That’s right, I said it. It is no longer the “salad days” of fandom. It’s train that has long passed. In fact, when the best possible celebration of these things came to our doorstep, it was the international audience who came brandishing that flag to wave it, not us in the states. Solidarity is a nice thought, but it’s something that if even came to pass, wouldn’t make the mainstream quake in its collective boots.
Adaptation should always be about more than casting. These words have been on my mind for almost two weeks now. Whether it happens or not, the Ghost In The Shell project has again stirred the hornet’s nest. After yet another attempt to adapt a beloved Japanese property to the Hollywood realm did its part to unsettle and stir the pot, it felt time to again dish out the whys. Also, to hopefully quell minds with a few good realities to consider.
A quick fix is rarely a good thing.
We see tech offer up simplified answers to often step-packed questions, and technological development does what it can to leapfrog those steps. But skipping about can very often obscure room for nuance, and specificity that can occasionally be important to many. Which is why many stalwart admirers of the longview tend to gather more understanding of process.
As far back as I can remember learning about it, my love of anime has been a protracted lesson in how localization works. From the beginning, it has long been a held reality that direct translation leaves quite a bit to be desired, nor does it better grab the cultural and psychological nuance of a foreign work. So tweaking and fine tuning are an expected norm. And while we have made substantial leaps to best synthesize this into a palatable shared language, there is still nothing like learning and better understanding other languages and cultures. So when the mainstream is confronted with work almost completely in step with classic anime tropes and ideas (see- Pacific Rim), it’s understandable to see the average moviegoer take in such ideas and cock their heads sideways. The response is often not that of revelation.
Even when manga and anime properties are adapted on their home soil, there is disconnect. This is another huge hurdle I have had to get past these last few decades. In writing the column, Live Action Manga Blues at the Kaijyu, it over time came into sharp focus that even the Japanese are saddled with both the budgetary and literal limitations that come with taking something iconographic and making it into fleshy reality. And the reasons here are multifold. After all, we are talking about taking what is often seen as Japan’s hidden id, and bringing it into another plane of existence. To assume that the two can co-exist seamlessly without losing some grand component remains paradoxical, and often unrealistic. Sure, we have had success with certain more “experimental” fare such as Oldboy, Video Girl Ai, and the Speed Racer. But very often, there is a temptation on the part of live action filmmaking to conform the work into a language that rarely melds with the weight and necessity of itself. It either has to be almost indistinguishably gritty, or it needs to be completely gonzo. Rarely anywhere in between. And to a degree, big films like Racer and Pacific Rim are indicators that they can only work in the hands of the rare risk taker that is willing to bet the farm to see their vision to fruition. Artists with the acumen and sneakiness to ostensibly fool already cynically inclined studio heads that this is worthwhile.
(Something the director of Snow White and The Huntsman, hasn’t proven himself to me. Just saying.)
So a huge part of me isn’t expecting much of this recent news. Many would dare to still hope that one day, their favorite property would make the transition, changing the perception of at least one more set of eyes to their favorite thing. But time has perhaps hardened my purview, I suppose. Because the allure of anime is truly its own organism. And it doesn’t require further validation. It’s wild, weird, and enjoyably dysfunctional in ways that would lose fathoms of itself in being conformed to a more docile cinema language. The average mind accepts new ideas when it is time. And frankly, in twenty years we have seen Ghost In The Shell become something of an evergreen that continues to make converts out of film and science fiction fans the world over. And as new animation continues the adventures of Section 9, such windows will continue to open. Because of this shared world we now reside, it takes more than one obligatory, stunt-casting laden feature film to turn heads. Especially when the genuine global article already exists.
