Welcome to another edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. As cinemas have now been open for a few months post-lockdown in Japan, we’re now seeing the ramping up of new film releases in Japanese cinemas as the country seeks to find a place in this post-coronavirus new normal. Box office revenues are still recovering, but it’s a positive sign that the Japanese film industry is on the road to recovery as it adjusts to the new normal. If you look at many of the most recent film releases, particularly those that are performing best since lockdown, you begin to spot a pattern in the sorts of films being used to entice audiences back into cinemas: many of these movies are live-action anime or manga adaptations of popular series.
Anime and manga adaptations, particularly outside of Japan, are derided for their commercial nature and for being often associated with poor acting and unrealistic stories. When someone mentions live-action anime adaptations, faces go sheet-white at the thought of something like the Fullmetal Alchemist live-action film, or, worse yet, American adaptations such as Dragonball Evolution.
What I want to ask this week is one simple question: why do anime and manga adaptations get a poor reputation? This week, I want to dive into the core aspects of the live-action anime adaptation, why they’re popular in Japan and why they’re often overlooked in discussions of Japanese cinema.
With that, let’s get started.
The Lackluster Reputation of Live-Action Anime and Manga Adaptations
One look at the Japanese box office in recent years shows that anime and manga adaptations are becoming more prevalent in Japanese cinemas, and are taking up an increasing share of the country’s domestic box office. The most successful domestically-produced film at the Japanese box office in 2019 after Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You was none other than Kingdom, a live-action adaptation of the manga and anime property of the same name. Another of the highest-grossing domestic films of the year was Fly Me to the Saitama (showing at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival), which was released to critical and commercial acclaim and received the most nominations out of any film at the 43rd Japan Academy Film Prize. This was also an adaptation, adapting the popular and beloved 1980s manga series of the same name.
Although I’ve cited flaws with the Japan Academy Film Prize in the past, the fact that two of the most successful films at this event were Fly Me to the Saitama and Kingdom, which won more awards than any other film with 5 victories, including for cinematography, is noteworthy. Japanese audiences are clamoring for these films, and although the 2020 box office has been hit hard by COVID-19, you’re seeing this trend continue into 2020 with the runaway success of Kyou Kara Ore Wa as one of the most successful films of the year so far.
And yet, such films barely register with international audiences, rarely seeing any sort of official release outside of an occasional festival screening and often being overlooked by the major distributors of Japanese film outside of Japan.
The main reason such films are overlooked is that their status as an adaptation of a popular anime or manga property can be seen as a double-edged sword. Whether a casual anime fan interested in dipping their toe into Japanese live-action filmmaking or a fan of Japanese cinema in general, these live-action anime adaptations are often looked down upon as either being poorly-acted or lacking in artistic merit. Which isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim to make, but is often exaggerated. To explain why I need to briefly discuss the East Asian cinema boom of the late 90s and early 2000s.
East Asian cinema was attracting the attention of an increasing number of people from around the world in the late 90s and early 2000s, a trend that was further fueled by the boom in Asian and Japanese horror that occurred around this time. New labels such as Tartan Asia Extreme took advantage of this swell in popularity to release Asian cinema into the booming VHS and DVD home video scene. It was at this time where films like Zhang Yimao’s House of Flying Daggers achieved international mainstream success, and other distributors as well as major film companies took a stab similarly took a stab at releasing Asian films into international markets.
Japanese cinema had mostly disappeared from international festivals and the public consciousness outside of the occasional Kurosawa film and exceptions like Godzilla following its initial notoriety in the 1940s and 1950s, only regaining its position as a market of note in the 1990s. Even then, however, much of the Japanese and East Asian film picked up for international distribution wasn’t representative of the box offices in these countries. Films that went against the marketing message that Asian cinema was ‘violent’ or ‘extreme’ were overlooked for films like Ichi the Killer and Battle Royale which, while popular, aren’t necessarily representative of trends in Japanese cinema at the time of their release. These were the films that audiences wanted, and these are the films that sold best.
Still, attempts were made to branch out beyond ultra-violence, and when it came to Japanese cinema, licensors spotted an opportunity to expand their catalogs through anime and manga adaptations. Banking on the growing popularity of anime as a chance to branch out, many of these distributors chose to look towards anime adaptations as a source of inspiration. Films like the Death Note live-action films were soon picked up and licensed with the intent of promoting them on this lineage. I have a soft spot and rather enjoy these Death Note films but both of these, and these films and other similar adaptations picked up around this time like Azumi earned a reputation for mediocrity or even poor-quality filmmaking.
This reputation was entrenched further by Hollywood’s mistakes with films like Dragonball Evolution. Often, these films were shunned as being of lower quality with poor acting, and it’s a reputation that’s stood the test of time to this day. It’s hardly a surprise when the exposure is so limited, and the rare exceptions to the rule that have received international recognition since then such as Attack on Titan, Black Butler and Bleach haven’t helped matters, either.
Beyond their reputation for mediocrity, its the commercialized nature of these films that turn many people off. It’s rare to see a creative voice rising to the surface to create something new and unique that embellishes on the source material and takes advantage of the new medium with any of these adaptations. You will see exceptions to the rule, like when Wotakoi leans into musical stylings or when Mika Ninagawa adapts Diner. Often, though, these films feel sterile, telling the exact same story in the exact same manner to ensure the film remains as inoffensive as possible.
