Why Hollywood Is Mad About Manga, Despite 'Ghost in the Shell' Controversy

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'Death Note'

With a number of adaptations in the works, Tinseltown finally is catching on to the vast potential of Japanese comics. Says an insider: "There’s a sense of a gold rush in the air."

The “whitewashing” furor over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi in the upcoming DreamWorks/Paramount version of the cult manga Ghost in the Shell may not be the last. There are a handful of other manga adaptations in various stages of development at Hollywood studios, and offers are landing on the desks of Tokyo publishing houses for many more.

Though much will depend on the success or failure of Ghost, the deep well of stories within Japanese manga gradually is becoming better known and easier to access in the U.S. The multibillion-dollar Japanese manga industry already has a lucrative revenue stream in licensing its content for domestic TV dramas and big-screen adaptations, both live-action and animated. So it’s little surprise that publishing houses and manga artists haven’t always felt it necessary to bend over backward to option their properties to Hollywood.

However, with the Japanese film market destined to shrink along with the population, many manga authors and publishers now have become more open to U.S. adaptations of their work. In addition to Ghost in the Shell, a number of high-profile manga adaptations are currently in the works in Hollywood, including Netflix’s Death Note, based on Tsugumi Ohba’s original manga about a teenager who discovers a mysterious notebook that grants him the power to kill, and Warner Bros.’ reboot of the classic Akira manga, which brought on Daredevil showrunner Marco J. Ramirez to script the project.

“There is more interest from Hollywood,” says Sam Yoshiba, executive director of international business at Kodansha, publisher of the original Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow. “Offers have increased and negotiations are ongoing on a number of manga properties, though apart from Ghost in the Shell, it’s still early days in terms of projects actually moving ahead.” Yoshiba concedes that some of the fault for the slow progress over the years can be attributed to “a lack of knowhow in terms of doing business internationally and even of people who could translate for negotiations” at the publishers, though he says this situation has improved.

The perception gap between Hollywood and the manga industry, undoubtedly exacerbated by American-Japanese cultural differences, coupled with the traditionally lengthy process to greenlight any movie project, has meant a slow path to adaptations. Ghost in the Shell took 10 years from the start of negotiations to production.

It’s also been a decade since the Japanese live-action adaptation of the Death Note manga sparked interest from Hollywood. At various points in its development, everyone from Gus Van Sant to Shane Black has been rumored to be attached to the adaptation.

“The tendency in Hollywood is for productions to be much like the proverbial bull in the china shop in terms of mentality toward the source material, a bit insensitive to the culture of manga and anime,” notes Michael Arias, a Tokyo-based filmmaker and the first American director of a Japanese anime with his adaptation of the Tekkonkinkreet manga. That film won him the Japanese Academy Award for best anime feature in 2008. Arias says he now frequently fields calls from U.S. producers looking for properties and that there’s “a sense of a gold rush in the air.”

Adds Stuart Levy, founder of the Tokyopop imprint that introduced so many American fans to manga: “Manga creators have recognized that adaptations of American comics are being done very well.”

But on top of language and cultural barriers, there also is the challenge of acquiring rights to chain titles. Because almost all manga movie adaptations were done via co-productions between many parties, nabbing rights free and clear can be exceedingly complicated. But because Ghost in the Shell and Death Note finally are moving forward, interest is high once more.

“I think Hollywood is revisiting the libraries in Japan,” says Yasumasa Kutami, head of business development of Amuse Group USA. Amuse held an event in March to bridge the Hollywood-Japan corridor and drew execs ranging from studios such as Fox to execs from Bad Robot. The company is hoping to act as a go-between to facilitate dealmaking. “Regulations and chain of title haven’t changed, but it’s much easier to navigate them when the publishers cooperate with us,” says Kutami.

Another recurring problem over the years has been a lack of agent/management representation for manga authors who own the copyright to their works, with publishing houses assuming the de facto role. This is a void that Cork, a Tokyo-based management company representing around 20 manga creators and novelists, has tried to fill.

“As a new company, I was surprised how many meetings we could get in Hollywood,” says Yuma Terada, partner and co-owner of Cork. “I later discovered that Hollywood producers for years had bad experiences dealing with Japan, because they didn’t know who owned what or who to talk to.”

