Live-action: a word that creates feelings of both excitement and pure anxiety. Something animated that you hold near and dear to your heart will now contain real humans. Living, breathing, sweating humans who will only look as close to your favorite character as the director chooses.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like a good adaptation like everyone else…when it’s done right. My problem with making something live-action is when filmmakers choose to adapt a fantasy or supernatural anime. It’s ambitious, but it is very easy to fall flat on, simply because this genre of anime offers something to creators that reality doesn’t offer to filmmakers.

READ: Want another discussion about anime? Check out why you need REIGEN in your life!

Worlds

One of the most important aspects of an anime is the world in which it is set in. Creators are working on paper (or on a computer), designing entire environments and spaces, which can allow them the freedom to move beyond the boundaries of reality. They are not limited to the color of grass or the physics of a building; they literally can create fully functioning cities with robot legs if they wanted to. They completely design every aspect of the atmosphere in their world, from the shape of buildings to the tiniest insect.

In the anime version of ATTACK ON TITAN, the animators balanced the horror of the titan monsters with a brightly colored world. Landscapes, buildings, and clothing had overwhelming variations of reds, oranges, greens, and browns. The first episode alone was picturesque until everything goes to hell and the screen is splashed with blood right before the credits. And still, it all remained warm and fuzzy even as people were being chomped on like potato chips. The stark contrasts between the place that the characters live in and the atrocities that they endure demonstrate the empty canvas that the animators work on when creating an anime series.

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So pretty.

With live-action films, filmmakers are forced to find places that closely resemble the world they are trying to adapt, otherwise they have to rely heavily on special effects and work in front of green screens. Shinji Higuchi’s adaptation of ATTACK ON TITAN did both and failed miserably.

The island it was filmed on had abandoned gray buildings, which immediately contrasted the original pastoral scenes of the anime (and you only see grass in the first 12 minutes of the film before it’s gone for good). The lack of color in the setting then affected the overall color of the film. All those warm colors? Gone. No reds or browns, just blue. And maybe a little gray here and there. I know that the story is horrifying and that people are getting eaten, but I can still have my flowers, right? Either way, the lack of color was not nearly as unforgivable as the live-action titans.

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Monsters/Creatures

Which brings me to my next point: anime also offers the freedom to create monsters. Ghosts, zombies, aliens, literally anything that goes bump in the night and gives children nightmares. Even gods of death! In the anime DEATH NOTE, we are treated to the frighteningly awesome appearances of Shinigami.

Ryuk and Rem are the ones we see the most, but that freedom of creation I’ve been talking about allows the animators to offer glimpses of the other gods. We see a group of them gambling and Gelus right before he dies, and each one is unique in its own way. The creators are not held down by actors and makeup artists. With anime, we can get a variety of flavors, not just one kind of apple. (Ha! Get it?)

With live-action versions of monsters, directors have to choose between costume or CGI, maybe both if they can get away with it. But what happens when the monster you want to adapt is a skinny, toothy-grinned punk? Well, if you want to stay as close to the anime as possible, you’re probably going to have to go with CGI. And that’s exactly what Shusuke Kaneko did in his adaptation of DEATH NOTE. I will admit that this film was slightly better in terms of trying to follow the original anime series (I’m looking at you, Higuchi), but Ryuk was an awful mess of special effects that could not be ignored. He reminded me of that Simpsons episode where a clay Homer gets stuck in our world. And yet, 3D Ryuk was just slightly more tolerable than the live-action titans.

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“Ryuk, I’m laughing at you, not with you”

The titans in the original ATTACK ON TITAN anime had countless appearances and were even categorized by specific types. There were different body structures, with some being massive like the Colossus Titan and others being as tall as a two-story house. Sometimes, they had round bodies with slender limbs or their flesh was just exposed and visible to everyone (again, like the Colossus). They also had differences in behavior and varying levels of intelligence. Nothing, however, was more notable than their faces. You had some with stretched out smiles forever frozen in place, ones with large, unblinking eyes and a permanent scowl, and some with blank, unmoving expressions; I honestly can’t decide which one terrified me the most.

