Manga to Movies: Why Eastern Comic Film Adaptations Thrive and Western Don’t
Marvel and DC have always been large moving forces for comics, and their recent forays into expanding movie universes has helped put comics in the popular culture limelight in a huge way. While Hollywood filmmakers have been “loosely basing” movies from comics on the sly for years, the open appreciation of comics and comic film adaptations has been on the rise in the Western world. The stories and settings of comics have become “mainstream” enough for movie and TV studios to jump on board, bringing beloved characters to life.
But this is all old hash—Asia has been doing it for ages whereas comics in the Western world are being treated like a cult or even hipster movement. Countries like Japan and Korea have manga everywhere. Billboards, energy drinks, car commercials—when was the last time Superman was selling you a Subaru? I didn’t think so. Manga and manhwa (Korean comics) are part of society at large, the populace immersed. So, is it any wonder that they adapt a large amount of manga into TV shows and movies?
Western comics were previously reserved for large blockbusters, using only high profile, well-known storylines for maximum effectiveness. Sure, there were past attempts at TV shows, but it has only been in the last few years that TV adaptations have really taken off. Shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Daredevil have shown more recently that comics can do well on the small screen to high acclaim.
Manga, however, has already proven that many times. Where a select few are chosen for shows in the West, manga is adapted to live-action left, right, and centre. It’s actually harder to think of a mildly-popular manga that hasn’t been adapted to live-action. Films, sure, but series upon series of television options! Ouran High School Host Club? Adapted. Hana Yori Dango? Adapted, with multiple seasons. Sailor Moon? Adapted, including both shows and musicals! Even smaller or lesser known manga sometime gets adapted, like Cat Street. There seems to be a formula—if a manga or anime does well and it’s feasible, make a thirteen-episode single season (usually with idols for double-damage).
The large volume of manga converted to live action versus the amount of Western comics come to life can be speculated a lot. Maybe it’s just a difference of corporate formula. But if there wasn’t a market for it, the Eastern studios just wouldn’t do it. So why is it that the sheer breadth of adaptations flourishes across the Pacific, but is shied away from elsewhere?
The first factor I’ve recognised is choice of genre. Simply put, Western comic adaptations are almost exclusively action-packed superhero stories. In more recent years, other comics like The Walking Dead have shuffled their way into the light, but the vast majority deal with capes, face masks, and superhuman levels of
brooding strength. Adapted manga, on the other hand, covers a variety of genres. For example, Ouran High School Host Club and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge (known in the West as The Wallflower or literally Perfect Girl Evolution) are both dramatic comedies. Hana Yori Dango is an outright drama. In fact, slice of life and drama titles are the most frequently adapted into quick, single season shows. More suspenseful and action-packed titles tend to be used for movies, such as Death Note, Casshern, Battle Royale, and the upcoming Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan). Western comics tend to be defined by the superhero genre, but because of this, other genres are often overlooked. By not being defined by any particular niche, manga has left itself open to be relatable and visible on a broader spectrum.
Related to this broader scope, manga is more readily recognised as good source material for adaptations. Because Western comics are pigeon-holed as superhero tales, most people aren’t eager, or even able, to openly adapt the next “Not Another Teen Superhero.” This is a shame, because there are a lot of Western comics that are passed over and could easily become adaptations with the same endearment as manga titles. But even Western studios recognise the viability of manga storylines, with Hollywood-produced movies like Edge of Tomorrow (All You Need Is Kill), Speed Racer, the lamentable Dragonball: Evolution, and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell all being based on manga—and none of them about superheroes. Okay, I’ll give you Dragonball: Evolution at a stretch, but do you really want to count that?
