When it comes to classic stories in manga, it’s almost a sure bet that you’ll eventually see your favorite Japanese actors and actresses take to the screen to adapt them to live action.
That’s why fans of the Shonen Jump martial arts manga “Rurouni Kenshin” are excited about an upcoming live action adaption of the series. It’s slated to come out in October 2012 and stars up-and-coming actor Takeru Satoh, whose face you’ll remember if you’re up to speed on your J-dramas.
This adaption is hardly setting a trend, though – in Japan, if a manga becomes popular, it’s likely to pop up in various other adaptations. It’s not unusual to see anime, video games, light novels and even theatrical stage productions of popular franchises spawn after an audience proves they love a manga story.
One example is the popular science fiction manga “Gantz,” which tells the story of two friends who die in a train accident and become involved in a cutting-edge game in the afterlife in which they are forced to hunt aliens. “Gantz” quickly became a bestseller and was published in English by Dark Horse in 2007. It has also seen adaptations of every type, the latest being two live action films starring popular Japanese actors Kazunari Ninomiya (also a member of boy band Arashi) and Ken’ichi Matsuyama (best known for his role as “L” in the live action adaption of “Death Note“).
The layers of manga adaptation can continue for years. “Space Battleship Yamato,” Leiji Matsumoto’s classic 1974 manga title, first made the leap to television animation. Broadcast in the United States and Australia as “Star Blazers,” the series was gorgeously translated into an anime in 1977.
Only in 2010 did it get made into a live action movie. The space opera starred Japanese powerhouse Takuya Kimura (of long standing boy band SMAP) in the role of orphan Susumu Kodai. It knocked “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” out of the No. 1 slot when it debuted at the Japanese box office.
It’s a safe bet to say the Japanese live action adaptations are going to keep on coming. But are they merely an excuse to show off Japanese star power and rake in fans, or is there something more to them?
Editor-in-Chief of Japanese culture site Japanator Brad Rice says that part of the motivation to translate manga and anime into live action is about finances.
“In Japan, there isn’t a lot of money floating around to produce totally original works. While it’s a large media market, it’s extremely segmented. So when a production studio looks to make a TV series, film, or anime, they look to already produced works in order to shore up their audience numbers,” says Rice.
“That’s why you see so many remakes in Japan. It’s safe.”
Regardless of how the business strategy behind the scenes works, people continue to flock to theaters to watch and to purchase the media once it’s for sale. Rice says that the approach, however, is a key to how Japanese fans – and eventually American fans – consume their media.
“They might start by reading a manga or enjoying a series – fairly innocuous. But when additional media comes out – movies, DVDs, or even merchandise – they’re faced with a decision: Is the time and effort I’ve already put into enjoying this series worth continuing on with my love of the franchise?”
“The answer, most often, is yes. It’s not an entirely conscious choice, but it’s one we convince ourselves of. If you’ve already read and bought 17 volumes of a manga, you’ll definitely watch the anime, and most likely buy the DVDs for whatever movie comes out of it.”
So the key, it seems, is investment. The more time and energy a fan invests, the more they are interested in continuing to invest. They not only can become experts on the series they are following, but the intimate knowledge of it allows them to bond to other fans and have conversations they couldn’t have without the extensive knowledge and dedication to those brands.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a fan like that,” Rice says. “It’s part of what Japanese media is all about. Because of the highly fragmented nature of the content they produce, fans have to make an active commitment to watching that show, or paying $20 for that movie ticket. There’s not much ‘I just watch this because it’s on’ when it comes to anime, for example.”
“For fans on both sides of the Pacific, when they like something, they really like it. You plan your life around it, to some extent. And when you do that, you become a fan really quickly.”