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How To Adapt Japanese Pop Culture And Impress Americans

The key things to remember when translating a Japanese property to the US? Make sure there’s a story… and everything you know is probably wrong. It’s not just my opinion, but the consensus of those with experience in Transformers, The Ring and manga publishing.

The Hollywood Reporter attended a fascinating panel at the American Film Market last week, where Transformers producer Don Murphy, The Ring and The Grudge remake producer Roy Lee and Viz Media’s Jason Hoffs discussed their experiences in bringing Japanese culture to America. Here are their three main takeaways:

Have Patience (1)
One difference between US and Japanese corporate cultures is the amount of time it can take to get a decision, according to Lee: “The biggest Hollywood studio complaint is that these things can take one to two years and have to go through multiple committees in Japan.” He went on to say that, with the way Hollywood works, it’s not uncommon for US executives behind the origin of a project to no longer be in the same position once the Japanese executives have given it the greenlight.

Make Sure There’s Something For Audiences To Connect To
As Murphy told the audience, “If it’s just a movie based on a toy, you could end up with something like the Stretch Armstrong movie.” The success of something like Transformers, he suggested, had more to do with the animated series and comic mythology than the toys themselves. It’s something that Hoffs agreed with, saying “Because of a manga’s weekly installments and their episodic form, there’s usually a powerful bond between the readers and the characters.”

Have Patience (2)
Make sure everyone’s on the same page, warned Murphy, talking about a frustrating experience where a protracted deal process ended with the deal falling apart: “Yes means no and no means no and sometimes maybe means no, too. It’s very polite but sometimes you just need an answer. Make sure the content holder actually wants to sell.” Hoffs expanded on the theme, adding, “Often most rights land with the manga creator. The devil’s in the details and it’s important to find out what’s most important to the content owner – loyalty to the original, or money.”

With the exception of, perhaps, the corporate culture clash, I can’t help but feel as if these points shouldn’t just be applied to licensing Japanese properties, but any property… Especially that one about making sure that there’s a story there (Something that I wish the makers of the Battleship movie had thought about before getting started on that one. Alien invasion, my “you sunk my battleship” behind…). Maybe there needs to be more panels about just making good movies in any culture, to get this idea out…


  • pDUB

    more like, “you sunk my battleshit.”

  • Cforshaw67220

    Short answer: You shouldn’t adapt them for a particular nationality, as it reinforces a closed-minded attitude to the other culture. They are good enough to adapt, but not good enough to promote? Talk about forcing American cultural hegemony on the world. I cannot wait for ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Sandler’, starring Adam Sandler instead of Chow Yun Fat, John Tuturro instead of Michelle Yeoh, and Steve Buscemi instead of Zhang Ziyi.

    Long answer: The reason why they do this is because they cater specifically to US rather than international audiences, and, traditionally, US audiences have been shown to prefer adaptations and sequels because of their familiarity (besides ‘Avatar’, ‘Titanic’, and ‘Star Wars’, most successful films are not original works, but sequels, prequels and adaptations, and there could be a good argument that ‘Titanic’ was itself an adaptation of previous films about the ‘Titanic’). However, it has little to do with nationality, and more to do with popularity. ‘Transformers’ was not adapted because it was Japanese, but because it was an omnipresent merchandising juggernaut that could be used to make money across a variety of media and merchandising opportunities. I hate the film, but I understand that they could throw a huge amount of money at it because it was always going to make it back passed on past performance of the cartoons, toys, and other merchandise. It is all about a level of familiarity – the more familiar you are with what is on screen, the less effort it is, the easier it is to enjoy.

    Of course, that same attitude conveniently ignores the success of films that seem to come out of (perceivably) nowhere and capture the audience with their (perceived) originality, and end up with huge profit margins and critical acclaim because they weren’t associated with the stale (perceived) familiarity we so often see in Hollywood films. Films like ‘Clerks’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’, ‘El Mariachi’, ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ all fit this mold, despite the fact that they weren’t as original as they seemed, and have only had continuing success because more mainstream means of post-production became involved to build upon their initial success. In terms of profit, ‘Paranormal Activity’ is, I believe I was told, the most successful film of all time. I remember that a Stanley Tucci film named ‘Big Night’ made more money than ‘Jurrasic Park’ at the time of their releases, simply because of the profit margin on the production. In addition, many of the more ‘familiar’ films will receive a wider release, whilst more original works, or more foreign works, tend to receive much smaller releases, which doom them to making less money from the word go.

    So, the real question I have is how do we know ‘Transformers’ was so successful? It made money, but was that just because people knew it was there and it had a wide opening? Certainly, I have met few people who consider it a really great work of cinema, and the only people I know who own it have yet to reach their tenth birthday. We know that familiarity, predictability and a wide opening will often see success, but if you were to change one of these elements, how do we know you couldn’t have even bigger success?

    In the end it all comes down to perceived risk, and increasingly the size of the release is decided before there is even a script. Therefore, if you adapt anything from Japanese pop culture, it will be presumed to impress American audiences based on previous form, and the appropriate level of release, merchandising, and advertising will be adjusted accordingly. What this means is, ‘Transformers’ will be a blockbuster event, whilst lesser known properties are relegated to smaller releases and treat with less care (or money, or production time) by the studio.

    It is easy to assume their is some sort of celluloid racism attached to the decision to “Americanise” other cultures work, but I don’t think that the average Hollywood producer is particularly interested in colour… Unless, of course, it is green.

  • Josh

    Interesting article, but can’t people find something a little more relevant than Transformers to cite on this? The original toy line as conceived by Takara-Tomy in the early 80’s is little more than a footnote as Hasbro purchased all the licensing, branding and distribution rights early on. Takara’s only involvement with that series is that they retain the production rights, and the Japanese anime and manga series are all continuations or pastiches of the American series license from Hasbro.

  • Poohbearalpha

    Aren’t the Transformers from Hasbro… an American company?

  • Zen Strive

    Enough talk. Now do Gundam!

  • Durp69

    Transformers isn’t Japanese, it was created in America.

  • Milton

    No, it started in Japan as Microman and Diaclone. Try googling this stuff before acting like the supreme authority on something.

  • Sinistertaco

    I can’t help but think this sort of discussion would have been more relevant at the start of the decade. You know, back when comic companies thought manga would be their savior (it wasn’t), every two bit anime and manga was getting a domestic license or adaptation (now the bottom has fallen out of the U.S. market and even major companies have shut their doors), and J-Horror was regarded as the next big thing (now it’s regarded as mostly stale and repetitive).

  • Sunstreaker7

    Perhaps you should practice what you preach. Granted the toys that became the Transformers started with Diaclone and Microman, but Hasbro was the one that branded them Transformers and gave them a backstory of sentient robots from another planet rather than just robots with pilots. Try googling this stuff before acting like the supreme authority on something.

    “In 1984, Hasbro bought the distribution rights to the Diaclone and Microman toylines and rebranded them as the Transformers for distribution in North America.”