How manga and anime inspired Hollywood

As the British Museum opens a new exhibition about the history of manga, we look back at its impact on Hollywood...

Manga and anime have been influencing Hollywood for decades. Even if you’ve never seen a film by, say, Hayao Miyazaki or read one of Tezuka Osamu’s comics, you’ll have felt their influence. When The Matrix was released in 1999, lots was made of its borrowing of stylistic riffs from Chinese martial arts cinema, but its story was pure Ghost In The Shell. The designs of the Autobots and Decepticons in Michael Bay’s Transformers films are clearly informed by many big mech sagas, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, while Western adaptations of anime classics are increasingly common, like last year’s Alita: Battle Angel.

It’s not hard to see why. Manga and anime provide a rich stream of fresh ideas, inspiration and (sorry, horrible phrase alert) potentially profitable IP. Last year, the anime industry in Japan alone was worth around $20 billion, and that’s not counting the huge financial value of manga and associated spinoffs. No wonder Hollywood wants a piece of the action.

A brief history lesson

The 12th and 13th century Choju-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals) are generally thought of as the earliest proto-manga, but its first appearance in a (comparatively) modern form dates back to 1798 and Santō Kyōden’s picture book, Shiji no Yukikai (Four Seasons). Remarkably, some of the techniques displayed in this early work remain in use today.

Skip forward to the mid-’40s. Modern manga doesn’t start with Tezuka Osamu, but it’s difficult to overstate his importance to its development. The artist and writer embarked on a career in the field in 1946. Given that his country was under occupation by the United States, it’s no surprise that his work bears clear American influences – he loved Walt Disney, claiming to have seen Bambi more than 80 times. His Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom – or, more commonly, Astro Boy) proved enormously successful both inside and outside of Japan, leading to a 1963 animated version that became the first internationally successful anime. Tezuka drew more than 150,000 pages of manga in his lifetime and today is often referred to as “the godfather of manga”.

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Tezuka Osamu (1928–1989), Astro Boy plays the role of ambassador, 1951–52. © Tezuka Productions.

The mediums continued to grow throughout the ’60s and ’70s. In the west, the bulk of mainstream comics tend to be superhero stories, adult reader titles or licensed movie and TV spinoffs, but manga has always been very diverse with historical, sports and romance stories also very popular. One of the standouts of this era was Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s samurai saga, Lone Wolf And Cub. The 28-volume epic sold some eight million copies in Japan alone and was eventually adapted into no less than six films and a TV series.

By the late ’80s, otaku – the Japanese equivalent of geek – culture was in full bloom. Manga Entertainment was founded in 1987 and, over the next two decades, would export countless anime titles to the rest of the world including – amongst many others – Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece Akira (based on his own six-volume manga), Mamoru Oshii’s peerless Ghost In The Shell and Toyoo Ashida’s cult sci-fi horror, Vampire Hunter D.

Meanwhile, the nascent Studio Ghibli was doing something very different – and rather more family-friendly. Founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s blend of humour, fantasy, emotional gravity and resonant characters was gradually charming the world. By the time of 2001’s crossover hit, Spirited Away, the studio had a peerless back catalogue. Today, Ghibli has a strong claim on being the most beloved animation studio in the world.

Hollywood catches on

Hollywood was paying close attention. While James Cameron spent years planning his remake of Battle Angel Alita, his Avatar owed a clear debt to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan – about a ballerina whose life and mental state starts to unravel – bears strong similarities to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, while another Kon classic, Paprika, can be strongly felt in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Likewise, the number of Western remakes and adaptations of manga and anime properties has increased in recent years. While a few have been decent – we’ll happily stick our hands up for the Wachowski’s much-derided take on Speed Racer – most have been divisive. Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy lacked the power of the original (yes, it was a manga first), while 2017’s Death Note was a rushed mess. Ghost In The Shell managed the giddy heights of “it’s OK”, but drew controversy thanks to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi.

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Despite these problems, it seems as if Hollywood is only just getting started. This year we’ve already had Alita: Battle Angel (directed by Robert Rodriguez, though Cameron remained involved as producer), while Detective Pikachu – based on the Pokémon video game franchise, which spawned a very popular anime series, seems to be bucking trends with positive reviews. Soon we’ll be seeing a live action TV adaptation of sci-fi western anime Cowboy Bebop from Netflix, starring John Cho, Mustafa Shakir and Daniella Pineda. Plus, the streaming giant is planning a return to the world of Death Note with a sequel.

Most intriguing is the news that a live-action adaptation of Akira is finally crawling its way to the screen after decades of false starts and numerous potential directors. Thor: Ragnarok helmer Taika Waititi is the name currently attached to it and he’s made some promising noises about looking back to the manga (of which the original anime film covers a mere fraction).

More will come. We live in a boom time for TV thanks to the increasing number of streaming services, and companies are hungrily devouring up as much tasty IP as possible. That sounds cynical, but it’s also a tremendously exciting time for fans. There are masses of manga and anime classics ripe for revival or reinvention. How about the wildly popular One Piece (which in Japan has no less than 13 anime films based on it)? Or late ’70s sci-fi classic Toward the Terra by Takemiya Keiko – more-or-less untouched since the ‘80s. Or Matsumoto Leiji’s steampunk-ish Galaxy Express 999? The possibilities are endless.

Tezuka Osamu (1928–1989), Metropolis, 1949. © Tezuka Productions./Matsumoto Leiji (b. 1938), Galaxy Express 999, 1977 to present. © Leiji Matsumoto./Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954), Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, 2011. © YUKINOBU HOSHINO/SHOGAKUKAN INC.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about manga and anime, then the British Museum has just opened the Citi exhibition Manga. Exploring manga worlds past, present and future, the exhibition is the largest exhibition on manga ever to take place outside of Japan. Divided into six zones, visitors will also get the chance to see some astonishing pages of original art from the likes of Tezuka Osamu, Dragon Ball’s Toriyama Akira and One Piece creator Oda Eiichirō. The Citi exhibition Manga runs from 23 May to 26 August at the British Museum.

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Exhibition supported by Citi. Logistics partner IAG Cargo.