Anime to Live-Action Films

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At least in part because of the difficulty that directors, writers, actors, and other production staff face when it comes to adapting something into an entirely separate medium, the majority of manga/anime-based live-action films out there seem to be overwhelmingly average. The general style of many (if not most) anime and manga is unrealistic, extremely dramatic, and simply not suited to easily be transferred straight to live-action format, with characters and stunts that would come across as parodical at best, and at worst completely nonsensical.

For this article, I’ll be pinpointing a few titles that have been among both the best and worst of contemporary (say, post-2000) live-action adaptations from anime or manga. However, since there are already plenty of lists already floating about the place on the top 5 or 10 best and worst of these, I’d like to make things a little different by picking only one title for best and worst Japanese live-action film, as well as best and worst non-Japanese film.

For the record, I’m not interested in getting tangled up in arguments about how well/badly these live-action films have been altered from their respective source materials in terms of general plot. My intention here is to pick films that can stand alone, with viewers being able to make sense of and enjoy them without necessarily needing to have previously watched the anime or read the manga.

Best Japanese

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Normally I’d say Battle Royale, hands down, because it’s really an excellent film – it’s realistic (within the bounds of its story), well-acted, and doesn’t come across as pretentious or overworked. Since I’m skirting my self-imposed rules of ‘contemporary’ though (the film was released in 2000), and because the film is technically based on a novel that just happened to be adapted into a manga around the same time as the release of the film, I’m going with 2006’s Death Note instead. No, the film (or rather, two films) aren’t perfect. They’re probably a little long for some, and the CG can feel a little clunky at times. That said, Matsuyama Kenichi more than makes up for this with his truly fantastic portrayal of L, who only became one of my favourite fictional characters after I had watched the live-action version of the story. Speaking of story, die-hard fans of the anime and manga will hate me for this but I honestly thought the conclusion of events here was way better. I enjoyed the anime but lost a lot of interest after the introduction of Near and Mello – I just saw no particular point in them, and things started to drag for me. On the other hand, the live-action films keep the plot tightly focused on the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L, which is really the main highlight of the entire thing.

Honourable mention: Rurouni Kenshin (2012). While I’m not a huge fan of the anime and therefore can’t appreciate this film as much as many others can, I still felt it was an excellent adaptation. Good fight choreography, very well-cast, and incredibly faithful to its source material while still coming into its own as a very decent self-contained production.

Worst Japanese

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I’ll give a shout-out to Battle Royale II for being roughly about as terrible as the original film was awesome, but I feel like that’s probably cheating, so in the end I have to go with Paradise Kiss. Released in 2011, the film should be innovative, vibrant, and slightly avant-garde, but instead is uncreative, uninspired, and pointlessly vapid. I could complain about any number of things: the disappointingly low-budget feel of most of the scenes; the poor acting choices (especially in the case of George’s character, whose extremely charismatic and overtly sexual persona is transformed into some kind of wannabe hipster); or the rather slap-dash execution of the overall production. But in fact, what I most object to is the way in which a bittersweet coming-of-age story revolving around alternative subcultures and psychologically fascinating (if somewhat dysfunctional) physical and emotional relationships is suddenly all about FASHION and ROMANCE and HAPPILY EVER AFTER RAINBOW UNICORNS YAY. The main cast of Paradise Kiss may not be the most likeable characters in the history of anime and manga, but they’ve got a complexity about them that helps make it such a colourfully edgy story. If the live-action version of events are to be believed, then the concept of any actual spirit existing in the fashion industry doesn’t exist, and George and Yukari were totally meant to run off into the sunset together like the two destined love-birds that they are. WTF. There’s no passion here and no soul – just another insipid chick flick.

Best Non-Japanese

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I’m well aware that I’m in the minority here. Speed Racer panned at the box office compared to studio expectations when it was released in 2008 and has gotten mostly crap reviews from critics. Personally, I think it’s a work of art. Crazy, candy-coloured, acid-trip pop art, to be sure, but art nonetheless. The thing about the Speed Racer (or Mach Go Go Go if you prefer) manga and subsequent anime is that it’s an implausible story involving blatant symbolism, ridiculous stunts, and a chimpanzee. The thing about the live-action Speed Racer film is that it’s an implausible story involving blatant symbolism, ridiculous stunts, and a chimpanzee. Although I pointed out in the opening to this article that manga and anime doesn’t tend to make good live-action adaptations given the lack of realism in the source material, Speed Racer is an exception – it makes a terrific live-action adaption because of its lack of realism. The Wachowski Brothers pulled out all the stops and came out the other side with a film that is cinematically engaging (i.e. I just about had a seizure), flamboyantly playful, and above all, passionate – causing Premiere’s Glen Kenny to quite accurately state that it’s either the most headache-inducing children’s film of all time or else the most expensive avant-garde film ever made. I don’t believe the goal of the film is to take its story any more seriously than it was back in the swinging sixties, but rather simply to have fun and enjoy the ride. In that particular sense, I think Speed Racer should actually be considered one of the most successful films in the history of contemporary cinema.

