Live-ing the Dream: The Pros and Cons of Anime Live Adaptions, Part 2

With the forthcoming Netflix live-action adaption of the anime classic Cowboy Bebop eliciting both anticipation and angst among anime fans, Irina and Brendan had a conversation about the issue of adaptions, why they are (sometimes) so contentious, and what are the issues facing the industry as a whole. The first half of this conversation can be found here – and while you’re there, you can follow Irina’s blog – if you aren’t already a follower (and why wouldn’t you be? 🤔 ).

IRINA: So tell me – what do you think the challenges are?

BRENDAN: As I see it, there are two key challenges for live adaptors of anime. The first relates to attempts to adapt an anime series into a live movie. In other words, the attempt to transpose the more detailed, complex, and slower pacing of a series’ plotting and characterisation into the shorter, tighter, more time-constrained narrative structure of a feature film. I think this is where a lot of film adaptions fail – they’re trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. Perhaps with the advent of platforms like Netflix, we will see series adapted into series, which might give a more balanced outcome.

The second challenge as I see it – and I probably won’t be making any friends here – are anime fans themselves. To be specific, those anime fans who expect an adaption to be “just like” the anime original, and who don’t take into account the fact that live action and anime are entirely different visual media, each of which have their strengths and limitations in terms of what can or cannot be done. Thus, I suspect that at least some of the criticism levelled at live adaptions arises from some anime fans’ unrealistic unmet expectations – which, speaking of Netflix, could be an issue in terms of fan reaction to their forthcoming Cowboy Bebop adaption.

You did WHAT now???

IRINA: Ok – so here you’re talking only series to movie adaptations? Not live-action series or the billions of live-action stage plays?

BRENDAN: Yes I am talking about live film adaptions…I am aware of live stage adaptions but haven’t seen any and don’t feel in a position to comment…though I suspect the issues are similar..,

IRINA: Well except for the fan issue I imagine. They sell out a lot.  As for anime series to live-action movie adaptions and the challenges for the American market, I agree that the runtime difference is probably the biggest adaptation challenge. However, I don’t think you can overlook the issue of budgets for the production challenge. Anime is an extremely visual medium and it’s one of the aspects that attracts fans in the first place. That’s going to be difficult to translate without truckloads of money and, unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is willing to invest yet.

BRENDAN: Yes, I agree. I wasn’t trying to overlook that as an issue. Though I suspect we’ve all seen way too many films that were special effects rich and story poor.

IRINA: Oh, I wasn’t necessarily talking about special effects, although that’s a part of it. But, you know, hiring well-known actors, getting exclusive locations and/or building multiples sets, reshooting when necessary, taking all the time needed for editing…All of that costs a fortune for live-action compared to animation.

BRENDAN: Yes, absolutely. The Netflix adaptation of Bebop is, as you know, being filmed in New Zealand….there’s a major (and expensive) logistics exercise right there. But sometimes anime can be expensive as well…the iconic feature Redline cost so much it almost bankrupted studio Madhouse.

Redline – crying all the way to the bank!

IRINA: Well, anime is very underfunded, on average. Although, if I remember correctly, one minute of animation (be it anime or Disney) is roughly one-tenth of the cost of one minute of live-action.

BRENDAN: In Japan?

IRINA: For the mass market. We’re not talking home movies here.

BRENDAN: *laughs* Well I guess there are synergies between live film and anime. Spielberg and Scorsese will always get funding, as will Watanabe and Shinkai…but everyone else will struggle.

IRINA: I’m willing to bet some of these names get better funding than others. Actually, I looked it up out of curiosity. Watanabe’s net worth is 1.5 million, which is great – but less than some YouTubers. Spielberg is 3.7 billion. Gen Sekiguchi who is a really good Japanese director but makes mostly indie flicks is worth a bit less than 5 million. Anime is criminally underfunded. Or Google has an anti-anime bias…

BRENDAN: Could it be that what you identify as underfunding is actually a product of the Japanese studio system. wherein the bulk of the profits are pocketed by studios, distributors, etc?

IRINA: I don’t think so. There’s probably some part of that but there just aren’t that many profits to go around. Advertisers pay a lot less for time slots on anime than on live-action. A hell of a lot less. And distribution prices are a fraction of the cost of live-action. It’s sad to read over some of those contracts. At some point a lot people decided anime wasn’t something that was worth paying for and the industry hasn’t righted itself. Despite soaring popularity.

BRENDAN: Hmm, that seems really counter intuitive…or a product of the conservatism of Japanese corporate culture. But can I take it from your earlier remark that you probably won’t be watching the Netflix Bebop adaptation when it lands?

Irina: It does seem unlikely. Then again if my fellow bloggers tell me it’s well worth my time, I might give it a shot. Maybe it can be a way to convince my anime hating friends to get into it. How about you?

To Netflix or not to Netflix – THAT IS the question!

BRENDAN: Yes, I will definitely watch it. I am hoping the producers are able to both preserve the essence of the original while giving the story and characters a new and fresh expression. Which, I acknowledge, is a tricky balancing act. But if I do blog about it, that will be the framework through which I analyse the series.

IRINA: Well there you have it! Will you guys be watching Netflix’ live-action Cowboy Bebop adaptation? Do you have any feelings about live-action anime adaptations in general? Do you think there’s a key to making good ones?

Text © Copyright Irina March and Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.