HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Off To Japan!

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we continue our four week “vacation” overseas with the most notable one-off comic films Japan has to offer.

If Europe is to be commended for so easily accepting comic books as art, then Japan should be given the gold star for the way it totally embraced the art form. Manga is read by all-ages in Japan, and by all social classes and has reached a level of cultural status unseen in the country.

Over the last quarter century, manga’s influence has grown into the United States, to such a point that if you were to walk into any bookstore (if any bookstores still exist when this post is published), you’d find the shelves dedicated to manga out numbering the shelves devoted to American comics by four to one. While Magna’s dominance of the American market is a relatively recent occurrence, American audiences were exposed to one of manga’s greatest characters decades before.

Osamu Tezuka has been called the Japanese Walt Disney for a variety of reasons. Both have had an indelible effect on the fields of animation and comic books in their respective countries. Both have inspired generations of fans and influenced generations of artists. And both have created characters that have touched the hearts of millions.

Tezuka created many characters in his lifetime, but perhaps the most popular in the United States was Astro Boy. Created by Tezuka in 1951, the character was a little robot boy who was created by a scientist named Dr. Tenma as a replacement for his dead son, Tobio. When Tenma realizes that the robot could never take the place of his dead son, he sells the robot boy to the circus. While at the circus, he catches the eye of another scientist who works at the same Science Ministry as the robot’s creator. The scientist, Professor Ochanomizu, adopts the robot, and becomes its legal guardian. The robot, now known as Astro Boy, would go on to have many adventures, striving to keep Japan safe.

American audiences were first exposed to the character when the Japanese anime adapted from the manga was redubbed and run in syndication on U.S. television. The U.S. cartoon originally ran from 1963 to 1965, although it has been rebroadcast at various times since then.

In 2009, the robot boy got computer animated with the film Astro Boy.

The film cost $65 million to produce and featured an all-star cast of voices, including Nicolas Cage, Freddie Highmore and Nathan Lane. However, it only grossed under $40 million worldwide.

If Astro Boy was the Mickey Mouse of manga/anime, then you can argue that Akira is the Citizen Kane of the mediums. Akira first appeared in 1982 in the pages of Young Magazine and was created by Katsuhiro Otomo. The story told the tale of a Neo-Tokyo, a new version of the city that sprung up after being destroyed at the start of World War III. A nuclear bomb was blamed for the blast, but it was really due to the powers of a telekinetic named Akira.

Neo-Japan is dominated by civil unrest, an oppressive government, and warring biker gangs. When a gang member by the name of Tetsuo Shima develops telekinetic powers similar to Akira’s, all hell starts breaking loose.

The manga was an epic story with various subplots and characters interwoven together. Some say that Akira is a parable for postwar Japan and the generation that was born after WWII. The story was brought over to the United States in 1988 by Marvel’s EPIC imprint, was part of the first wave of the manga invasion, and helped the cyberpunk genre take off. Otomo would write and direct a film version of his story, which would hit theaters in 1988.

The film differs from the manga to quite a degree, as it would due to trying to convey six volumes of story into a two-hour film, but the film made a lot of best-of lists and stands today as a cult classic. A live-action version of the story, with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to James Franco to Zac Effron rumored to be attached to it, is in development hell even as we speak. 

Another manga turned film soon to be remade by Hollywood is Old Boy. The manga, which ran in Weekly Manga Action from 1996 to 1998, focuses on a man who was imprisoned in a private prison for 10 years and, upon his release, has to track down the people who kept him captive and the reason why he was held. The manga was the basis for the Korean film, Oldboy.

The film, while keeping the basic plot of the manga, makes a couple significant changes to make it darker than the source material. The character is locked up for 15 years, not ten, and still has to find a reason why, but the path he takes has more disturbing twists and turns. Incest is added as a plot point, the violence and gore is amped up, and the resolution is less positive. But, like Akira, even with the changes, the film Oldboy was very well received. It also is heading for an American remake, with Spike Lee tapped to direct the project.

Next up, the European comic book film franchises. 

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About William Gatevackes 1934 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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