Worst Non-Japanese

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Oh dear god why. For once I’m in agreement with the masses – 2009’s Dragonball Evolution is a monstrosity of a film, and not even in the so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. From start to finish it’s an absolute train-wreck, with its one saving grace being that with a running time of just under 90 minutes, it’s blessedly short. The actors might as well be reading straight off bits of paper held in front of them, their performance is that lacklustre, and unbelievably, the movie bears no resemblance to any original storyline while simultaneously being all but impossible for non-anime viewers to make sense of. Forget for a moment (if you can) the painful scripting and the terrible casting choices and the embarrassingly bad action sequences – where’s the sense of fun? Nowhere to be found in this passionless teenybopper bastardization, of that I’m certain. I’m not sure whether to be more offended at Justin Chatwin of all people running around saving the world and pretending to be Asian, or at the fact that nobody seems to be making even a token effort to breathe some goddamn life into this production. No clue what Chow Yun-fat was smoking when he agreed to be a part of the horror that is Dragonball Evolution, but I can only hope he received a ridiculously large sum of money in exchange for his soul.

Question of the post: What are your thoughts on these film choices? And more importantly, what would your own nominations be for best and worst Japanese/non-Japanese live-action films that have been adapted from anime or manga?

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36 thoughts on “Anime to Live-Action Films

  1. Sorta related, I’ve always found that the best way to adapt an anime/manga to another medium while retaining most of the characteristics of the original work is to go for a CG movie. It’s the middle ground between 2D animation and live-action. Good example would be Appleseed and .Hack//The Movie. It gives it a level of realism that can appeal to a broader audience (non-anime fans) while still not being able to blend with special effects that contribute to the fantastic nature of both titles. That said, I can’t wait for the upcoming Captain Harlock movie.

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      • I’m sort of on the fence about CG anime movies. I understand what you mean about it being a good middle ground, and I’m sure there are plenty of good examples out there, but I personally can’t think of a single CG-only anime film I really enjoyed. I’m not a fan of Appleseed at all, although I confess I haven’t seen the .Hack//The Movie.

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  2. I haven’t seen the Death Note Movies, but if they kick out Mello and Near, then I agree with you. The third arc was the weakest of the series by a long shot, and the back-and-forth between L and Light was what really made the show stand out. I haven’t seen Dragonball, either, but if half of what I’ve heard and seen is true, then it’s earned this place on the list.

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    • No sign at all of Mello or Near in the Death Note live-action movies, thank god – although Near does make an appearance, albeit in a completely different form than in the anime series, in the sequel live-action film called L: Change the World. (Said sequel movie has plenty of plot holes and is ridiculously over the top, but because of Matsuyama Kenichi reprising his role of L, I couldn’t help but enjoy it anyway.) I’d suggest watching Dragonball Evolution just for shits and giggles, but it honestly isn’t worth even that.

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  3. I completely agree that the Death Note Movie’s ending was superior to the anime. It’s definitely at the top of my live-action anime movie list. While the anime had those rather forced Christ-references to L before his death, his death in the movie was necessary and meaningful (not to mention insanely clever, of course) and made even better by Matsuyama Kenichi’s spot on portrayal.

    There is a live-action Mushishi that I would like to but have not seen. (Expectations are subterraneanly low, however.) But I’m looking forward to the live action xxxHolic movie, which may or not be worth the price of admission.

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    • God yes, Matsuyama Kenichi was just outstanding as L. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone play their character better in any movie – it was almost crazy to see how superbly he fit the role.

      I’ve seen the live-action Mushishi movie. It’s actually not bad, but predictably it’s not outstanding either. I wasn’t entirely sold on Odagiri’s portrayal of Ginko, although overall the acting was decent. I think it’s just that because the Mushishi anime series is such a wonderful and powerful piece of storytelling, it would be almost impossible for any other adaptation to live up to it.

      I wasn’t aware that there was an xxxHolic live-action movie? I know there’s a live-action TV series, which I’ve seen some of (and it was okay I guess, although I wasn’t sufficiently impressed enough to watch past the pilot episode), but I haven’t heard anything about a movie.

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      • Ah, my mistake. Just checked that out. Drama, not movie. Guess that’s what you get for not doing your homework. Looks like my otaku students were lying to me when they said it was a movie. : / Oh well.