So it has come to pass. As the great Stephen Tobolowsky once said that was something to the effect of, “When you take a Japanese cartoon, which is in it’s very nature, iconographic, and translate it into live action, you could be in sucky territory.” NTV’s one-shot live-action Ranma ½ has aired, and for what it’s worth, at least demands a few words before heading off into the ever growing sea of anime/manga adaptations that have come and gone with middling to poor results. So going in, my hopes were pretty near to at gutter levels. Especially when considering 2007’s Maison Ikkoku special starring Misaki Ito, it was something I wasn’t ready to be burned by again. As stated via The Wandering Kaijyu, Japan’s history with live action adaptations have often performed in the manner of the way Hollywood once treated their once watercolor product; as safe, campy, and often incongruous throw-away works with little emphasis on story. And while that practice does indeed continue in many instances, films have only recently begun to mirror the originals, or at least begun to be treated with a certain amount of reverence by filmmakers with an eye for what made such characters appealing to the masses. So when it came time for the Japanese to take on what is obviously a large Rumiko Takahashi property, one that is far more over the top & beholden the the drawn page, concern was plastered across the table- late 1980s- early 1990s appropriate, in bright neon.
(For those curious as to my initial worries upon the announcement back in May, go here.)
So how does it stack up? Well, to be fair, perhaps it may be important to place focus on the fact that I’ve been a Ranma ½ apologist since it’s US home video release through Viz back in the mid 1990s. While not the best Takahashi creation, it’s certainly one of the most accessible, and remains something of a dopey cure-all in my home. And it was largely due to Furinkan’s wild, weird, stupid, and often neurotically hopeless characters. Story was often an afterthought, while the animation staffs did an interesting dance around Takahashi’s bizarre & sugar-infused tribute to martial arts cinema, romantic comedies, and the culinary arts in order to fashion what was perhaps one of the more enduring properties in the legendary mangaka’s output. It is perhaps my biggest “guilty” pleasure, and I truly stand by it, even as the world has moved on significantly. All that baggage included, it’s perhaps best to say that for all my initial worry, Ranma ½ comes pretty close to capturing the spirit of the original despite the limitations inherent in J-dorama production value. While definitely hurt by unexpected, grafted elements, what it does get right, it does so with a surprising amount of sensitivity.
In this incarnation, Furinkan’s own Tendo Dojo of Anything Goes Martial Arts remains in deep need of new members, when a fateful postcard arrives, detailing the coming of dojo master Soun Tendo’s oldest & best martial arts pal, Genma Saotome is to visit with his also practicing son, Ranma. The hope being that young Ranma would be willing to marry one of Tendo’s three daughters, and carry on the dojo into the future(all arrows pointing to the youngest, the punchy, tomboyish, very reluctant Akane) . Plans are dashed almost immediately when the Tendo family find a panda at their front door, not to mention Akane, meeting a fiery young female redhead martial artist sporting the name of the boy she simply refuses to marry, Ranma Saotome. The confusion is explained by way of a tragedy that befell the two men as they traversed China to perfect their training, only to fall into the cursed springs of Jusenkyo, springs with the ability to curse those who fall into them to be affected every time they come in contact with varying temperatures of water. Genma, becomes the hulking, yet huggable panda. While Ranma..in a crushing blow to his boisterous ego, becomes a girl when hit with cold water. Needless to say, this is the tip of an even crazier iceberg as this curse becomes trouble for not only the Saotomes and Tendos, but to anyone else who encounters them as they seek desperately for a cure. But amidst all this trouble, could true love blossom despite being put upon by family elders?
So there are a few things worth pointing out that I did like. Surprisingly, the casting is possibly the biggest triumph that could be noted here. Upon initial reports, again concern was my first reaction, but now I can totally see where they were coming at this from. Partcularly the cast at the Tendo dojo. Katsuhisa Namase does a great eternal worrywart in Soun Tendo, while Arata Furuta makes for an impressively voiced loafer in Genma Saotome. Kyoko Hasegawa is a very grounded Kasumi Tendo, while Maki Nishiyama is a fun (albeit questionably reinvented) sister in Nabiki. But the real surprise is in the casting and treatment of Yui Aragaki as Akane, and the impressive work by Kaku Kento/ Natsuna as Ranma/Ranko. It’s the relationship that serves the balance of the entire story, and the performances here are primed and ready for an actual feature film. It’s almost stupefying how well they got it right in this instance. There are moments that evoke the best in Ranma’s original incarnations, and the casting is probably as good as it could ever be (even barring height, which was originally primed to be a nit-picky round in my chamber). The crew even goes so far as to implement some famous moments into this series with both actors, and the fan meter is almost primed to explode when these moments are witnessed. Aragaki’s Akane is not only easy on the eyes, but captures very well the conflicted, at times volatile character she originally was on the page. Kaku’s boy-Ranma is believable as the cocky, insolent wall of stubbornness that is as much hero, as is butt of quite the number of gender-warping jokes the show has to offer. Still the likeable dope. And speaking of likeable, Natsuna’s Ranko (Ranma’s girl-type form) is as spot-on as one is willing to hope for. Filled with the right amount of spunk and swagger, she does a great job capturing a lot of Kaku’s mannerisms, whilst implementing her own style for when Ranma is coerced into going “undercover” to seek answers to what may cure him. The most successful material in the whole piece is what they cribbed directly from the manga and anime, right on down to Akane’s coming of age arc regarding older(and far more domestically inclined) sister Kasumi, and the ever kind & flustered Tofu-sensei(Shosuke Tanihara).