The titans in the film were the exact opposite. They were more laughable than actually scary. During the pivotal scene when the Colossus Titan appears in front of the Outer Wall, a group of gray, smiling titans crawls through the hole that he kicks in (sorry, Armored Titan fans, your guy does not even make an appearance in the first film). They fumble slowly towards the humans, who only shoot once at the titans before completely giving up. In their defense, however, they don’t exactly have the best training considering it’s been 100 years since titans appeared. So I’ll overlook that.

But when we get our first look at one of the titans, he’s just an actor who’s been painted gray with CGI eyes and a grin on his face. In fact, almost all of the titans are just smiling awkwardly at the camera.

Smile for the camera!

Casting

Finally, the biggest problem with turning an anime into a live-action film is finding the right actor for the job. Remember when I said that a sweaty human was going to play your favorite character? You better hope it’s the right sweaty human!

Anime has as many variations in characters as it does with monsters. You have different appearances, races, nationalities, hair styles, eye colors, everything. What tends to be the driving force with filmmakers, however, is not to honor the original character but to pick someone who will bring a lot of money. Japanese adaptations, such as Higuchi’s ATTACK ON TITAN and Kaneko’s DEATH NOTE, often star young musicians or actors who are popular with youth crowds and will generate a large revenue when fans want to see their idols in action. Unfortunately, when American filmmakers choose to do an adaptation of an anime, that sweaty human is usually white.

Whitewashing, in which white actors are cast as characters of color, has been a constant problem in the American film industry for decades, basically ever since filmmaking came to be, and it has not slowed down with the recent live-action adaptations of anime series, despite the fact that it’s almost 2017. The problem is so bad that Disney has had to promise not to whitewash their adaptation of MULAN, thanks to the countless petitions that were created once news of the film was released.

READ: Check out this article on whitewashing in DOCTOR STRANGE

In the 2009 film DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION, Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum were passed off cast as Goku and Bulma. A year prior, Emile Hirsch played the titular character in SPEED RACER. And most recently, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the American adaptation of GHOST IN THE SHELL, which is set to release in 2017. This sparked a huge controversy on the Internet, with fans protesting the choice; even the filmmakers recognized their decision when they had performed CGI testing to make white actors look Asian and were even considering changing the names of the Japanese characters to fit the nationalities of the actors. Unfortunately, the American adaptation of DEATH NOTE received this same treatment when Nat Wolff was cast as Light Yagami and the character’s last name was changed to “Turner.”

And let’s not forget the train wreck that is THE LAST AIRBENDER. This is one of those rare cases in which you will find me even acknowledging the existence of that monstrosity. Although it is not technically an anime, the characters were all based on East Asian, South and Southeast Asian, and Inuit cultures. Even the four types of bending were variations of Chinese martial arts, each based on the nature of the element itself. For example, waterbending was often gentle, so the moves were based on Tai Chi, while firebending (which is more aggressive) was based on Northern Shaolin.

The animators took great care in creating the series, doing extensive research to ensure that the world they created actually resembled the cultures they were focusing on. M Night Shyamalan, however, only argued the correct pronunciation of Aang’s name and still chose to cast white actors in the roles of Asian characters. Yeah, he definitely has his priorities straight.

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No…just, no.

As I said before, I appreciate a good adaptation if it’s done right. And not every live-action film fails; there have been phenomenal ones recently released and I will admit that I’m excited for MULAN (as long as Disney keeps its word). The problem with live-action is when filmmakers choose to take a fantasy/supernatural anime and attempt to turn into a two-hour movie.

Animators and creators have empty canvasses to create entire worlds and fill it with unique characters. The fact that an anime can extend into multiple seasons also allows room for more variation and new things to keep the viewer interested. There’s an ability to expand on storylines and build histories for worlds, buildings, maybe even that tiny insect I mentioned before.

Anything can be done to make that fantasy world feel real. But that doesn’t mean it should always be made real.

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