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        • There’s a movie too, but it’s an anime movie, not a live-action one. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a live-action film made at some point. I don’t know what the ratings from the live-action series were, but reviews from fans seemed quite positive.

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  4. It isn’t every day I encounter another human being who seems to have enjoyed Speed Racer as much as I did. I was never a huge fan of the show, so I suppose a lot of why I was able to enjoy it was that I lacked the attachment to the source material, but nonetheless I found it to be the F-Zero movie we’ll probably never have.
    It’s the sort of bright, energetic film that we rarely see here in the U.S., and it baffles me to no end that people looked at it such disdain.

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      • Yeah, I very rarely see other people who liked the Speed Racer live-action movie. Like you, I have no particular attachment to the anime – I vaguely remember watching it, but I was never a huge fan. I think a lot of adult viewers probably saw the Speed Racer movie and thought it was terrible because it was ridiculous and over the top and that there was no way they could take it seriously. Which would normally be fair, only I got the distinct feeling that Speed Racer was purposefully made that way. There’s a big difference to me between a movie that’s melodramatic and cheesy because of genuine bad acting and poor scripting, and a movie that’s melodramatic and cheesy solely because that’s what the creators intended.

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  5. Nice to see a shout out to Rurouni Kenshin. It exceeded my expectations even as a fan of the anime looking for stuff to get annoyed at. For the best live-action adaptation, I personally prefer Nodame Cantabile. It managed to induce a life long love in classical music

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    • The Kenshin film also exceeded my expectations – I was very pleasantly surprised when I first saw it a few months ago. Have you heard the news that there are going to be two more new live-action films? Satō Takeru will be starrring again in both – I daresay there are a lot of happy fans right about now.
      Oh, I actually haven’t seen the live-action Nodame Cantabile. I’ve watched some of the anime but not all of it – is the live-action a retelling of the same story, or more of a sequel?

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      • It’s a retelling, technically based on the manga I believe as it finished first with all the major story arcs. It was the first live-action adaptation I watched in which I slightly preferred it to the anime.

        Great to hear the sequels are coming. I shall look forward to more Rurouni Kenshin over the years.

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  6. GEEZUS TAP-DANCING CHRIST! You really had to suffer for this list, short as it may be. I’m sorry, but when it comes to Dragonball Evolution, from the start I knew (as I’m sure most anime fans did) that that wouldn’t work. The Dragonball franchise is one of the most over-the-top, outlandish, ridiculous pieces of media ever created. To adapt to a film that is even remotely serious is to deny its very point. Sorry, I’m a little bitter about that particular project because DBZ is the very reason I watch anime today.

    Placing that anger aside, I’m really intrigued to learn about Rurouni Kenshin. The anime and manga for me are one of the more sacred entries in my catalog. If anything was plausible as an anime adaptation, it’s Rurouni Kenshin (oh, I even love typing the title).

    Sadly I’ve not watched many anime to live-action adaptations, mostly because I immediately judge them as crap. I even have Cutie Honey live action around my desk somewhere (it’s a messy desk). And a fellow anime fan I know said it’d be the death of me. HA! We’ll see about that!

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    • You’re not the only fan bitter about Dragonball Evolution, believe me. Personally it doesn’t bother me quite as much on that level because while I watched both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, they weren’t my ‘gateway’ anime or anything. That said, that doesn’t make Evolution any less of a monstrosity.

      I can certainly understand your feelings about not watching live-action adaptations of anime due to your misgivings – they’re definitely not unfounded. Rurouni Kenshin really is quite excellent though – fans can rest assured that it’s a faithful, respectful, fun adaptation there.

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  7. Late comment!
    Thankfully the only films I’ve seen on this list are Death Note and Rurouni Kenshin, and they were spectacular partly BECAUSE they were good stand-alone films. I would comfortably suggest them to people who want to know the story but don’t feel like reading the manga or watching the anime due to lack of time or just not having an interest in those mediums. That said, I don’t watch that many live action adaptations just out of my own lack of interest. ^^;
    Really glad I wriggled my way out of watching a shoujo-manga adaptation that was big in the theaters last winter. I don’t even sit through most shoujo-manga that are just about falling in love, and I’m certain I would have rolled my eyes the entire time watching a chick-flick version of it, likely full of cheesy acting. That said, whenever I tell people I like shoujo manga they assume this is the kind of stuff I’d like. The genre is so much wider than that. ;_;

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    • I think it would probably be fair to say that if most live-action adaptations of anime and manga are average (at best), then those live-action adaptations that don’t function as stand-alone films tend to be even worse.
      I can’t really think of any shoujo live-action adaptations at all that I’ve liked – although for the same reasons as you pointed out, I also haven’t seen that many. Statistically speaking I suppose there must be some okay ones out there, but I’m not particularly eager to wade through everything else to try and find them.

