Northrup Davis examines the growing influence of Japanese manga and anime in Hollywood and the opportunities the global medium presents to creative minds looking to start a career in film or television.
Hollywood’s love affair—or at least serious romance—with Japanese manga/anime is evident in movies like Transformers, Speed Racer, and Astro Boy, as well as the possibly upcoming Death Note (Warner Bros.), Cowboy Bebop (20th Century Fox, with Keanu Reeves), Akira (Warner Bros., Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions), and Battle Angel Alita (James Cameron, 20th Century Fox).
Manga (Japanese comics) and its offshoots, including anime ( animation, usually of mangas), live-action TV shows and feature films, videogames and, in some cases, live-action Hollywood adaptations, are hugely successful. By one estimate, together they represent a sales figure equal to 75 percent of the Japanese auto industry, which itself is Japan’s number-one export. It’s hard to know exactly, but the same source estimates that $75 billion in sales annually come from manga, anime, and their spin-offs. This figure is far greater than Hollywood’s box-office and DVD income last year.
Yet, unlike the Japanese auto industry which is heavily subsidized by tax breaks, the manga and anime industry has grown without significant government stimulus from the time it was invented by the “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka (the creator of Astro Boy, which was also made into a live-action film in 2009), as a new generation with new interests and styles was rising from the ashes in postwar Japan. Tezuka, a creative workhorse, created most of the main genres of manga, including the girls’ genre (shojo), boys’ genre (shonen), and such specific genres as science fiction, sports, detectives, workplace dramas, auto racing, horror—all the way down to small genres such as mangas about pachinko, the Japanese gambling business, or cooking, and even old Japanese literary subjects such as samurai stories. In short, it is an incredibly diverse and commercially, as well as artistically, successful medium.
The sales numbers of individual titles can be staggering. Golgo 13, a manga about an amoral hitman (so amoral that he kills for whoever pays him $1 million and is not above executing both sides of a hit after each pays him to kill the other), has sold over 200 million copies. It has been adapted into two live-action feature films, two animated films, a television series, and five videogames. One Piece, a wonderful manga about a boy pirate, has sold 176 million volumes so far; volume 56 set a new record for the highest initial print run of any manga in history. Its merchandising spin-offs are almost unlimited. Naruto, which regularly dominates the U.S. manga charts, has sold “only” over 100 million volumes.
Okay, but you might be thinking, “Glad to hear that manga is a huge success, but I am a screenwriter or TV writer with chances for employment dwindling with vertical integration and less development, so what does that have to do with me? And besides, those are mostly Japanese sales.” Actually, manga/ anime has rampaged across the world, is strong in Europe, Latin America, and China, and has made big inroads in the U.S. Take, for example, Baki the Grappler, a fighting manga with colorful characters and flamboyant villains which has sold, according to its publisher, over 50 million mangas in 21 countries, with over 80 volumes in print and three animated series. Yes, this is a worldwide phenomenon.
But, to answer the second question—what does that have to do with you the screenwriter or TV writer? Well, it could have nothing to do with you; or if you choose to let it, it could be one of the best things that ever happened to you. It certainly is one of the best things that ever happened to me. How? First of all, simply by influencing my own screenwriting and TV writing in creatively positive ways.
When I first traveled to Japan and was exposed to manga, it was like a tremendous blast of creative energy. Emanating from a very different culture but with characters and stories so appealing with a great sense of style and fun, it crossed over into my American-cultural background and gave me a great boost in the quality and energy of my own writing. The cultural issues that arise when reading manga are wonderful fodder for the imagination and stimulation for creativity. This “bending your perspective” can give a great sense of freshness to your work, and you can learn from a very literary culture about different ways of telling stories.
We screenwriters often do everything we can in the way of mental gymnastics and head trips rather than what we’re supposed to do: write a terrific, fresh script with wonderful characters. In my mind, part of great quality is “freshness.” When staying exclusively within your own culture, you may eventually find your work becoming stale. You may find yourself recycling what your own culture’s entertainment is throwing at you. And railing at your agent or manager for not selling it! We need to look hard at what we are creating and ask ourselves, is what we are writing really fresh and entertaining and, perhaps dare I be so old-fashioned—is it thematic and meaningful? Japanese manga and its offshoots at their best have plenty to inspire us!
