It’s always an interesting and mixed experience for fans when source material like comics or animated shows transition to the silver screen in live-action form. A lot of the time these fresh takes can be complete triumphs, but one medium that continues to experience a tough time through this adaptation process is anime.
Live-action anime adaptations often feel like extremely risky endeavors, especially in America. There are extremely few situations where Hollywood takes on anime find mass success. Many American live-action adaptations of anime seem doomed before they even go into production. That’s why it’s somewhat noteworthy that early reviews on the Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron team-up, Alita: Battle Angel, are at least mixed. Even if our own review took a decidedly negative view, some of us remain optimistic about the overall prospect. It’s a reminder that it’s not impossible to bring a fantastical anime series to life (Battle Angel Alita is primarily a manga, but it does have two anime OVAs). Accordingly, here’s a collection of many live-action anime films that do not disappoint and are worthy of your time, whether you’re a fan of the original series or not.
Inuyashiki is one of the most moving, emotional, bat-shit insane animes from the past few years, so it’s extremely gratifying that its live-action counterpart by Shinsuke Sato absolutely knocks it out of the park. The film presents a very simple story where an elderly man who feels invisible and a disaffected teenager inadvertently become robots and wield incredible new powers.
Inuyashiki is basically an origin story between a hero and a villain, and the film easily contains this gripping journey into its two hours. Both leads are believable in these roles and the effects and bonkers battles do not disappoint. It’s also downright terrifying during certain moments. This is more or less the film that people were hoping M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass would turn out to be. Thankfully, the film has even been announced to be the first part of a trilogy, so the continued adventures of this hero and villain are far from over.
The Wachowskis’ hallucinogenic rainbow-dipped Speed Racer adaptation received its fair share of flak when it first came out, but it’s since been recognized by many as a cult classic that perfectly captures the spirit and energy of the kitschy original anime series. In all fairness, Speed Racer doesn’t exactly have the deepest story—all they had to pull off was an insane, exciting car race, and this candy colored daydream more than deliver in that department.
All of the actors know how to properly exaggerate their performances without going too far, and the film is full of visuals that are truly breathtaking and among the best of the Wachowskis’ entire career. Drop your hang-ups and have some serious fun with Speed Racer. They even keep in Chim-Chim!
The Wachowskis deserve credit for this being nearly the only American-made anime film adaptation on the list. It’s a process that proves to continually be maddening to directors, with takes on Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, and Dragon Ball all being misfires.
Frankly it would be impossible to make a live-action film that’s as visually interesting as a Masaaki Yuasa anime, but Fumihiko Sori’s adaptation of Ping-Pong the Animation gets pretty darn close. Ping Pong is about, believe it or not, high stakes table tennis matches. Such a mundane area of competition shouldn’t hold such high rewards, but both Yuasa’s anime and Sori’s live-action make the experience feel like a fight between superheroes. There are plenty of sports films that are out there, but Ping Pong stands with the best of them, has a fun sense of humor, and manages to bring a larger than life aesthetic to something as grounded as ping pong. It’s a sight to behold, and the film’s visual style helped put Fumihiko Sori on the map (who would later go on to tackle a live-action Fullmetal Alchemist).
Takashi Miike has built his reputation on gonzo films that need to be seen to be believed. The director catapults between genres and has simultaneously turned out some of the bloodiest films of all time, as well as earnest children’s pictures. Curiously, Miike has put many anime adaptations in his crosshairs and he’s had surprisingly good luck with bringing these insane worlds to life. To be fair, the Ace Attorney franchise was a series of video games before it became an anime, but Miike perfectly taps into the series’ bizarre sense of humor and desire for suspense.
The Ace Attorney series looks at the extravagant lawyer Phoenix Wright and the larger than life clients and prosecutors he faces within the courtroom.
A ridiculous courtroom drama shouldn’t be this entertaining, but Miike finds the right chaotic energy and filmmaking style to properly make this world pop. Lawyers literally hurl their evidence and objections at each other, like they’re in battle. It’s an extremely silly yet satisfying experience. And how can you argue with those hairstyles and wardrobe?
Terra Formars has Takashi Miike’s DNA all over it. It’s a future-set story on Mars where insect body horror crosses over with bleak warfare and revenge. When matters get tough, our heroes begin to transform into cockroach-humanoid warrior creatures who all continue to evolve in different ways that give them specific advantages in battle. The major twist here is that these transformations aren’t portrayed as horrible, but more like steroid-esque boosts for more power. The cockroaches inevitably war on one another and the film just rewards the audience with some crazy fights between unbelievable creatures. Granted Miike’s adaptation is undeniably sillier than the anime, but it’s hard not to find some humor in these cockroach monsters who continue to grow stronger and learn how to kill one another in new, ridiculous ways. The fight sequences in Terra Formars are truly next level and feature gorgeous choreography that’s some of the best from Miike’s filmography.
It’s bonkers karate bug battles in space! What else do you want here!?
