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How Lionsgate Can Make A Good Naruto Movie

Live Action no Jutsu! So, it was announced that Lionsgate will be creating a live-action movie based on Naruto, one of the most popular Japanese manga series, created by Masashi Kishimoto, and the third highest-selling series to date after One Piece and Dragon Ball. From the limited news so far, the film will be directed by special effects designer/animator Michael Gracey, and will be produced by Avi Arad. Now then, there seems to be a new trend of Hollywood trying to adapt popular and beloved manga and anime to the big screen. We also have Ghost in the Shell coming, which will star the not-so-bad casting choice of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. But this wouldn’t be the first time old tinsel town has tried to adapt manga, and it was a mixed bag.

There are probably three notable live action adaptations of manga made in the past ten years. The Wachowskis created a pretty faithful film of Speed Racer, but the audience didn’t really like it, and found the fast-paced special effects to be visually painful. However, it has developed a cult classic. There was also Astro Boy by Imagi Studios, a decent movie that mostly honoured its basic story (sci-fi version of Pinocchio), but featured a lot of pointless characters, a sense of being slightly rushed, Nicholas Cage was strangely cast as Dr. Tenma, and the badguy was a not-too-subtle take at George W. Bush. And then, there was Dragonball Evolution, which can be renamed as “How To Not Make A Good Adaptation 101”. It’s like having a bag of monkey dung poured over your head and ashamed of its own source material.

Japan itself has adapted a number of manga to cinema, directly almost page-per-page recreation. Some have been popular like the Death Note movies, and a lot of manga that have in turn been adapted into anime have received tie-in films. So manga-based films are very successful in Japan.

A key thing that can make or break a film based on an established piece of fiction is how close it is to the original source material. Sometimes the film can be superior to the source like The Godfather. Some are pretty darn good like most of the recent comic book films like The Dark Knight and Avengers Assemble. And sometimes, even Japan’s own attempts to adapt their properties have failed – the Attack on Titan film was reimagined to an Asian setting rather than the manga’s European one. The film received mass criticism for this change and lack of resemblance to the manga, so much so that the director and special effects supervisor resorted to making petty insults towards the critics.

Now, how can Naruto be properly adapted for a western audience without butchering it? Simple. Honour the actual story, characters, themes, and setting. In the story, Naruto Uzumaki is a teenage ninja-in-training who dreams of becoming the Hokage, the leader of his village, in order to gain the respect of its people after years of being persecuted for just existing. It turns out Naruto is the host for Kurama, the Ninetailed Demon Fox, who terrorised the village years ago and sealed within Naruto as a baby by the Fourth Hokage. Naruto begins as a loudmouthed braggart, but who is also optimistic, loyal, and chivalrous to a fault. He eventually forms a team of ninjas with fellow trainees Sasuke Uchiha, who looks to avenge his murdered clan, and Sakura Haruno, who Naruto has a crush on. They are in turn led by Kakashi Hatake, a detached, apathetic character but more loyal than he acts.

The series later dives into intriguing plots of lengthy ninja battles and more flashbacks than an episode of Lost, with themes of kindred spirits, justice/revenge, accepting ones flaws, camaraderie, loss of loved ones, forgiveness, and never giving up on your dreams, friends, our oneself. The manga has many, many characters, so a wise move on Lionsgate’s part would be to base the film directly on the first arc which deals with Naruto bonding with his new teammates while facing an opposing threat and their own inner issues.

Then, if the film is successful, adapt more arcs and introduce other characters there. However, they could take the bad option and just cherry pick the highlights of Naruto and make a cheap film that is reworked to pander at the audience.

Naruto is thoroughly a Japanese product. Everything about it is Japanese. Everyone is a ninja, certain characters are directly based on pieces of Japanese folklore, everyone’s abilities are powered by Chakra, which is similar to ideas from Indian mythology and Buddhism. This isn’t a product that can so easily be translated to a context western audiences can be familiar with. It worked with Pokémon, and failed miserably with the first attempt to dub One Piece. Such films directly brought to the west from Japan like Spirited Away won instant love, and received the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and other such films like Akira are still well-known. There is an audience out there to deliver a successful adaptation to, but the question is will it be acknowledged or will the filmmakers believe they must westernize Naruto for a better understanding?

Perhaps the best option to go with is to simply recast the actors who are starring in the live action Naruto stage show going on in Japan. All of the performers are the right ages, resemble their respective characters, and have experience playing Naruto and co. It also paves the way for instantly casting roles for later films. Simplicity helps.

Obviously, there is quite a lot to Naruto’s story, so pacing, depth, and world building come into question. Many great films are able to build in-depth worlds and relatable characters in their short length, but with long-running series, it is a little more of a challenge. The first arc of Naruto is fairly straightforward – Naruto forms a team, they go on their first mission, bond, fight bad guys, and go home. There is a little more to it than that but those are the basic plot points; kind of like the Avengers. The key drive of that arc is Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi bonding and learning to trust each other. However, after that, the story becomes much more complex with tons of new characters and story threads that continue throughout the manga.

In the second arc, the story takes place over a few weeks, then breaks for a month, and then picks up later for the finale. There is a big ninja exam which allows the rookies to get a promotion, consisting of an overcomplicated paper test (that could be cut out), then the deadly Forest of Death where all the meat happens, then a lengthy round of fights to whittle down the finalists, and then a month’s break before the final battle. But then the main villain launches a surprise attempt to take over Naruto’s village. There’s also a heroic death and a cool kaiju fight as well. That is a lot to cram into a movie, so some trimming could be allowed, as well as condensing of the plot.

I believe that the first arc, better known as the “Zabuza Arc” of “Team 7 Arc” would work best as the plot for the film since it’s the first manga storyline, it introduces the main characters and the world, and it works well as its own standalone story. There is a lingering sense of dread that Avi Arad and Michael Gracey will take the easy route by dumbing it down and completely changing the story for the sake of pandering to the “unintelligent” audience. But I like to be an optimist, and hope they will do a Naruto movie justice.

What are your thoughts on the prospects of a Naruto movie? Should Hollywood leave it alone and make original films again? Does orange work as an appropriate colour for a ninja to wear? Sound off in the comments below or leave a post on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell