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The Manga Invasion of Japanese Cinema

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Many of the major cinematic works of Japan are based on some type of literary source. Classic films such as Rashomon and popular modern films such as Battle Royale are derived from well-known novels. Recently, a new type of literary adaptation has emerged in Japanese cinema - the manga adaptation. Popular manga - or Japanese comics - are certainly no stranger to adaptation as they are often turned into anime - or animation - usually weekly TV series. In turn, popular anime series then go to cinemas as feature-length animated films. Popular examples of these adaptations are Pokemon, Doraemon, and Gundam, just to name a few.

Attempts to bring manga adaptations to the big screen as live-action Japanese films have mostly been hit-and-miss in the last decade with adaptations such as Boogiepop and Others, Kagen No Tsuki, and Cutey Honey made under low budgets with limited exposure during their theatrical runs. Manga adaptations are often difficult to translate to live action because of their sheer ambitions in pictorial form. Similar to American comic adaptations, Japanese films have only recently found ways to adapt ambitious fantasy manga due to advances in computer graphics. However, not all manga adaptations happen to need a boatload of money and state-of-the-art graphics. Sometimes just having a hit TV series will do.

Great Teacher Onizuka

Great Teacher Onizuka - or better known as GTO - first appeared in manga form in 1997. Created by Toru Fujisawa, it tells the story of a common street thug who becomes the teacher for a class of juvenile delinquents, changing their lives one at a time. With the manga an instant hit, Fuji Television adapted GTO into a 12-episode series starring Takashi Sorimachi in 1998. The television series remained fairly faithful to the manga, sans some of the more offensive material. In the end, the series became a massive hit, with its finale scoring a 35.4% rating, ranking as not only the eighth highest-rated program in 1998, but also the highest-rated finale for a comedy series in Japanese television history.

Fifteen months later in December 1999, Fuji Television released GTO the Movie after the TV special scored high ratings earlier that year. With the exception of Sorimachi as Onizuka, the film features an entirely new cast and a new story that brings Onizuka to Hokkaido for another troubled group of young students. While not a literal adaptation of the manga, GTO nevertheless became one of the first exceptions to the rule, proving that manga can indeed translate into live-action film.


In 2005, television network TBS greenlighted the adaptation of worldwide sensation NANA, the story of two different girls with the same name searching for love and success in Tokyo. NANA was the perfect source for adaptation - it already had millions of fans throughout Asia, the story was actually quite easy to adapt to live action, and with its use of music, cross-promotion was virtually guaranteed. Nevertheless, TBS took plenty of risks to get NANA on the big screen. The producers hired Kentaro Otani, a director whose previous experiences were mainly in independent films such as Thirty Lies or So and Travail. However, in a bit of smart casting, TBS also managed to net pop star Mika Nakashima in her first film role as one of the leads.

And the risks paid off. NANA never reached the top spot at the box office, but strong word of mouth kept the theaters full and the film spent over eight weeks in the top ten, grossing over US$35 million. NANA became one of the top-grossing Japanese films of 2005, propelling the careers of Aoi Miyazaki (who plays one of the titular leads) and Yuna Ito (who plays the lead singer of a pop band featured in the film). It spawned an anime adaptation, and even earned the "popularity award" at the Japanese Academy Awards. However, the biggest success probably goes to Mika Nakashima, who scored one of the five best newcomer awards, a best actress nomination, and her first No. 1 single. Nakashima returned for the highly anticipated sequel, NANA 2, in December 2006, but with the rest of the main cast replaced, the film could not reach the heights of its predecessor.

Death Note

Thus far, NANA had been the only manga adaptation to find mainstream success before an anime version was produced. In 2006, however, this would all change with Death Note, the adaptation of the popular manga by Takeshi Obata, who also helped pen the popular manga/anime Hikaru no Go. Death Notetells the story of a brilliant young man who picks up a Death God notebook that kills anyone whose name ends up in it, and the young genius detective who tries to track him down. Death Note is a relatively unique adaptation because it is one of the first Japanese productions by Hollywood movie giant Warner Bros., which also produced Brave Story and Catch a Wave in the same year. Like NANA, Death Note had its share of risks - not only was the film riding on just the popularity of the manga (which has sold 18 million copies thus far, so maybe it's not such a big risk after all), it was also separated into two parts (perhaps following the strategy of Kill Bill), both to be released within a six-month period. This showed a great deal of financial risk - and good faith - on Warner Bros.' part.