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable Chapter I
Hirohiko Araki’s Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series has turned into one of the biggest hits in anime (not to mention meme culture). The series features spirit-like entities known as stands that aid their fighters in battle. Due to the eccentric nature of the series’ action and the increasingly exaggerated nature of the content, it was a title that many people naturally assumed would never get the live-action treatment. Once again Takashi Miike steps into the fray and produces a surprisingly authentic and satisfying adaptation of the Diamond is Unbreakable Series. Miike attempts to cram a ton into the film and it does feel bloated, but it’s nuts how well he’s able to replicate the anime’s characters and their outlandish world. After pulling off Jojo, it feels like Miike could properly execute any anime title.
Let’s just hope that a Chapter II ends up happening so audiences can get live-action Kira, Jojo’s craziest serial killer!
Rurouni Kenshin Parts I and II
Rurouni Kenshin is all about those archetypal ideals of the samurai genre. The anime is an eloquent execution of a classic samurai story of revenge, disgrace, and honor. With the relatively grounded nature of the anime that pulls from actual periods of history, Rurouni Kenshin is the perfect title to get the live-action treatment. Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins sets Kenshin on his infamous journey and his hesitant journey to pick up his blade and liberate Japan. Part II: Kyoto Inferno furthers Kenshin’s story in the best possible way and provides even more beautiful sword fights. Part III: The Legend Ends loses a little impact but it’s still commendable that Rurouni Kenshin could be turned into a gripping trilogy of films that tell a samurai story of honor, and it’s as strong as any of the classics and actually builds upon the mythos of the manga and anime.
Assassination Classroom/Assassination Classroom: Graduation
Assassination Classroom provides one of the more engrossing and addictive narratives for a shonen anime. An extremely powerful alien sets up shop on Earth, destroys 70 percent of the moon, and then declares that he’ll eliminate the planet in one year’s time unless a class of grade-school delinquents can figure out how to murder the extraterrestrial. Oh, and he’s going to be their teacher. The series grapples with complicated themes, smart action sequences, relatable characters, a lovable “villain,” and a complex relationship between the students and their teacher as they bond and grow in their efforts to murder him. On top of all of that, these live-action films actually make the yellow octopus-esque Korosensei look decent, which is a major accomplishment in itself. These movies work far better than they should, and they even make for a strong entry point into the series.
Gintama is a freaking institution in Japan. There are a lot of hilarious anime series out there, but Gintama is tantamount to Japan’s equivalent to The Simpsons but with the nerdy credibility of Community. On its surface level the series dresses itself up as a samurai parody, but more and more sci-fi elements intermix with the narrative, and it’s a really a mash-up of all pop culture. Characters relish the fact that they’re stereotypes and the fourth wall will be broken with reckless disregard.
It’s glorious, hilarious madness and it’s a little eerie how well the Gintama live-action film finds the right tone and perfectly replicates scenes from right out of the anime. It almost feels like an Edgar Wright vehicle at times. Gintama features plenty of fun battles, but its humor is really the selling point. The movie gets meta in a way that becomes even stronger and more hilarious due to the film construct that it’s happening within. The film even fits in cameos and references to Gundam and One Piece on top of everything else.
The crazy film performed so well that a sequel, Gintama 2: Rules Are Made to Be Broken, has also recently been released and carries on the tone and energy of the first movie.
Death Note/Death Note: The Last Name
Death Note is an ultra-popular property because there’s such an inherently basic premise as its core: a deadly game of cat-and-mouse breaks out after a new Death Note comes into play, names start getting written down, and bodies start to drop. There’s a reason that the series has been adapted to live-action several time over, but the versions that have been the most successful and captured the overwhelming spirit of the anime are Death Note and the follow-up Death Note: The Last Name. These films don’t muddle their messages and know to focus on the dangerous dynamic between L and Light. The relationships matters, consequences hurt, and it understands when it get serious and when to play up the melodrama. Willem Dafoe may make a great Ryuk in the Netflix version, but it’s hard to argue that these live-action versions of the film find a scary way to bring this demon to life.
Blade of the Immortal
Blade of the Immortal not only operates like the anti-Rurouni Kenshin, but it feels like the samurai film on bath salts. The film looks at a warring samurai who is cursed with immortality and faces an eternity of mowing down bodies without satisfaction. This pained figure finally finds a purpose when he vows to help and fight for a young girl who’s lost her parents. Takashi Miike has made plenty of samurai pictures, but he finds a different energy with Blade of the Immortal, which also happens to be his 100th feature film. The battles are brutal and sprawling, and the film feels just as much like a celebration of Miike’s career as it is a tribute to one of the most memorable samurai stories.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K
What’s so much fun about The Disastrous Life of Saiki K is that the series’ titular teenager is an insanely overpowered psychic, but rather than use his abilities to rule the world or coast through life, he tries his hardest to just be left alone. Saiki Kusuo is the ultimate loner, and this live-action take on his zany universe properly sells the stoic psychic and his ridiculous group of friends. The Disastrous Life of Saiki K latches onto the anime’s frenetic pacing and it never allows itself to slow down. The film packs in a surprising amount of Saiki’s adventures and the characters’ psychic exploits are just as satisfying as they should be in live-action. With a strong structure already in place, a series of Saiki K films would work incredibly well and help carry on the series after the end of its manga and anime.