Looking at the creative teams behind these films only exacerbates this issue. Many modern live-action anime and manga adaptations are partially funded by talent agencies that use these adaptations and their funding to place the talent they want to promote at the forefront of these films. The upcoming Keep Your Hands Off the Eizouken film is being promoted heavily on its use of Nogizaka46 idols in the main roles, which perhaps isn’t surprising when you learn that their management company is one of the leading companies on the production committee for the film.
This doesn’t automatically make a film bad. The live-action Kaguya-Sama: Love is War movie is a clever adaptation of the anime and manga that was partially funded by Johnny & Associates, who used their influence to place King and Prince member Sho Hirano in the role of Shirogane and to use King and Prince’s music for the film’s theme song. However, when such adaptations are often beholden to the purse strings of talent agencies and not the imaginations of their creative staff, you can understand why many choose to overlook these films and don’t see them as something worth their time or attention.
That’s the crux of the issue. The poor reputation live-action anime and manga adaptations hold has nothing to do with quality, it’s to do with reputation and marketing. Often, these films exist for no reason other than a talent agency wanting to promote their latest act on the back of a recognizable brand they can merchandise and make money from. These films often decline to take advantage of their new medium to embellish the world they’re tasked with bringing to life on screen because that’s not their primary objective. No wonder many see these films as nothing more than elaborate cosplay.
And yet, films like Blue Spring and Blade of the Immortal by Takashi Miike are proof that source material doesn’t doom a film to failure and creative bankruptcy, yet are often overlooked to perpetuate this narrative. Furthermore, even when films cynically fall victim to the marketing machine, it doesn’t stop the final product being entertaining and occasionally powerful in its own right. Kingdom, Kaguya-sama: Love is War and more prove this. They may not be the most original films, but I had a blast watching both of them.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be wary of anime adaptations, as too many films fit neatly into the stereotypes these films are often derided for. But to dismiss them out of hand? Maybe our preconceived ideas of these films need to change.
Film Flashback: Thermae Romae (テルマエ・ロマエ, Hideki Takeuchi, 2012)
There are two reasons Thermae Romae was the highest-performing film at the Japanese box office in 2014. Firstly, and perhaps decisively for some, was the fact that, in order to tell a tale about Roman and Japanese bath culture, popular Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe was required to spend a large proportion of the film baring his naked flesh for every camera within eyeshot.
The biggest reason the film was a success, however, at least in my eyes, was that the film took the unique time-traveling political bathing concept and succeeded in weaving together a realistic interpretation of classical Rome and modern Japan while being unafraid to have a little fun at the absurdity of it all.
Thermae Romae is an adaptation of the popular manga by the same name about a Roman bath maker named Lucius who’s hit rock bottom. Unable to think of creative ideas, he loses his job and his wife is ready to move on. While bathing off his sorrows in a public bath he finds a wormhole that takes him to modern-day Japan, and he takes these ideas back to Rome to revive his flagging career. Throw in political intrigue involving Julius Caesar and a time-traveling romance and you have all the ingredients of a film that’s just absurd enough to work.
What makes Thermae Romae so successful as a film is the creative liberties taken with the movie’s source material that helps this movie take advantage of this new medium it is being explored within. The humor of Thermae Romae is influenced heavily by its art style which takes inspiration from the classical statues of Ancient Rome. The movie understands this and circumvents this issue by ramping up the political intrigue of Ancient Rome and relying more heavily on the culture shock between Rome and Japan for comic relief, with this tonal shift being handled effortlessly.
The movie is more than happy to find time to poke fun at Lucius’ confusion of life in modern-day Japan as he tries to understand where the slaves playing orchestral music near the toilet could be hiding, or how he marvels at toilet paper that he confuses for papyrus. At the same time, it knows when to downplay its comedic moments for areas of high drama when the time is right, and this is where the talent of the high-profile actors involved in this movie really shines.
The portrayal of Rome is another area where this movie could have stumbled, but the decision to bring in an international production team, alongside some clever casting choices, ensures it leaps this hurdle effortlessly. A team in Rome was employed to shoot many scenes on location with local extras as opposed to creating sets in Japan, while main speaking roles have been given to Japanese actors with non-Japanese facial traits that differentiate them from the modern Japanese characters and settings.
It’s the dedication to historical realism that ties this tale together. As the final act sees Lucius desperately attempt to build a bath to help a depressive emperor and his fledging army, you’re invested entirely in his struggles to save Rome and himself, even as the absurdity of the situation grows. Add in some clever stylistic flair like the opera singer that belts out his voice whenever he transports through time and you’re left with a fascinating and creative tale that entertains the audience from moment one.
If you’re wanting to watch Thermae Romae for yourself, you‘ll need to import a Japanese Blu-Ray copy of the film from Japan from sites such as Amazon Japan. However, no English subtitles are included with the Japanese Blu-Ray release of the movie. The film has also received limited official releases outside of Japan in countries such as Italy and Hong Kong, with the latter release featuring subtitles in both Chinese and English.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!