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  8. Semi-related: Battle Royale is one of THE greatest novels I’ve ever read, and I’m glad to hear that at least one of the movies was good as well. I actually enjoyed Dragonball: Evolution as a turn-off-your-brain movie. 😛 Speed Racer was … very much in line with its title (except for the odd scenes of people talking in a dark blue room or something? I was wondering if I was even watching the same movie), and it did have one heck of a colorful ending.

    Thanks very much, as always, for liking my Howl’s Moving Castle review! =)

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    • Thank you as well – I’m happy you enjoyed the article. 🙂
      You know, I haven’t actually read the Battle Royale novel, although I ended up skimming through the manga once when a Japanese hostel I was at had it on their big communal bookshelf. It was very different to the movie, so I’ve often been curious as to how the novel might differ from the movie as well.

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      • I’m sort of the reverse–I read all of the novel but haven’t seen much of the manga. The only thing I actually remember seeing was … what looked like a rather graphic sex scene that was much more explicit than anything I recall from the novel.

        As for the book, it obliterated both The Hunger Games and (in hindsight, since I finished what’s available of that series afterward) A Song of Ice and Fire; The Hunger Games only had one point-of-view protagonist, and I didn’t like her very much. A Song of Ice and Fire had many, but its pacing was so slow that few of those people felt developed or unique. Battle Royale avoided both mistakes, and its pacing was so well done that even characters who only got a few pages of “book time” were memorable, such as the girl who was totally hooked on New Age stuff. Note that the translated edition of the book has a lot of language–I’m not sure what your tastes on things like that, gore, etc. are–including rare use of the odd slang “faggoty,” but if you can deal with that, I absolutely loved the character development and interaction. Also, I’ll just go ahead and tell you now that there’s no magic ending where the characters find a way to stop the entire competition forever.

        Someday, if I can afford to do so, I’d love to be able to travel and see various things around the world, like urban Japan and Venice, which my cousins’ family has been to.

        Also, I think it’d be awesome if you maybe smiled a bit more in your still-pretty profile picture, if you don’t mind my saying so. 😉 Have a nice week, and thanks for your response! =)

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        • Yeah, I only briefly skimmed through some of the manga. It’s definitely a lot more sexualised than the movie, which actually seems pretty tame by comparison.

          No, I don’t mind you saying so. I often joke that in fashion modelling, the main two expressions photographers are looking for boil down to ‘bored’ and ‘pissed off’. To a certain extent, that often tends to be quite true, haha. Regardless, I’ll probably be uploading a different profile shot soon, as I recently had the opportunity to do some kimono fashion work.

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  9. Pingback: 5 Good Game-Based Anime | OTAKU LOUNGE

  10. Note to all Rurouni Kenshin fans, the live action movie is a must see!!! It was amazingly accurate without being too over the top and dramatic and told the story in a beautiful fashion. It pretty much stuck to the basics of the Rurouni Kenshin story, but also gave hints and nods to pieces of information that we learn in later arcs. But even if you weren’t a fan of the original material or had any interest in it, all it takes is a love for good martial arts and war movies and I promise this movie will be interesting for you as well.

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  11. I better see Rurouni Kenshin. I have been have not been watching a lot of live action films because after watching a few in my past, I was not fond of it. Especially the high school drama live actions like Hana Kimi. Hana Yori Dango was pretty good though.
    I definitely agree with you with Dragonball Evolution. It was a WTF movie and why did I spend my money for it? I will definitely check out Rurouni Kenshin.
    Thanks for the list.

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    • I’m not a huge fan of live-action Japanese drama – although to be fair, I’m often not a big fan of drama in general. Anime seems to be one of the only forms in which I can usually tolerate it… and even there, I have my limits as to how much I can stomach. But you’re welcome, and I hope you enjoy Kenshin when you get around to it. 🙂

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      • I just watched it right now. I loved it. The music, the characters, the pace, everything. It was amazing. Thanks for your honorable mention on Rurouni Kenshin. *round of applause*

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  12. So I’m an Atlanta film maker that Loves Anime and I wish to pick your brain about how you feel about Original live action anime.

    To be clear, that’s original content that was never a cartoon but holds the true essence of what anime is.

    Do you feel there is a market for this material.

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    • That’s a pretty difficult question to answer. I guess my first question back to you would be, what do you consider as the “true essence” of anime? And secondly, when you ask if I think there’s a market for the material, are you talking about a specifically American market, or something else?

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  13. Pingback: Say “I Love You” Live-Action Adaptation | Japanese Film

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