The Guyver may not technically by “good,” but it’s such a looney ride that it becomes absolutely essential viewing. The Guyver is kind of like if David Cronenberg was asked to direct a sentai-style series. The powerful Guyver suit that becomes the object of obsession throughout the film operates very much like some edgy version of a Power Rangers outfit.
The film mixes a murder mystery with man-in-suit action scenes that’s all wrapped up in a dark sci-fi aesthetic. It’s a wonder that this American live-action take on the material happened at all, but it’s also a film that feels highly emblematic of the early ‘90s grasp on science fiction. Even if the silly, gloomy action fodder doesn’t land for you, this movie also turns Mark Hamill into a horrifying insect-like abomination and will forever be important for that reason alone. The film’s sequel, Guyver: Dark Hero turns up the crazy factor even more, but it becomes a less enjoyable movie as a result.
Fumihiko Sori’s live-action Fullmetal Alchemist film isn’t perfect, but he channels much of the same magic that he does in Ping Pong to bring this lofty anime series to life. The film tells the touching story of the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, who are powerful alchemists (think magic) that find themselves on an unexpected journey to repair their very bodies as an experiment gets out of hand.
The film does feel rushed in many respects, but the brotherly bond between Edward and Al rings true, the fight sequences are impressive and grandiose, and this live-action version of Alphonse looks a lot better than how it could have turned out. Fullmetal Alchemist blends supernatural powers with militaristic warfare and grueling family drama. This film is hardly the definitive take on the material, but it makes for a good primer for Fullmetal Alchemist newcomers. It also shows that Sori is only becoming more accomplished at bringing conceptually intimidating stories to life.
Shinsuke Sato has grown into quite the competent director when it comes to handling live-action anime adaptations (several of his works are on this list), but Bleach is arguably the largest, most popular property that the director has tackled. Bleach looks at Ichigo Kurosaki, a teenager who’s plagued with the ability to see ghosts, as well as a slew of other supernatural skills. There are plenty of shonen-style anime that follow this archetype, but there’s a reason that Bleach has gone on for hundreds of episodes and gained such an obsessive following. Shinsuke Sato’s film jumps into Ichigo’s world with such passion that the fight scenes all fly and feel like they have stakes while the vibrant colors surrounding them pop. Series like Bleach can sometimes turn into gratuitous displays of action porn when they become films, but this movie understands how to please the fans and still find ways to surprise them. Endeavors like this are so often failures, which is why it’s such a relief that Sato’s Bleach connects.
Casshern weaves a very messy, convoluted story that sort of feels like The Matrix, Blade, and Robocop all got mixed together and then some hard drugs were thrown in for good measure. The film is set in a dystopia where genetically modified mutants run the risk of taking over the planet and the best hope for survivor is Casshern, a reincarnated warrior who’s not exactly normal. Casshern lays on the heavy themes thick and it’s often perplexing to figure out exactly what’s happening on the screen, but the chaotic story operates with such confidence. The film employs a near-constant use of green screens to help cultivate the insane battles and worn out planet. Casshern may not always work, but it’s a weird, moody blend of sci-fi and action that effectively feels like an anime come to life.
Gantz is weird. Like really weird. Anime loves its takes on The Matrix, but this is like if The Matrix and eXistenZ had a weird goth kid. The film kicks off when two high schoolers die, but rather than that being the end of their tale, they’re transported to a new world where a giant, sentient black ball (the titular Gantz) gives them murder missions. Oh, and in that black globe is a frail, omniscient man. Basic stuff, right? As these individuals carry out the Gantz’ wishes to hunt and kill aliens, they learn that everyone who murders an alien gets points, and if 100 points are accumulated you can even resurrect yourself or someone else of your choosing. With that, Gantz creates a simple, yet addictive narrative that messes with the audience and characters’ perceptions of what is real. Sequels and side stories, Gantz: Perfect Answer and Another Gantz do well to further the first film’s mythology, but the original film best captures the what is happening? charm of the anime.
Orange doesn’t involve robots, aliens, or brazen CG effects, which is perhaps why this adaptation lands so well. It’s a little surprising that more “slice of life” style animes don’t receive the live-action film treatment, but fortunately Orange has just enough of a hook to elevate above the standard teen drama. Naho Takamiya receives a letter from herself from 10 years in the future, which gives her important foresight regarding her friend Kakeru Naruse and, ultimately, his mental health and well-being. Naho Takamiya aims to change the future and correct these “mistakes” and foster a healthy relationship with Kakeru.
Orange effortlessly moves between, comedy, drama, and romance and every single actor excels as their characters. It’s an incredibly satisfying watch for fans of the anime and newcomers are still just as likely to bawl their eyes out. Orange is a reminder that anime adaptations don’t have to look at extreme material to be entertaining, as long as they have good characters and a strong emotional core.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.