American animated television, for a long time, was divided into two principal types: crass sitcom for mature audiences, or adventure-oriented kids' shows that were designed to sell toys. That changed in the 1990s, when Nickelodeon debuted Rugrats, Doug, and Ren & Stimpy, while over at a fledgling Cartoon Network, Fred Seibert and studio Hanna-Barbera revolutionized American children's animation by launching What a Cartoon!, a showcase that brought the 7-minute format of the much older Looney Tunes -- which were short films, mind you, not TV shows -- to bear that eventually launched series, including Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls.
And yet, "the American perception of animation is still largely oriented around comedic animation for adults (e.g., The Simpsons, Rick and Morty) or content geared towards children," Lisa Holme, vice president of content acquisition at Hulu, said. "But anime is a leading example of what the animation medium can accomplish and is challenging these conventions. Anime is now transcending the 'geek' culture, as helped by crossover hits like One Punch Man, My Hero Academia, and Attack on Titan."
That transcendence of geek culture comes at a time at which geek culture is pop culture: Star Wars is no longer a nerdy interest that will keep you a Cheeto-munching basement dweller forever, but dominates the box office whenever the latest Marvel or DC superhero movie (usually Marvel, let's be real) doesn't beat it to it. Hence the obvious shift from the idiot box to the silver screen, where the money has traditionally always been.
Early adapters like the abysmally rated Dragonball Evolution, the horribly whitewashed The Last Airbender, and the Wachowskis' Speed Racer were panned by critics, as was the live-action Ghost in the Shell, whose producers decided, in their infinite wisdom, to cast Scarlett Johansen as the fundamentally Japanese cyborg protagonist of one of the most iconic anime movies of all time -- one that just so happens to very deliberately unpack cultural circumstances unique to post-WWII Japan. This year's Alita: Battle Angel, a reworking of the 1993 original video animation Battle Angel, is the 18th highest-grossing film of the year to date. And Netflix, in conjunction with its Japanese partners, brought live-action film adaptations of teen-boy-with-stupidly-big-sword show Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Death Note, all of which suffered some critical barbs.
But wait, there's more: The aforementioned My Hero Academia and Makoto Shinkai's tear-jerking surprise blockbuster from 2017 Your Name. are both getting the live-action treatment. And now there are rumors of a live-action version of One Piece, the absurdly long-running (20 years!) magic pirate show, coming to Netflix at some point.
Like their sacrificial forebears, they will probably all get panned, at least to some extent. As Holme puts it, the live-action anime adaptation is "a tough nut to crack." A successful adaptation "needs to be attractive in cast and story to a Western audience who has no idea about the original IP or anime culture." Simultaneously, Fukunaka noted, "to be successful, future live-action adaptations will need to balance both the spirit of the original anime and respect for the Japanese culture behind it with the amount of adaptation necessary for mass market appeal. I believe," he added, "the major studios will discover that balance."
They're certainly trying. Until consumer interest -- even skeptical interest -- wanes in the Western market, these adaptations won't stop coming. Why would they? There's money to be made. But will any adaptation ever please everybody? It's hard to tell, at least as long as Hollywood and the major television studios and streaming services continue to struggle to stick the landing.
That said, as McCollum pointed out, all this adapting goes both ways. Adult Swim and Crunchyroll are co-producing, with Alcon Entertainment, original Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe's new anime, Blade Runner — Black Lotus, a spinoff of Ridley Scott's 1982 cyberpunk noir that has since spawned sequels, including a previous animated one by Watanabe himself. And DeMarco insists that, unlike live-action remakes of anime up to this point, he intends to get the reverse just right.
"Blade Runner is the literal blueprint for cyberpunk anime, which is an entire genre that really defined anime in the late '80s and early '90s, particularly," DeMarco said, pointing to its distinct influence on films like Akira -- which is being rebooted as a live-action film by Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and as a new animated series based on the manga -- and Ghost in the Shell. "I think that it's a lot easier with Blade Runner, because you're turning it into an anime when anime has already done versions of Blade Runner by absorbing the look and feel and atmosphere and recontextualizing it in a Japanese way for years and years and years. The language is already something that Watanabe, in particular, already speaks. That's the other thing: Everyone involved on the show is a lifelong Blade Runner fan. Literally everyone."
This means, DeMarco insists, that the anime will be true to the vision of the original film. Discussing anime's greatest strengths, Fukunaga pointed to its "relatively modest" production budgets -- at least, he said, when compared with live-action or CGI films -- which allows creators "to be true to their vision without the pressure to service a mainstream audience." This is good news for networks and streaming services, because the interest in those creators and their vision doesn't seem to be going anywhere. (It is bad news, however, for animators and studio staffers, who notoriously struggle with being significantly overworked and vastly underpaid.)
That's partly why Netflix, clearly the streaming giant despite a healthy amount of competition in the anime space, isn't just adapting anime. It's licensing and generating a bonkers amount of content in the format. Sanrio-fodder Aggretsuko, wackadoo demonic fantasy Devilman Crybaby, elegant post-war PTSD exploration Violet Evergarden, telekinetic slice-of-life comedy The Disastrous Life of Saiki K., aliens-vs-giant-mechas space opera Knights of Sidonia, and plenty of others, have all found audiences or favorable critical responses. Another Watanabe series airing in Japan right now, Carole & Tuesday, will eventually be distributed in the US by Netflix as well.
"We're nowhere near capacity," Derderian said. "There's a huge appetite on Netflix for anime programming. A show like Devilman Crybaby is universally lauded, but it's also one of our biggest shows." Which, it should be noted, is a fascinating characterization to make, considering that Devilman Crybaby is insanely fucked up, what with its hypersexualized psychedelia, endless capacity for violence, and an ending that rivals Neon Genesis Evangelion in its bleakness. In other words: It's not safe for work, let alone kids. "On the business side of investing in anime, we have huge tailwinds and support from the top of the company to really invest in this category because it's so global and it's such a unique art form and has such a deep fandom around the world."