Just as in Hollywood, comic book adaptations are a big deal in Japanese cinema. However, where Western adaptations are largely restricted to the adventures of caped crusaders, the more diverse nature of Japanese manga allows for far more genres within the genre. Animations, live-action films, American re-appropriations, chick-manga-flicks, all make up large parts of this immense, and increasingly global industry.
For many cinema-goers the first point of contact with characters that inhabit blockbuster comic-book adaptations like Spiderman, are with the films themselves. In Japan with manga ubiquitous and almost entirely stigma-free this is never the case. A visit to a manga cafe, round every corner in the big cities, is a revelation. Every wall of these enclosed, windowless emporiums is an enormous bookshelf, which heave with comics on every subject imaginable. Visitors pile selections into shopping baskets before retreating to dimly lit booths and reading their hearts out. Walking past a convenience store after 6.00pm anywhere in Japan will see a row of white-shirted salary-men and school students in the window, normally two deep, pawing through the latest releases. The immense importance of manga in Japanese cultural life means that when a comic does get made into a movie it is a major event on the cinema calendar, and comes attached with a dedicated fan-base who queue up for tickets in droves.
Around 300 films have made the transition from paper to camera. The overwhelming majority of which, have been turned into animated films. Household names such as Doraemon a cat-like alien who helps the hapless elementary-school student Nobita, Detective Conan a crime-fighting 17 year old high-school student, and the bizzare pirates of One Piece with super powers like elasto-arms, churn out summer movies to capitalize on the kids school breaks. The jury is out on the merit of these films as their stories exist externally to the narrative of the manga. They are generally perceived as light-weight cash cows. Try telling that to one of the millions of kids who dragged their parents to see One Piece: Strong World in 2009. Despite being the tenth film in the series it pulled in a hefty 48 million dollars to make it Japan's second highest grossing domestic film of the year. The first, incidentally, was an animated Pokemon film.
This is not to imply that animations in general are in any way inferior to their live-action counter-parts. Some of them are genuine landmarks in cinematic history. One of the first to arrive internationally was the brilliant and renowned Akira in 1988. It is the story of Neo-Tokyo in 2019 with rival gangs ravaging the dystopian metropolis. Visually sumptuous and genuinely epic, just like Blade Runner it is one of those rare films that depict vivid futures and somehow manage to remain undated as the decades roll by. Only eight years away from 2019, rioters in London are doing their best to make it look prophetic. Ghost in the Shell, about cyber-police protecting the mainframe from virtual criminals, is another essential moment in anime history. Adult in presentation, but even more so thematically, it has been sighted as a major influence on films like the Matrix. It's sequel Innocence, an official selection at Cannes, is of the same high standard, using animation augmented with CGI technology to give it a really striking beauty.
Ghibli, with Pixar, mark the pinnacle of children's animation. Generally releasing original stories, their one foray into manga adaptation is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Maybe not quite in the same league as Spirited Away or Princess Monoke, it is still an exceptional film. A typical Ghibli piece with strong female lead and resonating with the environmental concerns that are a key element of all the studio's work. One slight aside is that with a lot of animations like these, especially the older ones, the English dubbing can be clunky, wooden, and down-right bad. Japanese audio and subtitles is almost invariably the way to go.
Live-action films are less frequent, yet with the advent of cheap CGI technology are going through something of a boom. This said, they tend to float around two extremes, as in brilliant or just down-right awful. The re-release this month of Battle Royale is as good a place as any to start. Dividing opinion all over the world, banned in the U.S following the Columbine massacre, and forcing Japanese politicians to create a committee on violence in the media, it's probably the most memorable release of any Japanese film. It's kind of a sociopathic Lord of the Flies about high-school students forced to kill each other to survive, brilliantly directed, unflinchingly brutal, and darkly comic. If that's not quite sadistic enough for you, then Ichi the Killer is more than a few steps up the twisted ladder from even that. Capturing all the blood-splattering, unbridled gore of the comics it is the story of the under-dog madman Ichi in his fight against the sinister yakuza. A tough watch, but for people with the stomach for a bit of ultra-violence, it doesn't come much more ultra than this.
The Death Note series, about a boy who has the power to kill people just by writing their names in a notebook, was immensely popular in Japan. An interesting concept with a clear attempt to maintain a feel of the comics in its acting. It is worth watching, if verging on the light side of things. There is no better live-action adaptation though, than the masterpiece that is Old Boy. Part of Korean director Park Chan Wook's trilogy of revenge films, the story is lifted from the manga series and given its own spell-binding spin. Live Octopus eating, incest, maniacal violence, bags of style, and a phenomenal performance from lead Choi Min Sik, this really is as good as it gets.
