The Other Side of East – Beware of Remakes
The Other Side of East – Beware of Remakes
Surprise! Japanese animé get remade in live-action, too! But the remakes are NOTHING like the modern American remakes of Superman and Batman. Here, producers spend billions on glittering special effects. And the films are not aimed at fans of the original comic book series. Just the opposite. They are aggressively trawling for a larger market. On the other hand, the Japanese live-action remakes remain just as low budget as the originals (if not more so) and target the original audiences. Whether or not they do so successfully is an open question.
Let’s start with the series Erased. The manga (by Kei Sanbe) launched in Kadokawa Shoten’s ‘Young Ace’ magazine in June of 2012, and ran until March, 2016. The animé adaptation aired on Fuji TV’s Noitamina, in January 2016, and ran twelve episodes. It was simulcast by Crunchyroll. I loved it. And it wasn’t just me—it was popular enough to generate two live action remakes. The first was a feature film, which I haven’t seen. As far as I can tell, it never made it out of Japan. The second was a live-action series produced by Netflix.
I tell you all this as if I were some kind of authority, but that’s only because I just finished doing my homework. I knew nothing of it until I stumbled on the title while swimming through the Netflix menu. I mistook it for the original.
“Want to watch this again?” I asked my sweetie.
“Sure,” he replied. “That was a cool show. And they’ll dub it, right?” (He doesn’t like subtitles. Everything on Crunchyroll is subtitled.)
It wasn’t until the credits started rolling that we realized we were not watching the original but a live-action remake. But we were already snuggled into the sofa, with snacks in place. Nobody wanted to start over with hunting up something to watch.
We almost didn’t stick it out. Production standards weren’t high. Right off the bat, we didn’t care for the actress playing the pretty girl. She was supposed to be a teenager, about ten years younger than the hero at the beginning of the story. I specify ‘at the beginning’, because Erased is a time travel tale, and the hero spends much of the series as a ten-year-old.
The age difference is an issue, because at the beginning of the story the hero is something of a loser, working in a pizza joint, making eyes at a high-school girl. But the actor playing the hero did not look like a twenty-nine year old man. (Actually, the actor, Yuki Furukawa, really was twenty-nine, but looked so boyish he could have played a high-school kid.)
The woman, on the other hand, looked all grown up. (I was astonished to discover Mio Yuki really was only eighteen.) Whatever her actual age, her breathless adolescent perkiness looked a little silly. I am forced to conclude that the production team deliberately cast performers who were the right ages, but didn’t bother to look at them first.
Despite our disappointment, we kept on watching. A lot of wonderful detail and subtle character clues were cut, but the basic story remained the same, up through episode #11, when they re-introduced the above mentioned pretty girl. I can’t think why. The animé did not bother to bring her back at this point. The hero is back in the present day, which has been so drastically altered by his time travel, that they have never met, and she has nothing to contribute to the story. (He did look her up some years later, for closure.)
In episode #12, there were more changes—of questionable significance. Naturally, both versions had to end with a dramatic confrontation between the villain and the hero, leading to a resolution of all the major story elements. But apparently the live-action producers found that insufficient, and tried to crank things up a notch.
In the animé, the hero and the villain talk privately on the roof of the hospital where a major character is in care. The hero is visibly weak and would appear to be powerless compared with the villain. The edge of the roof is a mute, but ever-present, threat. It was an edge-of-your-seat scene. But the live-action version found it insufficiently dramatic, and added an elaborate contrivance to relocate them from the hospital to a tourist camp. There, the same confrontation took place on a narrow footbridge over a huge gulf, with fireworks exploding in the background. This did not really change anything, just dragged it out. You may take my word for it. The fireworks didn’t help. The animé was MUCH better.
How can I say that, when I’ve just admitted that the two were very similar? They both had the same story line and the same characters. Even, occasionally, some of the same dialog. But the animé did all these things well. The live-action just copied them. Sometimes the live-action version didn’t even seem to understand what the animé had been getting at, judging by the details it chose to cut.
Did you ever see that classic action thriller/romance Prisoner of Zenda? Not the 1952 technicolor version with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. The 1937 black and white version with Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll. I won’t pretend that the later film doesn’t have its fans. The addition of color was cool. But, even though it is a scene by scene—almost line-by-line—remake featuring big name stars (including James Mason as Rupert of Hentzau!) it isn’t as good. It’s not bad. But not as good as the original. Ms. Kerr is a little too prim. Mr. Granger couldn’t quite match Mr. Colman’s wonderful voice. The chemistry just wasn’t there.
And the Prisoner of Zenda remake was much more skilled and well thought out than the Erased remake. Officially Erased is a time travel story in which a young man is sent back into his own past to set right a terrible wrong which he had been unable, as a child, to prevent, and which has reemerged into the present. But in the original animé, it is a taut psychological drama, starting with the understanding that the young man is weak and ineffectual in the present because he still carries scars from that early tragedy.
His journey into the past is a journey of self-discovery and a path toward much needed healing. That healing evolves beautifully into a transformation of character. His interactions with the villain are intense, strangely intimate, and utterly absorbing. But the live-action version was just a ‘chase the bad guy’ story. Please get hold of a copy of the animé and watch it. Don’t bother with the live-action.
So that’s one way to screw up a remake. Let’s look at another. I mentioned Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood to you in my first column. I didn’t tell you much about it—I was just making the point that many animé are based on manga—but it was my very first ‘must-see’ recommendation. The manga, written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa, appeared in Square Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan magazine between August 2001 and June 2010.
