We are in the midst of a live action boom. Whether involving village maidens and prince-turned-monsters or a team of teenagers fighting against giants, both the East and the West seem to be reaching into their animation or book vaults to remake some of their most classic tales. But even as Japan prepares to debut anime and manga series like Fullmetal Alchemist for the silver screen, American companies also see potential for Western Japanese-inspired films. Dragon Ball and Ghost in the Shell both hit the silver screen, and the American remake of Death Note is due this summer. Other titles like Lone Wolf and Cub have been announced, but some seem to be up in the air. Plus, Deadline has just reported that a live-action Cowboy Bebop television series is in the works.
Regardless, another popular franchise is set for a Hollywood live-action film. It’s a title I never would have guessed. It’s an older title, but it wasn’t a major gateway anime for English fans. In fact, even now, it’s not something you hear a lot about in the English-speaking fandom despite being a hit in Japan and other countries. However, it is well-known enough in America to have video games of it to be released.
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s Saint Seiya.
Saint Seiya (also known as Knights of the Zodiac) was a manga written in the late 80s until the early 90s about a group of warriors (“Saints”) with mystic powers who must protect the goddess Athena as they all protect the Earth from other gods. The story has three main arcs told across 28 volumes.
ADV started releasing the edited dub and the uncut version in the early 2000s, but it was left incomplete. A box set of the first half of the anime series is available from New Video, and spin-off episodes are available on Crunchyroll. Viz Media released the original manga, and Seven Seas recently announced the acquisition of the Saint Seiya – Saintia Shō spin-off.
In May, Eiga.com and later Anime News Network reported that a Hollywood live action is in production. Toei Animation (the studio behind the anime) and A Really Good Film Company (yes, that’s the Chinese distributor’s name) are working on it and have already named some of the executive staff.
Now, full disclaimer: I am not a Saint Seiya fan. However, that’s not because I don’t like the series; I didn’t have the money to start collecting the manga when Viz Media started releasing it. So, unfortunately, I can’t really go into the story about what specifically would and wouldn’t work in a live action. But I think this is a risky choice for several reasons:
Well, as the old adage goes, “Everything old is new again.” In fact, Saint Seiya has never really gone away in Japan thanks to its numerous anime and manga spin-offs. But the series came out at an awkward time in the US. The combination of the series’ age, the competition it faced from hits like Fullmetal Alchemist, and the Americanization of the DiC dub probably all contributed to its tepid reception in the English-speaking fandom. In fact, even now the original TV series hasn’t ever been completely available for US audiences. While many manga of the 80s and 90s are experiencing a renewal (Rurouni Kenshin, Sailor Moon), a lot of these were gateway anime. Again, I’m not putting the series down, but it’s not like it was a Toonami/Adult Swim classic like Cowboy Bebop.
Some people have suggested the movie is for international fans rather than American ones. It’s certainly possible that the live action movie will be more for Japan and Latin America, but it also seems like it would be an awful lot of trouble. They’ve even made a CGI Saint Seiya, so it’s not like they have to have American technology. According to this article, almost 70% of revenue comes from the international box office. Now, it is possible that Saint Seiya will be a low-budget production ($3 million or less according to this survey), but it seems unlikely considering the amount of CGI and fantasy backgrounds needed for the movie.
As a comparison, Ghost in the Shell is estimated to have around $250 million dollars in production and marketing and $200 million in global ticket sales; Dragonball Evolution‘s budget is estimated between $30 and $50 million (probably not including promotional costs) and pulled in about $57 million, a box office flop. As a comparison, the Death Note Japanese live-action movie made about $29 million in USD, $23 million of it in Japan; it was successful enough to get a sequel and a spin-off; its budget was estimated at around $20 million.
The manga covers 28 volumes; the first arc alone covers 13. Set-up and introductions are often the hardest part of writing a fiction story; readers and viewers need to understand what kind of world they’re experiencing and also start to empathize with the main characters. The titular Seiya may be the main character, but most moviegoers won’t be familiar with the entire crew. Heck, even those who have seen Saint Seiya will still probably want to acquaint themselves with this particular Seiya.
While the world box office means that the Power Rangers film didn’t lose money, it also didn’t really do well. In fact, while Lionsgate executives had envisioned as many as seven movies in the series, the chances of even one sequel may lie in toy sales.
Why does this matter? Saint Seiya and Power Rangers have much in common: seemingly regular teenagers don mechanized suits to defend the Earth. Yes, a lot of superhero movies follow this same format, but many of them are backed up by DC or Marvel.
At the box office, Power Rangers was helped due to the high number of millennials who went to see the movie. Fans of the original American TV series wanted a bit of nostalgia. But Saint Seiya doesn’t have much nostalgia value for American fans.
The director, Tomasz Bagiński, has been nominated for an Academy Award-nominated, but almost all his projects so far have involved shorts. As they say, everyone has to get their start somewhere, but it’s still a leap from directing game openings and teaser trailers to a full-length movie. Yes, some of the producers have experience on working on films, but directors are arguably the key to any production.
You could argue that all these “more experienced” directors haven’t made any successful and/or good anime-inspired movies. That’s a good point, so perhaps Bagiński will turn out to be a perfect choice. But combine this with the fact the established fanbase is one the small side for anime already, and it is another potential roadblock to a successful adaptation.
I don’t have a problem with Saint Seiya, but I really can’t see how this is going to do well. Even if the real goal is to do well internationally, a movie still needs to not only make back its production costs but marketing and distribution costs as well. So is it possible for a Saint Seiya movie to pull in around $30-40 million on a budget of, say, $15-20 million and be a success? Sure, but it will be a tight struggle — very, very tight. Just this first half of 2017, there are already over a dozen flops. Even remakes of classic American shows like Baywatch and CHiPS have struggled. If Saint Seiya is finally going to do well in America, then the staff have a long road ahead of them. But perhaps an anime publisher actually releasing the entire series in the U.S. would be a good step to get people hooked?
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