Story Pile: Dragonball Evolution

I haven’t watched this.

Oh, don’t give me that look.

I wanted to watch it, to like, make my point about it, and maybe weave in some references to the movie, maybe include some pictures of characters juxtaposed with who they’re ‘supposed’ to be, but whatever. Let’s not kid ourselves. Even if I’d come out to tell you Dragonball Evolution was a blowjob sundae, you’d do what I did to see if you could watch it – check if it’s on Netflix, realise it’s not, then shrug and move on with your life.

Dragonball Evolution is criticized for a lot of things, and to give you a new take on them I’d have to watch it, which, again, I haven’t. One thing that’s brought up, though, in this discussion, is how it’s proof that you can’t make live action anime or manga. This was a conversation re-invigorated after the Battle Angel Alita trailer came out, just as it got re-invigorated by the Netflix release of Death Note, and prior to that by the Ghost in the Shell trailer announcing Scarlett Johannson was playing Motoko Kusanagi.

I haven’t seen that, either.

This live-actionification argument tends to come with two other child claims: One, that these movies were bad because they were white-washed, and two, that it’s not possible for westerners to make good media built on anime’s foundations.

Let’s put this movie in some context. Dragonball Evolution came out in March 2009, almost a full year after the release of Iron Man, and two years after the release of The Incredible Hulk by Ang Lee. It came out two months after Watchmen, so it’s safe to say that this movie was part of the bubble of comic adaptations –

Oh, don’t give me that look, manga is a type of comic.

– that has since become the entire media landscape. It’s also pretty reasonable to say that this is a period when special effects, costume design and set design had all more or less made it possible to make a Dragonball movie. The tech was there. Dragonball had been on television since the 1990s in the west, and Justin Chatwin, the actor who played Goku was in the right age range to have grown up watching Dragonball Z. James Masters, who played Piccolo (really? jesus christ) was a mainstay of the Buffy franchise, showing he could very much do genre fiction for nerds and knew how to make a bad boy redemption arc click.

It certainly didn’t have a budget of an Iron Man – that movie’s estimated at 150 million, compared to Dragonball Evolution’s 30 million. Still, 30 million can get you a fair bit of Movie, just not, you know, Jarvis and Robert Downey Jr and the armoured suit and the US Military’s presence.

It’s not like you couldn’t have made a good live action movie with the demands of a Dragonball story, per se, like this. People who knew the source material, knew the type of genre they worked in. If the movie was bad despite all the potential being there, what about the directors?

Well, one of them was Stephen Chow, who made Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, and the other was James Wong, who made The One on a budget comparable to Dragonball Evolution. Say what you want about these two gents, they’re not white. It’d be lovely to think that this movie was bad because Racists, but it’d be kind of insulting to the Asian men who made it to imply their brains were somehow scrambled by Whiteness.

What then, do I mean? I mean, if Dragonball Evolution was garbage, but also the product of Asian minds and agents, of people who had reason to see the culture and the history of the show, but they still made a really bad movie that doesn’t look or feel or sound like Dragonball, what then does this tell us?

It tells us anyone can make a garbage movie.

Movies are hard to make, slow to produce, and they take time, effort and money. Honestly it’s stunning we get so many of them. The reason you see so many they-didn’t-even-care style releases with odd floaty CGI is because most of the time it’s just too hard, too expensive, to do it any better. Money gets allocated through the budgets of movies, but that money is being distributed to hundreds of people. There’s a full-time job for ensuring people on a movie set have access to food – not cooking it, just managing it – and that’s not a nothing job!

Does it mean then, that it’s impossible to make a live action anime movie that’s good? I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, in no small part because a bunch of people have done it. My go-to example is Old Boy, which is a live-action movie based on a manga. That can earn criticism for being a very grungy, realistic style of manga and therefore, it’s not ‘really’ making a manga movie, which is pretty funny as a goalpost move, but then I’d point to Speed Racer, a nonsense movie that captures the camp of the source material. Then I’d point out that Death Note, Bleach, Blade of the Immortal and Cromartie High School have all had live-action movies, which were all well-received in Japan, and not particularly well-received in the west.

Really, what it tends to mean is why can’t I have a movie like The Avengers, but for my favourite anime? The answer there has to be a little more tight: The Avengers cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make, and movies in that scale just don’t happen very often and without a huge marketing push behind them to make sure they’re justified. Back in 2017, six movies of that budget happened – a Fast in the Furious movie, a Superman movie, a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a Transformers movie, a Star War and a Marvel movie – and some of those were not what you’d consider ‘successful’ by the standards of getting people to invest a quarter of a billion dollars. It’s a big gamble to spend tons of money on making a film that looks and feels like The Avengers, and sorry, Bleach doesn’t have that kind of pull to justify it. These movies get to exist because the can pull in huge audiences but they can do that because they’re the right mix of unchallenging, reliably valuable, and work for a variety of audiences.

And if you want to see Live Action movies of your favourite anime, check out the Japanese section of your DVD rental place or streaming service. It might already be there.

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