In reality, Hollywood uses comics for source material all the time—they just don’t market it that way. How many people outside of their respective fanbases knew that From Hell, Big Hero 6, and Cowboys and Aliens were all based on comics when they saw them? There are few films that are touted as comic adaptations, and it’s usually only when the comic is a heavy hitter, like Marvel, DC, Watchmen, or Frank Miller’s 300 and Sin City. Note that all of those are superhero movies, gruesome gore-fests, or both. Here’s a curveball—how many people knew Sabrina the Teenage Witch was originally a comic series that took place in the same universe as Archie? How many girls would have gotten into comics knowing that tidbit while watching Melissa Joan Hart charm her way into our hearts? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing; it was a huge waste of of an opportunity. It seems that Western filmmakers acknowledge that comics can be good material, but won’t openly admit it most of the time.
In contrast, Eastern markets use the fact that an adaptation was originally a manga as a selling point. Hey, have you read Ouran? Well, now there’s a live-action show! You should watch Hana Yori Dango—based on the highly-acclaimed manga! There is greater readiness and openness to not just admitting, but showcasing that an adaptation is just that: a manga adaptation. Again, this circles back to perspectives; Eastern markets digest a breadth of variety in their manga genres, and it’s not considered a hindrance or niche-appeal when something is based on manga. If anything, it’s a great marketing ploy. Considering most manga is adapted into a single season, viewers will most likely run to check the manga out for the larger story. Everybody wins!
But when Western films don’t admit to being adaptations, the comics creators lose out. No one realises that there is a huge expanded world the film or TV show was based on, and if people want more than just a two-hour taster, they don’t know that they can find their fix in the graphic novels. It’s all the money in the filmmakers’ pockets and very little is returning back to the originators. We’ve seen this turn around with films more recently. I’ll admit to buying the Watchmen comic to read before seeing the film, and I picked it up at Target of all places. Marvel sales and breadth of titles has gone up since establishing the cinematic universe. Diamond Comics’ Top 100 Comics for last month (June 2015) shows all but TWO are Marvel or DC titles, and the vast majority have a film or TV adaptation. The title that isn’t Marcel or DC? The Walking Dead—another TV adaptation. In fact, Image Publishing, who publishes The Walking Dead, has seen a 2% increase in market share from June 2010—four months before The Walking Dead aired on TV—to June 2015. There’s no denying that these successful adaptations have fueled the sales of their comics as well. This is hopefully a growing trend of giving credit where it’s due and not just Marvel pumping titles for their own movies.
This all boils down to one driving factor: attitude. As I mentioned earlier, the Eastern markets are diverse and well-received by the general populace. When in Japan, it’s difficult to turn around and not see manga in front of you. It is another beloved medium in which to digest stories, and there isn’t the same stigma or stereotype like there is in the West. The Western market, on the other hand, is plagued by the stereotype of superheroes with super problems consumed by basement-dwelling man-children.
But that is just categorically wrong. Western comics range all genres, all age groups, and appeal to all demographics because of it. We’ve seen Hellboy (another good adaptation where the comic was plugged, thank you very much) demonstrate that the fantastical and grotesque creatures of comic fantasy can be done in enchanting ways, and Inception has shown us that dreamscapes are not beyond the reach of film magic—so how about an adaptation of The Sandman by Neil Gaiman? Forget Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy—give me a live-action Sunstone (by Stjepan Sejic) any day of the week. Yet, there seems to be this fear of developing adaptations for anything but a stereotypical market; if there aren’t super powers or gore and if it doesn’t 100% appeal to young men, then don’t adapt it. But why? Again, it’s the attitude the Western world holds towards comics. And it could learn something from the East in this respect.
But maybe there is hope on the horizon. In more recent years, comics other than the superhero-norm have been gaining traction and press. Perhaps with this, we will see the upsurge of a new age in film adaptation. After all, we did get a Scott Pilgrim movie, and Preacher has just been greenlit as an AMC TV series. Even beloved teen-drama Archie is slated for a TV series (which has now moved from Fox to CW—hey, don’t they do those other comic adaptation series like Arrow? Interesting.). Could a Lumberjanes serial be ahead? Or maybe some fantasy-love with Fables or Saga? How about some of The Wicked and The Divine in your face every week? We can all dream.