How Live Action Anime Gets Lost in Translation

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Live action and anime are perpetual star-crossed lovers; two separate worlds, desperate to be together.

On the one hand, the idea sounds like it’d be the most jaw-dropping thing in a century. Who doesn’t enjoy the idea of their favorite cartoon being put in flesh and blood? Sometimes the results are good, but where a tiny handful have succeeded, a far greater number have tripped over their own feet and fallen head first into the direct-to-DVD bin. They still have their fans, naturally, but they never garner enough success to be little more than otaku oddities.

Not to say that these renditions don’t have their fans. I know souls who will defend the movie for Black Butler to the death, and others who say that the original Death Note films are exciting and cool.  My own opinions about their quality put aside, I think the community as a whole can at least come to one agreement regarding anime’s live action translation: it’s messy at best, frustrating at worst. In my own personal theory, it breaks down to one phrase: Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

When it comes to cartoons, it’s paradoxically easy to suspend your disbelief. An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is when the viewer understands that what they are seeing isn’t real but they agree to treat it like it is for the sake of being entertained. You’d think this would be harder when the subject in question is little more than ink on paper, but it’s actually the opposite. Nobody doubts for a second that Superman can fly, Yosemite Sam can survive falling off a cliff, and that Cloud can lift a sword five times his size (though some are less accepting of it than others). Because it’s a drawing we accept a departure from reality more easily, making the sky the limit.

Anime could not be a better example of this. The only time anyone watches an anime expecting strict realism is when they watch a slice of life drama, and even then detours from reality are not questioned too much. As I mentioned in my Why I Love Weird Anime post, anime is not afraid to go the distance on crazy, but you won’t find too many fans that hold it to a realistic standard. Due to its cartoon nature, fans treat it more like a peek into another world. Whatever happens has a better chance of being taken at face value. The only way a viewer will reject it is when the animation is done poorly, or the story drifts into cliche, badly written territory.

This Random Crazy can translate well to musicals; after all, you already accept a world where people stop to sing and dance. All the story has to do is establish what the rules are and keep the characters interesting. Sailor Moon has had massive success in this area, with 29 different shows and over 800 performances. Naruto recently threw its hat into the ring, with Persona 4 following suit. Much like anime, there’s already an unwritten contract between you and the director that you willingly pretend that the world you see on stage is real to its own logic and that’s what makes it successful.

But live action movies are a horse of a different color. Imagine the time you went to a convention, and you saw someone dressed up as Goku from Dragon Ball Z. Remember how you felt when you saw the wig, the clothes, and the very obvious plastic dragon ball? That feeling right there is what live action movie-makers have to deal with for every project.   

Here we see what appears to be a real place with real people, and with that come a set of rules: men don’t fly; people die when they fall from great heights, and anyone who tried to wield the Buster Sword would be split in half from the weight. It’s your job, as the scriptwriter, to convince your audience that good things will happen if they just go with the flow. In the right hands, it’s awesome. In the wrong hands, it’s Dragonball Z Evolution.

So what does it take to make a good live action anime anything? It takes a lot of work, a good understanding of the material, and some very clever writing. I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that all live action anime is bad, but I would definitely say that the good ones are rare. So, with the onslaught of movies/musicals slated for this year, we here at the Otakudon are excited but cautious. Because the trip between two mediums is always tricky…but not impossible.

Why do you think live action and anime haven’t had much luck? Give your comments below, and don’t forget to check out any of my other posts: Weighing in on Moe, The Real Appeal of Yugioh, and others.

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