There were two animé series based on the manga. The first, Full Metal Alchemist, was launched in 2003. Unfortunately, it soon got ahead of the manga and veered off in a different (and ultimately less satisfying) direction. As a result, it lost credibility and is not all that well thought of. I won’t say it’s awful. In fact, if you were to watch both, you’d do better to start with the first one. It covers the beginning in much more detail. I’ve even heard it recommended that you watch the first nine episodes of Full Metal Alchemist, and then switch over to Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood (launched in 2009) assumes you watched the previous series, brushes lightly over the beginning of the story, and follows the manga to the end. Whether or not you watch Full Metal Alchemist, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a wonderful show. It is set in an alternate history, where alchemy has been developed as a powerful science. There’s a good deal of humor based on the heroes bemoaning the cheap superstition of people looking for magic answers, even as they perform alchemical feats that surely look like magic to me.
The story is dramatic, taking place in a fascist state, where heroes (true heroes, not just protagonists) and villains abound. It follows two young but talented brothers, who—devastated by their mother’s death—make a dreadful mistake with dire consequences, and spend the rest of their lives struggling to set things right. It is a classic. Nobody who has any interest in animé can ignore it, and nobody who loves an exciting, well-constructed story with great characters would want to. One could argue that it’s not surprising some one would want to adapt it to live-action. The appeal is obvious.
So, just last year Oxibot Inc. and Square Enix produced Full Metal Alchemist, the live-action feature film, directed by Fumihiko Sori (well thought of in Japan) and starring Ryosuke Yamada as Edward Elric. It gives a writing credit to Hiromu Arakawa, but I suspect that was just a legalism, required for their use of his copyrighted material. I see no evidence that he was involved, even minimally, in the screenplay. During production, it was much anticipated by the fans.
After the fact, not so much. I checked the reviews on IMDB, which said things like “okay,” or a “a good attempt,” or “Comes a little short.” Other comments descended to, ” If you liked the animé DON’T watch this,” and “Not worth your time unless you want [to] cringe at all of the mistakes.” Out of 54 reviews, only eight gave it better than five stars out of ten. (Nobody gave it a nine or a ten.) Also, all the reviews that said it was ‘okay’ were written by people who hadn’t seen the animé. Me? I thought it was awful.
So what went wrong? Where do I start? With the hero? Edward Elric is a short, intense man, with distinctively bright yellow hair, highlighted against his jaunty red jacket. It’s normal in both manga and animé to draw Westernized characters, even when they are meant to be Japanese. And Edward Elric wasn’t Japanese. Full Metal Alchemist is set in an alternative Europe, roughly nineteenth century. (They shot it on location in Italy.)
But it was still a Japanese movie. So I expected the live action movie to make Edward Elric Japanese. Or, if they were really committed to the original concept, to bring in a few Caucasian actors. I did NOT expect them to dye his hair bright yellow. (His red jacket looked grungy, too.) It looked so unnatural that I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Am I being unfair? I know lots of teens and young adults who die their hair blue or green or purple, and I don’t stare or sneer. But they are 21st century young people, and they’re not attempting to pass these decorations off as their natural coloring. The idea of Edward Elric fussing with his hair gives me the creeps.
You think that’s a nit? Very well, I’ll let it slide. More serious is the treatment Winry Rockbell is subjected to. Winry is a childhood friend of the Elric brothers, almost like a sister to them. She’s the closest thing to a girlfriend either of them has ever had. (Which isn’t saying much. They are both too obsessed with their mission to waste time on girls.) She’s pretty—but then so are most girls in animé. More to the point, she’s a tough, no nonsense go-getter, and the brothers cower before her temper, even as they depend utterly on her mechanical skill. She is their auto-mail engineer. She’s a genius with machines, and almost as obsessed with perfecting her craft as they are with their mission.
But that’s the animé Winry. In the live-action version, she is a simpering, useless waste of time, who serves primarily to get in the way, whenever things get dangerous.
In all fairness, it’s not just Winry, and not just chauvinism. I could have picked numerous characters, and made the same complaints. Col. Mustang—a handsome, dangerous man of destiny—is downgraded to a grim senior officer. His band of devoted aides—all of them interesting, complicated, lovable characters—is reduced to three faces, only one of whom merits a name. The five homunculi (call them inhuman minions of evil) are reduced to three—not including the most important one—and there is no explanation of what they are, what they want, or why they are there. How could there be? Their story took up most of a season.
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood ran sixty-four episodes. (That’s thirty-two hours of storytelling time.) The story was immense and complicated, with numerous subplots, all of which contributed significantly to the ultimate end. The movie ran two hours fifteen minutes. You do the math. The movie starts with the closing scene of an early animé episode. It’s only the closing scene—there is no recap of the events leading up to the scene, and no explanation of its significance. It serves only to throw out the term ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. (Yes, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone recurs several times in the animé.)
The movie then recounts, almost in its entirety, a single episode from the animé. Credit where credit is due. It was a beautiful, heart-wrenching episode that no fan will ever forget. It doesn’t fit very well with the opening scene, since they are from different story lines, but it is a wonderful story. It is followed by multiple scenes and images extracted from across the canon and stitched loosely together. Like the opening scene, they are all taken out of context, without explanation. As far as I could see, they were selected entirely at random, so as to provide a nod to as many separate sub-plots as possible.
The connections between these scenes were too indirect to survive being taken out of context, so the movie invented crude substitute connections, usually directly at odds with the originals. Let me assure you that this is not like a Star Trek movie, in which we follow the further adventures of familiar characters