It was always only a matter of time until modern Hollywood resigned itself to remaking anime. Which isn’t to suggest that the uniquely Japanese medium is somehow unworthy of being used as fodder for Western blockbusters — on the contrary, anime has provided some of the most progressive, adventurous, and visionary filmmaking of the last 30 years — but rather to acknowledge the palpable whiff of inevitability with which Paramount is releasing “Ghost in the Shell.”
It’s not like studio executives are obsessive fans of the franchise, it’s not like former Paramount CEO Brad Grey bought every new DVD of “Stand Alone Complex” as it was released in the United States and can walk you through every detail of the Laughing Man case, it’s not like the people in power were just patiently waiting for the entertainment climate to warm up to the idea of a star-studded Major Kusanagi origin story because they felt that $110 million was a small price to pay for the rewards (and the riches) of bringing something like that to the big screen.
No, what happened is that the film industry decided that IP is more important than the actors who bring it to life — that the shell is more important than the ghost inside — and the age of movie stars gave way to the age of branding. But there are only so many superheroes to go around, so Hollywood eventually began searching for other pre-existing properties they might be able to exhume; from “Power Rangers” to “Cloverfield” to “Jem and the Holograms,” anything became fair game so long as it inspired even the slightest hint of recognition.
So yeah, it was only a matter of time until modern Hollywood resigned itself to remaking anime. And not in the sporadic, embarrassed way that resulted in those awful live-action “Dragonball Z” movies, or in the heavily processed, off-brand way that brought us “Pacific Rim,” and definitely not in the “cocaine is a hell of a drug” way that led to the hilariously bad 1991 Mark Hamill vehicle, “The Guyver.” No, anime is going to have a moment — potentially even a breakthrough — as various forces conspire to see if it can be used as a resource to power the next wave of studio tentpoles. Between “Ghost in the Shell,” Netflix’s upcoming “Death Note,” the long-threatened “Akira” redux, and Sofia Coppola’s live-action riff on “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (okay that’s not a real thing, but like… what if?), anime might finally be elevated from a niche to a necessity.
The water is certainly the right temperature for it to be comfortably tested. Anime has never been more available to American audiences, as streaming services like Crunchyroll and FunimationNow make it possible to hold a full library of classic movies and shows in the palm of your hand (and watch new shows mere hours after they premiere in Japan). If Hollywood is opening itself up to the idea of bring anime to the screen, these are the films and series where it should start.
Perhaps the most popular anime series on this side of the planet, “Cowboy Bebop” would almost certainly have been adapted into a live-action movie (or a trilogy) already if not for the fact that any such project would cost enough money to cripple a studio. Set in the year 2071, decades after humanity has started to colonize the rest of the solar system, Shinichirō Watanabe’s unfathomably cool 26-episode classic follows a ragtag group of intergalactic bounty hunters as they track fugitives from Venus to the moons of Jupiter and everywhere in between.
Fueled by its iconic jazz score (courtesy of the inimitable Yoko Kanno) and filled with unforgettable characters, this hyper-accessible space Western is a soulful pastiche on par with Tarantino, but its greatest asset — and the first thing that would likely be lost in any sort of remake — is the endlessly rich world that it explores. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying to capture lightning in a bottle; Keanu Reeves was once attached to play perma-ruffled hero Spike Spiegel (imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood and Jean-Paul Belmondo), but budgetary issues kept the project earthbound.
“Serial Experiments: Lain”
Part “Ghost in the Shell” and part “Twin Peaks,” this dense and dizzying 13-episode series begins with a class of Japanese teenagers receiving a new email from a fellow student who recently jumped to her death, and it ends… well, I couldn’t explain how it ends if I tried, but viewers should prepare themselves for the deepest of dives into the world of the Wired, where identity and being are as fluid as computer data. Honestly, trying to distill this show into a two-hour movie would be sheer madness (doubly so if character designer Yoshitoshi Abe wouldn’t be involved), but this moody, laconic odyssey to the frontiers of human consciousness approaches the unknown with a fearlessness that could inspire someone (Shane Carruth + Netflix?) to give it a shot.
“R.O.D. the TV”
A 26-episode show adapted from the popular “Read or Die” light novels, the curiously titled “R.O.D. the TV” takes the spirit of “Charmed,” infuses it with a deep love for all things literary, and drops it into the body of a female-driven Avengers movie. The story of three very different Hong Kong sisters, each of whom can magically manipulate paper in their own awesome way (the combat sequences are exceptionally clever, and far more tactile than people shooting colored beams of light at each other), the series kicks off with the girls moving to Tokyo and becoming bodyguards for a popular Japanese novelist — somehow, the girls soon find themselves fighting against a villainous plot to rewrite the world. Boasting incredible action, wonderful women, and a genuine love of books, “R.O.D. the TV” is ripe for a live-action remake.