With a prime summer release date, Death Note opened big in Japan, staying on top of the box office for two weeks in a row. More amazingly, it also opened big across Asia, becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film in the Hong Kong box office since The Ring. The blockbuster success of Death Note was followed up a few months later with Death Note: The Last Name which revealed the fates of the films' heroes, played by Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama. While the first Death Note film largely stayed to the manga, the second film took greater liberties with the source material and presented a revised ending. The result? Death Note: The Last Name topped the box office for four consecutive weeks. What's more, a spin-off film about Kenichi Matsuyama's character L is already in the works.

Meanwhile, like NANA, the success of the film has also led to the development of a Death Note animated series which began broadcast on Japanese TV in fall 2006. Of course, don't be surprised if an American remake is in development in the next couple of years as well.

The Sports Manga

Over the years, the safest manga adaptations have been about sports. The most successful one in recent years, at least critically, is 2002's Ping Pong, starring Yosuke Kubozuka, Arata, and Hong Kong star Sam Lee. Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, the film is a refreshingly sober approach to the genre, taking a slow-burn pace that is unlike both the manga and the sports film genres. While this might have cost the film mainstream success, it still garnered eight Japanese Academy Award nominations, making Ping Pong one of the most critically acclaimed manga adaptations ever.

Even before the success of NANA, sports manga adaptations have been rolling out one by one, starting with Touch, the classic baseball manga by Mitsuru Adachi, also the creator of another popular baseball manga, H2, which had its own television adaptation. The film adaptation of Touch was released around the same time as NANA and found moderate success, spending five weeks in the top ten. Not so lucky was the 2006 adaptation of Konomi Takeshi's The Prince of Tennis. Already a successful manga, anime series, and musical series, the film was unable to reproduce the critical success of Ping Pong or the commercial success of Touch. Nevertheless, with another set of musicals coming up, the popularity of The Prince of Tennis has yet to subside.

Most recently, Kentaro Otani followed his successful NANA adaptation with yet another manga adaptation. This time, it's the live-action version of Mitsuru Adachi's competitive swimming manga Rough. Despite its photogenic star, Masami Nagasawa (who also starred in Touch), and the popularity of the manga and its author, Rough failed to repeat the success of NANA and Touch at the box office.

Manga Films and the Rest of Asia

The influence of Japanese manga has reached far beyond Japan. With official translations available worldwide, Japanese manga is now a US$5 billion market. Naturally, it is no surprise to see its influence on Asian films as well. As mentioned before, Sam Lee starred in Ping Pong as a Chinese ping pong player who becomes a formidable challenger to the film's two heroes. Hong Kong actor Edison Chen not only played one of the lead roles in the adaptation of the Seiki Tsuchida manga The Freeman Under Moon, but he also played another key role in the Hong Kong-Japan co-production of Initial D, the live-action adaptation of the hit manga by Shuichi Shigeno. Initial D's lead, Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, will also be heading the cast for an upcoming adaptation of Takehiko Inoue's Slam Dunk. The popular basketball manga has already been adapted for the big screen before in a 1994 Hong Kong film starring Ekin Cheng. Hong Kong also produced an adaptation of Tsukasa Hojo's City Hunter in 1993, starring Jackie Chan.

Perhaps the greatest critical success of Japanese manga outside of Japan is Park Chan Wook's loose adaptation of Tsuchiya Garon's Old Boy. Like the manga, Old Boy tells the story of a man (played by Choi Min Sik) who was held captive for 15 years for unknown reasons by unknown captors. After he is released, he must find out who his captors were and why he was imprisoned. Park's unique style, along with the film's haunting lyricism, earned Old Boy the prestigious Grand Prix prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and a large worldwide fanbase.

Having already taken over reader imaginations around the world, Japanese manga is gradually taking cinema by storm. As Hollywood slowly lets comic adaptations fill its silver screens, Japanese cinema still manages to maintain a healthy balance with original independent films, commercial blockbusters, remakes, and, yes, manga adaptations. However, with the success of NANA and Death Note, will Japan start following Hollywood's footsteps, or can it maintain the balance? Only time will tell.

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Published January 23, 2007

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