Comics don't strike most people as a particularly feminine pursuit. In most cases fanboys generally do tend to be boys. This though, is another intriguing difference in Japan. Not only do girls enjoy what might be viewed elsewhere as simply for the boys, there are huge swathes of the industry dedicated solely to girls. These kind of comics are referred to as shoujo, which means young girls in Japanese. Content wise they tend to revolve around love and friendship, there are some oddities just as in male orientated manga but to a far far lesser extent. They tend to be either super-serious or light-hearted. Just watching the trailer should make it fairly easy to determine which angle they are going for. For non-fans of Shoujo I can safely verify that light-hearted is considerably less vomit inducing, and sometimes, dare it be said, embarassingly watchable.
Recent examples include, Kimi ni Todoke (From Me To You): a geeky girl (naturally, a very pretty one) winning over the affections of the high-school heart-throb , High School Debut: Sporty high-school girl asks the coolest guy in school to coach her in romance in a film that plays up its manga origins, Honey and Clover: love triangle at art school, and Koizora (Sky of Love): based on a series of mangas only originally available on cellphones. It tells the story of the girl that falls in love with the punk-kid with a hidden sensitive side. They are immensely popular in Japan, cheap to make and guaranteed to do well, it is easy to see why studios are so enamored with them.
The Japanese film industry and Hollywood have always enjoyed a close relationship. Early Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa influenced Hollywood for decades, even Star Wars' C3P0 and R2D2 were even lifted from two peasant characters in his Throne of Blood. In the '90s Hollywood began rehashing the back catalogue of J-Horror films ad nauseam like The Ring, and The Grudge, with little fanfare.With fanbases in place, and considerable riches available to the successful adaptation it is no surprise that Hollywood, which pilfers ideas from all corners of the globe, is trying to get in on the act. However, and illustrative of the importance of manga to Japanese cultural identity, Western versions of Japanese comics are distinctly frowned on. Regardless of the higher production values and sharper effects, they just can't seem to make a mark in their spitirual homeland.
The shockingly bad Hollywood incarnation of the internationally popular Dragon Ball Z - Evolution was universally despised in its motherland. As the posters went up around Tokyo, dissenting voices began wondering why America thought it could kidnap an inherently Japanese story. Said voices were all vindicated on release as it was panned across the globe. The Disneyfied Astro Boy a collaboration between an American and Japanese studio, but with an American director and team of writers at the helm, fared better critically but was still a bit of a box office non-event in Japan, so too the Wachowski brothers (Matrix) Speed Racer. Interestingly, and perhaps instructive in the reasoning behind Hollywood's motivations, the films have all been relatively rewarding successes in China.
However, things are not all smooth-sailing with Japanese productions either. On paper the comics can go on eternally finishing each episode with a cliff-hanger, leading straight to the next edition. The sprawling nature of the books can be detrimental to the tight cohesiveness required of their silver-screen counterparts. The recent Gantz made this crystal-clear. The first of the two films was structured neatly around the first episode of the comics. It allowed for a tightly paced, neat, and accessible, film, which thoroughly deserved all its plaudits. The second was not so fortunate. Required to be the work-horse of the two, it took on far more than its fair share of narrative. It left some plot strands under-developed and frankly pretty confusing. Additionally, perhaps acutely aware that some of the more sci-fi elements of manga doesn't appeal to core female demographics, the lead roles frequently go to pop stars and teen idols in a bid to concrete a more broad interest. Their acting ability is sometimes as sketchy as their music. Yet, this is unlikely to change, as it is clearly working with Japanese manga adaptations religiously featuring in the annual box office top tens.
Manga in the cinema has undeniable ups and downs, the downs being in the majority, too. But, when they come good, they represent some of the best films to come out of Japan. With public demand increasing, production costs decreasing, and spurred on by the spiralling box office stats the number of live-action films will continue its upward trend. The afore-mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell films have both been optioned by major Hollywood studios for live-action remakes, with Spielberg behind the latter. They seem to continue to come up against stumbling blocks in the pre-production stage, but it would be interesting to see if Spielberg could break the American rot. At the end of the day with such large amounts of manga making it into cinemas it is unrealistic to expect it all to be of the same high standard. There is a lot of rubbish out there, but the occasional gems make it worthwhile.