Despite how often they’ve done it, Hollywood seems really bad at adapting works from other media to the big screen. And while producers have found hits adapting books and now comics, the two things they’ve constantly seemed to fail at is adapting video games, and, specifically for this article, anime.
It often seems that producers just don’t understand what would make a good film, often just taking whatever is most popular, leading to such travesties as The Angry Birds Movie or Dragonball: Evolution. And even if they make a good decision on what to adapt, often they’re dragged down by decisions made along the way, the most significant of which– that can drive away interest from a potential fan base– is the whitewashing of non-white characters. Such decisions likely doomed several projects that could have succeeded otherwise, such as Prince of Persia or Edge of Tomorrow. Many were destroyed before they even started, receiving awful press for similar reasons, such as the cancelled Hollywood adaptation of Akira.
It’s easy, however, to understand why whitewashing happens– executives and producers are scared that the movie won’t succeed without a white lead (which is an opinion easily contested, but that which exists nonetheless). It’s why the upcoming Ghost in the Shell film cast Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi, yet still for some reason tried to digitally alter her appearance to look more Asian– a move that, once the public got wind of it, was heavily criticized. It’s certainly possible that Ghost in the Shell could still succeed, but it’s clearly not making it any easier.
So here’s my pitch, studio executives and producers alike: I will lay out here the 10 anime (mostly series, but including film) that would be the easiest to adapt to a Hollywood film while still being able to be true to the source material, not alienate fans, and target a mainstream audience. It’s a win-win-win, really.
Honorable Mention #1: Redline
There are a few reasons that this did not make the full list. A film like this would require a high budget, and while “death race in space” is a really cool concept that should be easy to sell people on, the kind of flair the visuals would require, and the quite wacky characters involved might turn people away. But hey, if it worked for George Miller, it can work for you too.
Honorable Mention #2: Code Geass
Despite mostly taking place in Japan, many of Code Geass’s characters are white citizens of the fictionalized “Britannia”– a vast empire spread across the entirety of the Americas in an alternate world where Great Britain moved its capital overseas (among other things). Featuring huge plot twists, a large cast of well-designed characters, and giant robot battles, it’s the type of series that easily catches your attention.
So why is it only an Honorable Mention on the list? Mainly: Commitment. Code Geass as a series is 50 episodes, meaning a single film would not be capable of covering every significant turn in the plot. Add in the budget that this film would require and it’s obvious that risks would need to be taken– and a top-tier writer be hired– to make movies a success.
This is probably the easiest choice you could have. Superhero movies are really popular right now. Taking place in the fictionalized “Central City,” loosely based on Los Angeles, Heroman is a superhero story co-created between Studio BONES and Marvel’s very own Stan Lee. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is that the anime was never localized in English, so its fan base is much smaller than other series you could choose from.
How about a real vampire? If a studio were to put the money into a Hellsing film, the expected end result might looks somewhat similar to the Resident Evil films– themes of horror and monsters abound, but mainly just a whole lot of action set pieces. Also a lot of blood. If Hellsing isn’t R-rated, don’t even bother.
Coincidentally these are all reasons why the show is only #8 on the list… But a secret organization employing a super-powered vampire in an attempt to defeat an army of Nazi Vampires from conquering the world is a great descriptor for the marketing department to have a field day with.
#8. Fullmetal Alchemist
Taking place in the fictionalized Amestris, which has many parallels to a fantasized pre-WWII Germany, Fullmetal Alchemist follows two brothers who lose an arm, a leg, and a body in an attempt to use alchemy to revive their dead mother, before being pulled into service as alchemists for the Government– one that slowly, throughout the course of the story, is revealed to be ever more darker and dangerous the longer light is shed upon it.
Fullmetal is lower on this list for much the same reasons Code Geass is. It is a long series that would require the production of several movies and the money for special effects that a studio may not be willing to provide. But if they do, this is a series with one of the highest ceilings of success on this list.
All right, I said no whitewashing and I’m maintaining that, but I also said to stay as close to the source material as possible and that is where this choice will differ. When in pre-production, the cancelled Akira film had several changes to the story: 1. It took place in Neo New York City rather than Neo Tokyo; 2. The characters’ races had been changed from Japanese to White; 3. The plot differed significantly. If I am to suggest that Akira be adapted for an American audience, I feel that one and a half of these changes should be implemented.
The plot should not change. Akira’s heavy themes– including destruction of self worth, a quest for power in the face of powerlessness, self-destruction by one’s own hubris, government control, and rebellion against authority– can and should be easily transferrable to a film targeting an American audience. What’s most interesting is where I’ve often seen these themes elsewhere are in Black American media. There’s a reason someone like Kanye West is a fan of Akira, once owning a replica of Kaneda’s iconic red motorcycle and basing the music video to his hit single Stronger off of scenes from the film.
So here’s my suggestion for a Hollywood adaptation of Akira: set it in Neo New York City if you must, but instead of whitewashing, build a cast of African American actors. It will work, I promise.
Though Ken Watanabe should still play the General, I think everyone should be in agreement on that casting.
#6. Pet Shop of Horrors
It’s about time I got to a real scary movie in this list. A horror/thriller-type series, Pet Shop of Horrors is about a shop in Los Angeles’s Chinatown run by a shady character that sells exotic animals to black-market buyers who often seem to wind up dead as a result of the creatures they’ve purchased, and the detective sent to investigate the root cause of these deaths and to stop them from happening again.