So where does this all go wrong? Well, not unlike so many live action adaptations, this one also falls victim to attempting to create a new villain to wrap the special around, one that has little bearing on the core plot, no matter how much the writers attempt to sandwich it into the story. It’s a faceplant move that almost kills the show’s momentum when we are subject to it. With the MacGuffin being an amulet hanging around Akane’s neck, the new villain is primed to open up a hidden spring, and unlock it’s secrets for himself. I won’t go too far into detailing anything more of the antagonist in this special, except to say that it is the biggest misstep imaginable. To make it worse, it’s completely unnecessary considering that they introduce one of Ranma’s greatest rivals, the rich, obsessive-bordering-on-batcrap-insane rich-boy Tatewaki Kuno early into the show. The very notion that they would sidestep this character, in order to make room for a villain that is not only dead on arrival, but borderline offensive, is virtually poisonous to the entire 90 minute running time. It is a bad idea, and little can undo the damage, except for the leads who do their best with what they’ve been saddled with. There are also problems regarding the establishment of rules regarding the use of water (Case in point- a bath scene midway. Very distracting.), and how it works on Ranma. The martial arts scenes are brief, and only middling as to be expected. And the update to the character of Nabiki Tendo is something so egregious that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was demographics that spurred that one on. A sign of the times, perhaps. But seeing as how she has remained a favorite character, one with an intelligence and zeal that often dwarfs the entire cast, one wonders if this was the brightest decision. Especially considering how much more leverage an independent girl like her would have in the world now. Making her into a hostess-gyaru type seems reductive. Also still not sure why Gosunkugi is even in this special.
There are also nuggets of fun strewn throughout. Plenty of moments that will make fans smile, from Ranma being unable to manage his…er..problem just walking down the street, to Genma’s panda-fu. There is even an unexpected call-back to Scott Pilgrim Versus The World, a film/comic that paid plenty of tribute to manga/anime such as Ranma 1/2. There are even shots interspersed her that were very reminiscent of Bill Pope’s work on that film, which was more than welcome. There is even a tiny Ryoga Hibiki gag in there for those paying attention.
So yes, this rare attempt is far from good, let alone perfect. But it is also a nice look at what could be, and I suppose this is where Japanese adaptations are at the moment. So many great characters in the Ranma universe to be mined, and all we have here is merely one sprinkle on top of a very large, tasty sundae. Like many firsts, it’s a mishmash of potential without the full delivery. Hints of a promising broth, rather than a full bowl of nabe. Despite several creative decisions, there is a pretty good Ranma 1/2 cast and crew at work here. One can only hope someone out there is listening.
Alright, so after several prolonged discussions on both Facebook and Twitter regarding Deadline‘s news regarding the “whitewashed” casting being considered for The Hughes Bros. upcoming live-action adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic, AKIRA, it felt only right to go ahead and help clear the air. As Warner Bros. is going out of their way to make this long in development hell project become a reality, the very idea that not only has the story’s central location been moved to “New Manhattan”, but that the main cast is likely to be populated by stars as non-Japanese as can be imagined has suddenly helped spur on these discussions.
