No fewer than three big-budget Hollywood films based on Japanese originals opened this year: “Alita: Battle Angel,” “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” While all three were still being promoted, “Gundam” and “Akira” were green-lit for production by Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros., respectively. An adaptation of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog video game will be out in November, followed by Hollywood takes on Capcom’s Monster Hunter next year and Nintendo’s Super Mario in 2022.
The highest grossing anime feature ever, Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 “Your Name.,” is being remade as a live-action film, produced by “Star Wars” reboot king, J.J. Abrams. Hollywood renderings of “Attack on Titan” and the iconic mascot Hello Kitty are also reportedly on the way.
But so far, Hollywood’s versions of Japanese content have received mixed reviews at best, with some earning respectable but not remarkable box-office numbers. Most fans return to the original stories and wonder: Why can’t they get it right?
For Jeff Gomez, founding CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based production company that is now introducing Tsuburaya Production’s “Ultraman” universe to Western studios, the fundamental problems are cultural. Gomez has been a fan of Japanese stories for most of his 56 years — from a troubled childhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Puerto Rico through a lonely adolescence in Hawaii. His was, he says, an upbringing marked by bullying and isolation.
Raised by an Afro-Latino father and Caucasian Jewish American mother, Gomez isn’t kidding when he repeats that ’60s anime series like “Marine Boy,” “Kimba the White Lion,” and “Gigantor” saved his life.
“Japanese shows didn’t talk down to you,” he tells me on a call during a business trip to Los Angeles. “They were serious in tone and treated me seriously intellectually. I was an avid reader, so I read all the show credits. As a kid I knew the names Osamu Tezuka and Go Nagai. They were called ‘celebrated creators’ in the English-language write-ups. That was very different from the U.S. model, where most of the writers were just hired hands.”
Even today, the authority Japan confers upon writers and artists often trips up American licensees, who think that wining and dining studio heads and publishing CEOs is all that’s required to seal a deal. It’s what “Pokemon” producer Masakazu Kubo of Shogakukan once told me was America’s “Walmart model,” where “the retailers buy cheap, sell cheap in massive amounts — and they take all the money. They don’t care who made the product.”
Gomez’s break as a creative producer happened in the late ’90s with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a game for the Nintendo 64 console that he helped both to create and to transform into a multiplatform franchise encompassing comics, toys and graphic novels. American toy manufacturer Mattel took notice and hired him to perform similar spinoff magic with its “Hot Wheels” toy automobile brand.
Since founding Starlight Runner in 2000, Gomez’s resume includes an A-list of global entertainment franchises and brands. He has worked on “Avatar,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Transformers,” and for multinational consumer brands Coca-Cola, Sony and Pepperidge Farm. In 2012, the movie industry trade weekly, Variety, officially christened him a Hollywood “Power Player.”
None of it would have happened, he says, without his love of Japanese pop culture and what it taught him about creative and emotional commitment.
Japanese stories like Leiji Matsumoto’s “Galaxy Express 999” and “Space Pirate Captain Harlock,” and his personal favorite tokusatsu (Japanese SFX) show, “Kikaider,” evolve into entire cosmologies of characters and universes containing other worlds, some of which are merely hinted at or suggested. Gomez calls these referred-to worlds “distant mountains,” a term lifted from the multiple regions and languages J.R.R. Tolkien invented for the mythological Middle-earth in “The Lord of the Rings.”
We may never visit Ultraman’s Nebula M78, Gomez notes, the fictional outer space home of most of the alien Ultraman characters, but we believe in it because its creators do. Compared to American stories from Marvel Comics and DC Comics, which are often more centralized and cohesive, the Japanese narratives don’t always make sense, he concedes. But they are more expansive and more consistently inventive.
“The Japanese story model didn’t need to keep reminding me of the premise of the series or constantly summarize what happened beforehand,” he says, “and it didn’t repeat itself or reset itself in terms of a format, the way ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Superman’ so often did. Japanese stories were serial in nature and they left me starved to learn more. This was all very different from your standard American cartoons and monster movies at the time.”
Little wonder that streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll are now finding a rich source in anime, partly through their freedom of format: Series may suit the Japanese style of storytelling better than Hollywood’s cookie-cutter 90-minute movie regimen.
But Hollywood’s most damaging cultural misreading, Gomez believes, is emotional. The visual stylizations and effects of anime classics like “Ghost in the Shell” have been faithfully and vividly recreated in Hollywood for years, most obviously in 1999’s “The Matrix,” which was an open homage to anime sci-fi techniques. The distinctive look, feel and pacing of anime may be an aesthetic bone that has been picked dry.
Emotionally, however, Japanese stories remain dense with codes that Hollywood has yet to decipher.
In “Kikaider,” Gomez says, “there is a level of gravity and absolute seriousness about life and death.” That seriousness was riveting to a lost and lonely kid adrift in New York, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. “The emotional resonance in the relationship between story and audience, or what we call ‘participants,’ is sincere and detailed. It convinces you of the veracity of these fictional characters.”
The eponymous hero of “Kikaider,” a damaged android (like Tezuka’s Astro Boy) named Jiro, has a faulty conscience circuit in his robot brain, which prevents him from discerning good from evil. For Gomez, it’s the kind of meticulous detail that invokes a deeper empathy and compassion, transcending the bounds of scripts and special effects.
“Japan does yearning better than anyone else in the world,” he says. “You can see it in ‘Dragon Ball Z.’ In America it’s still about being cool; furtive glances. In Japan, it’s operatic.”
For Gomez, it’s also pragmatic, giving him the savvy to build a career as the rest of the world seeks to understand why Japanese stories are making greater and deeper sense.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.