Your Story Tree is Only as Strong as its Roots
Many manga, especially old-school manga, have strong thematic elements running through them. Tezuka believed that “the tree is only as strong as its roots” (theme being the roots). I have always been a thematic writer, wanting my stories to have meaning and three-dimensional characters who earnestly strive for their goals and fight for their beliefs, rather than characters with skin-deep motivations, as is so often the case in Hollywood movies. One of the things I admire about Pixar films is their adherence to classical storytelling values. Those values are very much in force in much of Japanese manga and anime.
Characters That are Both Good and Evil
Another characteristic of Japanese manga and anime is their propensity for incorporating both “good” and “bad/evil” traits even in their main characters. At least in a general sense, American storytelling has in the past often suffered from the “good guy/bad guy” cliché. Sure, the protagonist may have weaknesses (and overcome them in a character arc, or not) BUT they are not necessarily that unsympathetic— i.e., the weaknesses are there for audience identification. But Japanese manga/ anime stories often have a protagonist who is deeply flawed, for example, in Battle Angel Alita. When I first came across the series, it was pointed out to me by the store owner selling the manga that “Alita is a killer.” And even though she’s a terrifically dynamic, interesting, warm and passionate protagonist, she has a very dark side—which is often demonstrated by her running her antagonist through with her fighting blade.
There is a trend in American television, especially cable, toward multi-faceted characterization which reveals depths and complexities over time. Manga, in fact, is ideally adaptable to TV; and Japanese live-action TV shows are often manga-sourced. Many top American graphic novelists are deeply influenced by Japanese manga and have in turn influenced cable TV showrunner/creators in the U.S. Some American graphic novelists are now even creating Japanese manga projects, including legendary Marvel creator Stan Lee (Spider-Man, Hulk, etc.). Last summer I had the honor of being on a panel with superstar Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, who designed characters in Vampire Hunter D, a wonderful anime whose story is unquestionably influenced by the classic Hollywood Western Shane.
Stop Trying to Tell Me How to Write. I Want a Job! How Does Manga Get Me That?
Nothing here is going to guarantee you a lucrative writing job on one of the giant manga or anime adaptation deals, but there are some additional interesting Japanese-influenced Hollywood trends. Of special interest to screenwriters is something that happened recently. A relatively high-level screenwriter agreed to spec out a script tied into an optioned Japanese novel. Unusually, it was his manager’s company that optioned it, and after a few months’ work, they sold it in conjunction with the novel adaptation rights to Warner Bros. This deal was coordinated by his top manager, top agency, and a producer tied to Viz Media, the top manga publisher here in the U.S. The “spec script” sold for over $1 million against $3 million. This is a very interesting development in the biz. Usually, previously, top screenwriters would not spec out a script tied to underlying rights outside of their own. The Writers Guild panel this coming October that I am on, regarding manga/anime’s arrival in Hollywood, will feature one of the producers in this deal.
Additionally, now some anime are being created in Japan based on American properties, like Marvel’s Iron Man.
But let’s say you don’t have the kind of access to top Japanese properties that I and my Japanese business partner have, which is very difficult and complicated to get; but you still want to make manga work for you beyond its cross-cultural inspiration aspects. Then you might consider:
Creating, or Having Someone Create, a Visual, Sequential Art Storyline of Your Script
This is not a new idea! Everyone seems to have ADHD these days and wants “proof” that your story works in a visual form. We all know people have been creating graphic novels to sell their scripts, etc. I myself find this practice somewhat questionable, but I would encourage people who have a love of manga for its own sake and are also interested in live action and anime, to come to places like the Media Arts Program in the Department of Art at the University of South Carolina to develop a manga, which in turn could become either an independent or Hollywood film, a TV show, or be produced as an anime. The key is knowing what makes manga such a popular medium. It’s about finding the best form and characters for your story and embracing them with passion.
A case in point: When I had the very good fortune to be pitching a manga project to Shueisha, one of the select top Japanese publishers of manga, at one point—like a Hollywood guy—I started talking about the possible merchandising and sequels. The editor politely, but directly, told me they didn’t care about any of that. They first wanted to make sure the character and story were wonderful, then make the manga, and then and only then would they consider such other things.
There’s a lesson in that tale: Just create a great story and then worry about the rest. But a little strategy never hurts after a great work is delivered. My hope is that by sharing some of my experiences and thoughts from my rare vantage point between Hollywood and the manga/anime world, I may have opened a door into that world for the reader.
Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010
NORTHROP DAVIS is a professional producer, screenwriter, and a professor and lecturer on screenwriting, TV and manga. He found and pitched the Battle Angel Alita manga series to 20th Century Fox, which subsequently acquired it for James Cameron (project title: Battle Angel).