But the funny part of it is that this has been long in the talks to be for years now. It isn’t as if this is a terribly new wrinkle to this project.
But perhaps it was the list of names mentioned as possibilities to play the iconic roles of ill-fated friends Tetsuo(Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, or James McAvoy ) & Kaneda(Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake, or Joaquin Phoenix). And the funny part about this is that several years ago, there might have been a time when this fell clear through the “wrongness” cracks in my mind, and seemed natural for a moment.
But now, as the project gathers steam, it’s important to remember just what made the original manga, let alone the classic anime so potent in the minds of so many. At least to me, it was a combination of several striking factors that allowed the popularity to thrive, regardless of the Marvel Comics treatment, and ensuing TMNT-laden dub. It was a window into a Japan that westerners were largely unfamiliar with. Even as the western consciousness at the time was painted by the hues of a moneymaking powerhouse dream of Japan, there was also a spiritual detritus that permeated the seemingly unstoppable country that felt fresh and new. Not to mention the decade’s more fringe culture curiosity for cyberpunk, and a growing movement that questioned the very stability of the Reagan era. The stars seemed aligned for the at-times merciless spectacle of AKIRA to shine as a cult beacon for those looking for the next evolution of the superhuman comic book character/dystopian vision.
So when I see this news about RPatz being considered for a role that is not only Japanese, but should clearly be younger…all I can respond with is a drawn out..
Niche property adaptations have had their time in the spotlight as of late. And studios are in the process of doing all they can do to save these huge investments as nearly every risk that has been taken with cult comic properties have been met with either apathy, or disdain by the larger numbers of the moviegoing public. Ever since Speed Racer came onto screens in 2008, it has been clear that the then flourishing new era of adapting niche titles for big budget films was going to be a tough sell. (And as one of the few who actually still enjoys that film, it was a bitter pill to swallow.) But the reality is that the numbers who have been turning up to these films are nowhere what is needed to turn a profit of any kind. Just look at Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen, and just about every anime-turned live action film, and its all pretty self-explanatory.
So where I’m coming from is that this is not so much a matter of “race-bending” as it is a desperate attempt to do two things;
a) Get the movie made. –
The geeks aren’t in as much force as anticipated, and studios are now listening. There simply isn’t enough money to be made from an audience that can be a little too nitpicky for a “gotta please them all” type of business.
And of course..
b) Make that money back. –
Movies are now a terribly expensive idea for such properties. If one would have told me that Scott Pilgrim came with an almost 80 million dollar price tag a year ago, I would have deemed you fit to be locked away…but it is. Now imagine AKIRA for a second. That’s right. Let that sink in..
So what we’re looking at is a business tired of losing money/credibility, and are ready to forget the original target audience, and prepare for a film geared for a completely new one. A practice that has been done before many times, but has rarely to never worked. Even back in the days when the rights to AKIRA were in the hands of 90s powerhouses Guber-Peters, this was pretty much the same situation. And now that we’re in a time where no studio is willing to risk anything with a property that is all about risk-taking. It stands to question making it at all.
And I won’t even go into detail about why the original AKIRA project means so much to me, as it completely contradicts the very reason for this film to be made. The original in its visual gut punch says so much more than any live action interpretation ever could. So even if they changed their minds, and cast actual Japanese actors to play the parts, I’d still likely not be a fan of it. The simplicity of matters for me is this; AKIRA is not only specifically Japanese cosmetically, it is also incredibly Japanese at heart. It is a Showa Era primal scream, celebrating the lives of those unwilling to allow the Bubble to encase their existence. It is also an echo of the political turmoil of Japan in the late 60s-70s. Much like Sogo Ishii’s brilliant Bakuretsu Toshi, it is less a story so much as it is an examination of a society on the brink, and a culture eager for divine release. This is the very center of what makes the project beyond anything that can simply be ported over to our shores. It is Japan’s desperate heart crying for change, despite all the concrete and steel forming around them like a tomb.
And even as the real Japan struggles on to re-identify itself amidst calamity now, the wind called AKIRA is a spirit best expressed from the people this spirit emanates from.
Personally speaking, this is about as close to western as I’m willing to be with this..