Because the Cork team also acts as editors for their authors, with whom they work closely on all aspects of managing their creative output, the company is able to effectively represent them to producers and publishers in Japan or elsewhere, according to Terada.

Terada believes that the gap between Hollywood filmmakers and Japanese creators is more one of perception than intention. “Everybody knows there is a treasure chest of talented authors and IP in Japan,” he says. “But what a lot of people don’t understand is that most authors would usually like to see a Hollywood movie or TV series made of their works.”

Those familiar with the full range of storytelling and genres in manga point out that the surface has barely been scratched in terms of what could be adapted. “For every Death Note, there are 50 Death Note-quality things in Japan that nobody outside has ever heard of,” says Terada.

“Old titles get very little attention for film/TV adaptation, both in Japan and overseas: The English version, if there was one, is usually out of print,” he adds. “There is a vast catalog of IP from the past that nobody is representing properly.”

But it’s not just Hollywood that’s interested in tapping Japan’s manga empire. Despite the vast amount of material available, U.S. studios are likely to find themselves bidding on some of the same manga properties as their Chinese counterparts.

“There are more offers coming from China now, and we’ve signed deals there for both TV and films recently,” says Ichiro Takase, acting division manager of the international business operations at one of the largest manga publishers, Shogakukan. “Chinese producers tend to be interested in older ‘masterpiece’ types of manga because they read them when they were younger. Even though only about 10 Japanese manga are officially approved for release in China each year, actually producers have read a lot.”

However, Cork’s Terada says that the increasing globalization in the film industry means that rather than engaging in bidding wars, cooperation may be the path ahead for Hollywood and its competitors. “The China and U.S. markets are converging; it’s increasingly a global market,” he says.

Tokyopop’s Levy also sees potential in the alliance. “The triangle between Hollywood, China and Japan is going to get strong in the IP area, and Korea is in the mix, too,” he says. “There are going to be a lot of opportunities.”

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Four Manga That Should Get the Hollywood Treatment
Assassins, criminals and a Japanese Game of Thrones — these comics just might have what it takes to make the leap to the big screen.

The Tenth Prism by Masahito Soda
This fantasy tale follows Tsunashi, a young prince as he struggles with his destiny to revive his fallen kingdom. The unassuming prince, who according to legend possesses great, hidden powers, prefers to spend his days lost in books rather than developing his martial skills. As the danger to his people increases, Tsunashi must unlock the secret behind the patch on his eye, which he can’t remove. The Tenth Prism creator Masahito Soda’s other works have sold more than 15 million copies and been adapted into a TV series, an anime and a live-action film in Japan. The global success of Game of Thrones has not gone unnoticed by manga authors, and this is one of a number of fantasy series with potential global appeal that have appeared recently.

The Fable by Katsuhisa Minami
A slow-burner of a story about a highly skilled gangland assassin, whose abilities to kill any target have made him legendary in the underworld, and his partner, set in the Kansai region (the area around Osaka). The life of “The Fable” undergoes a transformation when he receives an unexpected order from the boss. Japanese fans compare this stylishly violent manga to Golgo 13, the country’s longest-running manga series, which has been previously optioned in Hollywood but didn’t come to fruition.

Kurosagi — The Black Swindler by Takeshi Natsuhara
This series, which ran from 2003 to 2008, follows the exploits of a young man whose family suffered a fatal tragedy after becoming victims of a conman who took their life savings. The young man becomes a fraudster himself, though one who preys only on other swindlers and also helps victims recover their losses. The manga was adapted for a popular live-action TV series by Tokyo Broadcasting System that ran in 2006, which two years later led to a feature film with Tomohisa Yamashita reprising his lead role.

Freesia by Jiro Matsumoto
Set in an alternate version of Japan that is straining under the weight of a prolonged war, this violent psychological thriller comes with a Purge-like premise that seems ready for a Hollywood adaptation: Because prisons have been closed to save money, retaliatory killings have been legalized for the families of crime victims under the Vengeance Act. The lead character is a military-trained assassin who is hired out for revenge killings by a company as a “Vengeance Proxy” to the public. The assassin possesses special powers but also is psychologically unstable and teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

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