Whatever Happened to Films Inspired by Comics?: The Case of Always (2005)

By McDonald, Keiko I. | Post Script, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Whatever Happened to Films Inspired by Comics?: The Case of Always (2005)


McDonald, Keiko I., Post Script


From its earliest days Japanese cinema sought to enhance its artistic quality by forging alliances with works of literature in a manner reminiscent of new money anxious to wed respectability by way of the aristocracy. Bungei-eiga films proudly advertised their status as versions of great literary works, drawing on works by masters old and new ... The idea had something in common with decoys (Nihon Eiga Producer Kyokai (1)).

This anonymous critic's view seems somewhat disparaging, yet it does describe the essential character of Japanese cinema's relationship to literature. This receptivity to literature has ranged back and forth in time, making use of sources very old and very new. As a result, Japanese cinema has enjoyed periods rich in bungei-eiga, whose literal translation would be "film from literature." The first such period was in the Thirties, the second in the Fifties, a decade in general commonly referred to as the golden age of Japanese cinema. (1)

Cinema now has good reason to harken back to such happily complicit times. It is an odd situation, really. Even as the movie-going population itself is shrinking, the creative potential of the medium itself is expanding exponentially. Mass culture has come into its own to an astonishing degree as technology continues to expand its business of wiring the world with so many kinds of interconnectivity and interactivity. Viewers are empowered with a vengeance now; cinema is up against fearsome competition from sources of cultural expression as powerful as video games. No wonder filmmakers are looking in every direction for sources of creative inspiration. So why not manga? What better decoy (to cop that image from our anonymous critic) than a staple of popular entertainment that has grown into a multi-billion scale over the last two decades? (2)

As might be expected, most manga-inspired work has gone the way of animation. (3) The list is very long, encompassing films as diverse as Kon Ichikawa's Fire Bird (Hi no tori, 1978), a hybrid of anime and realistic drama footage, and Katsushiro Otomo and Rintaro's Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 2001) adapted from Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel of the same title (1949-51). A good many are low-budget live-action films, though a few commercially crafted and marketed program features have enjoyed stupendous success. Recent works in the latter category include Nana based on Yazawa Ai's work of the same title and Death Note adapted from Sugumi Oba and Takashi Obata's serialized comics with that title. One stand out is the Tsuribaka nikki (Free and Easy) series. Based on the popular serial comic by Yuzo Asahara, the Free and Easy films follow the adventures and misadventures of two fanatic anglers, an elderly company president and his shiftless sidekick employee. The project began as a sideline offering to Shochiku's enormously popular comic series Otoko wa tsuraiyo (Tora-san). The Free and Easy series quickly became a staple of the genre, with sixteen installments to date.

So where, one may ask, are the comic-inspired films worthy of critical acclaim? They do exist. As early as 1983, critics and the general public gave pride of place to Yoshimitsu Morita's Kazoku gemu (The Family Game), based on Yohei Honma's manga of the same title. Japan's prestigious journal Kinema junpo ranked it first on that year's list of ten best pictures--not a bad outcome for a picture shot in eighteen days, directed by a thirty-three-year old. Two other films top a list of outstanding achievements growing steadily longer every year. Sakuran (2006) was made by photographer-turned-director Mika Ninagawa, working with an enormously popular comic series of the same title by the female cartoonist Moyoko Anno. Ninagawa brings a refreshingly pictorial touch to the lives of Anno's characters, the courtesans at the pleasure district. (4) Takashi Yamazaki's Always: Sanchome no yuhi (Always: Sunset on Third Street, 2005) did the Japanese equivalent of sweeping the Oscars, coming out on top in more than ten categories at various important festivals. …

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