The 2017 Netflix movie adaptation of Death Note, a manga and anime about a book that can kill people, was widely critiqued as a flop. In December 2021, Netflix cancelled Cowboy Bebop, its live-action adaptation of the space Western manga and anime of the same name, after just one season.
The cross-pollination of Hollywood and Japan goes back for decades. References to Japan, such as the image of a geisha on a screen, are plentiful in the 1982 sci-fi movie Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott.
The film, in turn, influenced anime, including the Blade Runner: Black Lotus anime that first aired in 2021.
Japanese pop culture expert Roland Kelts says it’s a “stunning moment for anime”, in part due to streaming on platforms like Netflix, which has helped make entertainment borderless.
Live-action One Piece, expected later this year, comes on the heels of the global success of Demon Slayer, another manga that got its start in Shonen Jump and was adapted into a movie and an anime series that was picked up by Netflix.
In February, The Pokémon Company announced Pokémon Concierge, a stop-motion anime collaboration with Netflix. Pokémon is the world’s most valuable media franchise with estimated all-time sales of US$100 billion, according to a 2021 Statista report. Followed by Hello Kitty, the two Japanese products outrank Western offerings like Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and Star Wars. Hollywood live-action adaptations of other popular Japanese products – from Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 body-swap anime Your Name to the Gundam franchise of giant robots that started in 1979 – are also in progress.
Anime has a low production cost compared to live-action films, and computer-generated heroes don’t get sick or injured or make offensive remarks offscreen like real-life actors sometimes do, making it a marketable medium, said Kelts, author of Japanamerica, which documents Japanese pop culture’s influence in the United States.
“They are stylised and stateless characters. What I mean by that is that anime characters travel globally very, very well,” Kelts said. “The human celebrities don’t always travel so well.”
Established bestsellers offer the advantage of a built-in fanbase, but they also come with strict scrutiny. Some, like Ghost In The Shell, have been criticised for “whitewashing” the Asian original. The 1995 animated movie was made into a Hollywood live-action in 2017 amid complaints about casting white American actor Scarlett Johansson as the main character – though Asia largely stayed out of the debate.
Live-action One Piece will star Mexican actor Iñaki Godoy (The Imperfects) as Luffy – whose nationality is canonically a mystery – alongside American actor Emily Rudd (The Romanoffs) as Nami and Japanese-American actor Mackenyu (Fullmetal Alchemist: Revenge Of Scar, Fullmetal Alchemist: Final Transmutation) as Roronoa Zoro.
The main character’s inclusive persona, drawing more and more companions to join his quest throughout the story, highlights the kind of school, office or workplace environment people crave in modern-day society, fan Oiki said.
“Luffy is that leader we all want,” she said. “Luffy is a hero but not an extraordinary hero. He is one of us. He wants to be king of the pirates, but not so he can rule, but so everyone can be free.”