With the recent success of Edge of Tomorrow and the release of Godzilla, it’s clear Japan’s pop culture franchises can be adapted into big-budget Hollywood films. While neither Edge of Tomorrow or Godzilla were based on anime or manga properties, Japanese cartoons and comics have long been a source of proposed live-action adaptations by Hollywood studios, although these don’t always come to fruition. For every The Guyver, Speed Racer or Dragonball Evolution there’re a handful of Hollywood adaptations that never quite made it into production.
We’ll lead off with a big one: Evangelion. The extremely popular TV series that anime fans have refused to shut up about for nearly twenty years has long been touted as “in development,” set to be adapted into a big budget film. Weta Workshop, known for its work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was reportedly working on just such a project and concept art for the proposed film has been floating around since 2004. While the project has remained dormant for years, rumors continue to pop up, including the likely fabrication by a Korean drama news site claiming a Transformers news site (that doesn’t seem to actually exist) reported Michael Bay as saying that he’d like to direct a film based on the property.
At this point, an Evangelion live-action adaptation seems unlikely and with rights holders Studio Khara and Gainax hard at work on the fourth Rebuild of Evangelion film, they might not even want a live-action film anymore. There’s also the issue of former U.S. Evangelion rights holder A.D. Vision filing a lawsuit against Gainax back in 2011 over issues concerning live-action adaptation rights. Of course, it’s now 2014 and A.D. Vision no longer exists, and the Evangelion rights are shared (sort of) by Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno’s Studio Khara and Gainax, the original production studio. In short, things are sort of a mess.
For navel-gazing fans still longing for a Hollywood version of their favorite anime, there’s always Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which was often accused of ripping off Evangelion by fans seemingly oblivious to the numerous giant robot and tokusatsu cliches that Evangelion itself borrowed from.
A more likely candidate for actual production is Gunm, more commonly known in the U.S. as Battle Angel Alita, which has been attached to director James Cameron for years. A manga published by Yukito Kishiro in 1990, Gunm was released by Viz and became an early hit in the fledging U.S. manga market of the 1990s. Cameron has substantial nerd cred thanks to his Terminator films and Aliens, and he’s been saying he’ll be making a Battle Angel Alita film in the near future for what seems like years now. Cameron’s personal attachment to the story and his ability to get personal projects greenlit gives the possibility of such a production a better chance than your typical anime adaptation, which tend to get kicked around by studios.
While that all sounds promising, unfortunately, the success of Cameron’s Avatar has proven to be a substantial roadblock. Originally scheduled to go into production following the release of Avatar, a demand for sequels prompted Cameron to put Battle Angel on the back burner. While citing the importance of Avatar’s environmental message, Cameron has still hinted that he’d like to make the Battle Angel film, but at the very earliest it won’t be until the Avatar sequels are finished.
A live-action Robotech attached to actor Tobey Maguire was announced back in 2007, but seemed to disappear without much news shortly thereafter. The project then resurfaced in 2013 with Nic Mathieu, a director you’ve probably never heard of, attached as director. Around the same time, it was widely reported that Leonardo DiCaprio had turned down a role in Star Wars Episode VII for a role in the film, although the sources for that news story are dubious at best.
Harmony Gold, the owners of Robotech, shut down licensing contracts years ago in anticipation of the Hollywood film that never materialized, but with a new half-hearted Robotech series attempt on Kickstarter and no news on the film in well over a year, we probably won’t be seeing a live-action Robotech film anytime soon. This is all potentially salt in the wounds of existing fans, many of whom have supported a range of promising fan-made live-action projects which have all been shut down Harmony Gold’s notoriously litigious legal department.
Robotech isn’t the only transforming robot cartoon in town that’s tried its hand at the live-action adaptation game, as Macross, one of the series used to construct Robotech, also flirted with the idea back in the 1990s. While Macross was experiencing a comeback, with both Macross Plus and Macross 7 in production, producers reportedly met with filmmakers in California to discuss a project titled Macross Final Outpost: Earth. Details are scarce, but a page from the reliable Macross Compendium lists a few scant details on the proposed film, which was planned for a Christmas 1996 release date. Nearly twenty years later, it’s safe so say that this project never went farther than early pre-production discussions and is never coming out.
While newer fans may not realize the importance of Akira, it had a massive impact on fandom at a time when most people were getting into anime via tapes rented at Blockbuster. Based on a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira was a spectacularly massive film released at the height of the Japanese bubble economy in 1988, and may be the most impressive animated film produced by the Japanese animation industry. None of this means it would translate well into a live action film, however, although people have been trying to make that happen for years. The most recent news dates from August 2013, and surrounded the announcement that Jame Collet-Serra was again attached as director (he had left the project earlier in 2012). Reportedly, the project now had a budget of $90 million, with DiCaprio attached as a producer and Otomo onboard as an executive producer.
Filming was set to begin in Spring 2014, which clearly never happened. A recent news story mentioned that screenwriter Dante Harper was working with Collet-Serra on the film’s script, but contained no actual updates or filming schedules. Despite Akira’s popularity, the project has long struggled to get into actual production, despite the big names and sizable budget attached to the film. Considering how long this project has been kicked around, it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that this film will never reach production. On the other hand, if you’re crazy enough to think a live-action Akira is a good idea, well, there’s always Kanye West’s “Stronger” music video.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve only scratched the surface of failed live-action adaptations with this article. A Cowboy Bebop film was long rumored to involve Keanu Reeves, and a Bubblegum Crisis film produced by a Singaporean company disappeared as quickly as it was announced. With the breadth of series that continue to be produced in Japan, it’s no surprise that Western companies would look towards some of our favorite anime and manga for material to make the next big blockbuster. Yet it’s not a secret that Hollywood is a cutthroat business, and it’s just as unsurprising that the vast majority of these films never make it to production. So, next time your favorite anime title is announced as having been optioned for a Hollywood film and you’re set to fly off the handle about how it’ll be ruined; keep in mind that it’ll probably never even make it to your local cinema.
What anime or manga series would you like to see adapted into a big screen Hollywood film?