As a bonus, a studio wouldn’t even need to whitewash the project in order to round it out with “bankable” Hollywood stars — the girls must be cast with Asian actors (they’re named after Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Michelle Yeoh, for goodness sake), but the bad guys are all Brits!
“Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”
It’s a shame that Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation was such a watered down and whitewashed non-starter, because few anime stories would stand to benefit so much from a layer of flesh. Immeasurably ahead of its time from the start, Masamune Shirow’s cybernetically enhanced neo-procedural has proven to be one of the most resilient examples of futurist storytelling. But while any commercially viable riff on the original movie would be fall prey to the pitfalls of an origin story, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film is really just the tip of the iceberg. No, if Hollywood wanted to call a mulligan and do this right (with “Wolverine” star Rila Fukushima as Major?), they should start with the brilliant television series that followed.
The genius of “Stand Alone Complex” wasn’t the convoluted master narratives that it threaded throughout each of its two seasons, but rather the monster-of-the-week episodes that scratched at the infinite ramifications of blurring the line between humans and machines. Every one of those short-form stories was packed with enough plot for a feature, and every one of those plots mandated a more nuanced exploration of identity politics than Sanders was able to fit into his film. There are any number of ways to explore a futuristic world in which civilization has clumped together in an amorphous hodgepodge of skin and wires, and “Stand Alone Complex” knows all of them.
“Voices of a Distant Star”
Anime fans are sick of the misconception, but it bears repeating: Anime isn’t all space cowboys and giant robots and big-eyed schoolgirls wiping comically huge beads of sweat off their foreheads while exposing their underwear. In fact, the idea that animation could be contained in such a small array of subgroups is an utterly American invention — in Japan, “cartoons” are for everybody, they tell every kind of story. For proof, look no further than Makoto Shinkai, whose latest feature just became the highest-grossing anime film of all time (it opens in the U.S. on April 7).
A singularly sensitive animator who some people have come to regard as the next Miyazaki, Shinkai has built his career upon a series of achingly bittersweet melodramas that have far more in common with “Before Sunset” than they do “Ninja Scroll” or whatever. The humanity of his films makes them unusually viable for adaptation, though their hyper-saturated beauty — which petrifies his characters beneath an acrylic gloss of memory and regret — makes it easy to imagine how much might be lost in translation. Perhaps Hollywood could ease into it with “Voices of a Distant Star,” the groundbreaking 25-minute short that Shinkai made by himself in 2002. The movie that “Interstellar” desperately wanted to be and almost was, the heartbreaking anime tracks two lovelorn teens as one of them is enlisted to fight an alien war in the outer reaches of the galaxy. The further she travels, the slower she ages, and the longer it takes for their emails to reach one another. You’ll never see a sadder story about a teenage girl destroying giant space slugs.
Satoshi Kon left us far too soon (the staggeringly brilliant storyteller died of cancer in 2010; he was only 46 years old), but he left behind a slim oeuvre that will shape 21st century cinema for decades to come. Of course, his volatile, shattering, psychologically profound body of work has already been thoroughly subsumed into American film, as “Black Swan” is like a defanged remake of “Perfect Blue,” and “Inception” is pretty much just “Paprika” without the spice — Kon’s movies, mind-melting as they are, each use animation to deepen the impact of stories that are set in a mundane and recognizably human world, and so it’s easy to appreciate the ways in which he’s inspired more traditional directors.
But while the TV show “Paranoia Agent” remains his magnum opus, 2001’s “Millennium Actress” seems like the most viable source for a live-action remake, albeit one intended as Oscar bait rather than as a summer tentpole. Swirling together the lives of legendary Japanese actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, this Charlie Kaufman-esque character study blurs the line between fantasy and reality as it uses an aging star’s movie roles in order to tell her life story and solve the mystery of her broken heart. While the inherent Japaneseness of Kon’s story can’t be overstated, the only value of repurposing this story would be to see how its structure could be applied to another celebrity in another film industry. Transposing the same premise over the Hollywood system and attaching it to a Meryl Street type, for example, could yield incredible results. If done arbitrarily, it could be a cheap example of cultural appropriation — if done with purpose, it could honor the extent to which Kon’s work has provided a lens through which we can better see ourselves.
Remember how cool it was the first time you watched “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and you had no idea that Robert Rodriguez’s pulpy gangster drama was going to abruptly transform into something else? Imagine if “Goodfellas” did the same thing. “Gungrave” might telegraph its descent into genre insanity from the very start, but that doesn’t make its wild trajectory any less exciting to follow. A sweeping story of friendship that follows two bros from womb to tomb (and beyond) as they rise through the ranks of a criminal syndicate in a fictional port town, the epic saga has all the ingredients to become a blockbuster sensation: Love, sex, betrayal, intricate heists, weird zombie things, giant winged monsters, a bad guy named “Big Daddy…” what more could you want? At 26 episodes, “Gungrave” is a bit long in the tooth, but as the 160-minute Martin Scorsese movie of my dreams, it could be just right.
“Neon Genesis Evangelion”