Horror films are notoriously critic-proof, so even if the film gets a whole bunch of bad reviews, a good trailer and a good understanding of horror conventions can make the film a success. Plus, of all the anime listed here, it would probably require the smallest budget.
Since we’re talking about anime thrillers, I’d be remised if I were not to include the most important one. In post-Cold War Germany, a brain surgeon chooses to save the lives of young children injured in a massacre over that of the city’s mayor. Years later, he finds out that one of the children he saved had turned out to be a killing machine– the titular “Monster,” and vows to correct the mistake he made in saving him.
Mystery thrillers never really grow old, and Monster, despite how long the series is, is one that could easily see adaptation into a single movie (albeit, perhaps, a rather long one). Though it is important to note how revered the anime is, so cutting anything out might be a risk all on its own.
All else fails, I know you have the funding, Netflix.
Baccano is a hard show to really explain. At best, I could say Pulp Fiction meets old-school mafia films, with a heavy dose of supernatural elements between the folds. The show jumps constantly between events over the course of 3 years: the militant takeover of a train heading from Chicago to New York in 1931, a girl searching for her missing, mafia-involved brother in 1932, and the creation of a group of immortals in New York City in 1930 that are at the center of the events in the following two years.
Often it feels very much like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie– it is very much a 30’s period piece, its storytelling is very reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, and violence comes in spurts– often out of nowhere and with a whole lot of blood.
When making this list, I had even considered making it #1. However, considering that the series overall is about 5 hours long, and how hard it is to imagine what one would even cut to make it a length viewers would not tire of, I had to knock it down a few pegs. Still, if there are areas that a writer finds they can eliminate to cut that time in half, Baccano is the one anime I would be most excited to see an adaptation of.
#3. Black Lagoon
All of the top 3 anime that are best fitted to be Hollywood adaptations are so because of how easily it would be to keep to the source material while being capable of producing a 90 minute film that feels complete despite not making use of the original anime’s plot completely. Black Lagoon is one of those anime.
Featuring a multicultural cast of characters including a fish-out-of-water Japanese businessman, a black ex-marine, Vietnam vet, and a Chinese-American street-urchin-turned-merciless-mercenary, the story follows the Black Lagoon mercenaries as each episode they take on an odd job– the missions slowly tying together throughout the series.
While it would require the budget most high-octane action movies might require, it is much less of a commitment than other films on the list due to how if a first film flops, it could still stand alone without a sequel, while if it succeeds, it is open for multiple, episodic films.
#2. Lupin III
The top 2 anime on this list possess similar qualities. An interesting band of characters, a jazzy sort of style, and episodic storylines that make it easy to adapt into a series of self-contained films.
Lupin III follows the antics of it’s titular, globetrotting anti-hero as he commits only the flashiest displays of high larceny. Accomplices to his daring deeds include his partner and gunman Jigen and the stoic Samurai Goemon.
Opposing him in almost all of his deeds– all of which he announces before attempting, of course– are the INTERPOL Inspector Zenigata, who has dedicated his life’s work to catching Lupin, and Fujiko Mine, a woman who has jumped constantly between being Lupin’s friend, lover, enemy, and rival– with a reputation for being a better thief than even the titular character himself.
Lupin III has had quite a lot of different anime adaptations over the years, but the most significant work– and most certainly the best example of how well this franchise would work as a Hollywood film– was 1979’s “The Castle of Cogliostro” a film that was co-written and directed by the animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, and has been widely influential, being referenced in animated features from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) to The Simpsons Movie (2007) and beyond.
There have even been longstanding rumors that even Steven Spielberg was influenced by its action sequences in his own films such as the Indiana Jones films and The Adventure of Tintin (2011), and that he had been quoted as calling the chase sequence in the early moments of Cogliostro to be “one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed.”
Of course, these are obviously rumors, but the very fact that they have perpetuated for so long give credit to the portrayal of such action scenes within the film, which are prevalent in most Lupin III works.
You could pick and choose virtually any Lupin III story and find elements to piece together a cohesive and entertaining narrative conducive to a 90 minute film, which is why it’s so high on this list.
#1. Cowboy Bebop
It should come as no surprise that Cowboy Bebop is #1 on this list. It is one of the most accessible anime in existence, often discussed as the gateway anime of the 21st century. It’s got style. It’s got space bounty hunters. It has a giant settlement on Mars that’s an amalgamation of several easily recognizable cities from around the world. It’s got a great cast of characters, an exceedingly interesting backstory, and one of the best soundtracks in any visual media, bar none.
Most importantly though, everything I said about Black Lagoon’s episodic storytelling applies here. Virtually every episode of Cowboy Bebop could be expanded into its own film (although, if one were to adapt it to a Hollywood film, I would rather suggest simply making up a new story) and its own animated feature film is still one of the best anime films ever made.
Keanu Reeves, who has written a script for a Cowboy Bebop live-action Hollywood film, has often said that the reason it hasn’t been green-lighted is due to how large of a budget it would require. Well let me be the first to tell any executives or producers that likely won’t be reading this:
Cowboy. Bebop. Is. Worth. Every. Penny.
And you can take those wulongs to the bank.
A previous version of this article forgot to include Lupin III. That glaring mistake, along with a few slight changes, has been rectified.