” club is about to be exposed further to the mainstream, which isn’t even valid.

But put bluntly: this will not translate, at all. Claiming that The Matrix was like live-action anime is false; it was a hyper-stylized action film that frantically stole from anime and then had a plot shoehorned into it by the Wachowskis. The same process happens with Speed Racer, where they understand how to create awesome shots, but ignore how flimsy the plot really is. Hell, even in the original show, the plot was designed to be so simple that a 5-year old could follow it. The appeal for remakes is something I’ve personally been against, even more so when changing mediums. It all ultimately comes off like Roger Corman’s take on The Fantastic Four—but with more cringing and laughing. The worst part is that the studio marketing will likely gloss over how iconoclastic some productions are, based on their laughable storylines and art (Speed Racer and Dragonball) or ignore their historical allegories (Macross’ Yamato is fairly apparent as the SDF-1.)

Ultimately, this sort of defense is useless. The adaptations will be made and they’ll perform poorly while critics remark that the animated film or series was superior. Spielberg won’t touch Ghost unless he’s promised an Oscar by the Secret Directors’ Cabal and Dragonball will likely be 2009’s Razzie Award winner.


While we’re on the reason why anime should never be made into live-action, let’s bring back this blast from the past:

The “Korean” version of a live-action Fist of the North Star.

And finally, if you ever happen to find yourself in Brooklyn near Greenpoint and see a crazed scruffy guy shouting “Giga Drill Breaker,” this should explain why:

A Shounen scene from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann on par with Spike’s “bang” scene at the end of Cowboy Bebop. And yes, massive spoilers, but they’re worth it.

John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.