Anime is making a huge resurgence.
Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and even Disney Plus are making the popular Japanese medium readily available on their platforms. Long gone are the days when we had to lock down Crunchyroll accounts or scour the deep corners of the internet to find our favorite shows and manga.
It seems inevitable that alongside the growing popularity, temptation to further mine revenue out of fans would be hard for filmmakers to resist. Much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Marvel movies, animated source material has been adapted to live-action with dizzyingly varying quality.
However, the best live-action anime movies seem to be in a separate category, struggling to find critical and commercial success--with ranging degrees of effort and expectation.
While most turned out to be downright awkward, there are a few that are almost worth your time. At the very least, you can find a kitschy popcorn-flick you can casually watch on a Saturday. There are even a few gems in there.
This cohesive list of the best live-action anime titles are ranked in order of average ratings taken from major review sites: Imbd, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic.
As with niche and cult classic movies, not every film was available on all three sites. The quality of data (# of ratings critical and user) was also all over the place. I tried to take this into account, at times taking a liberty in judgement, giving precedence to a film that had more data in the case of a tie in the final average.
Imbd: imbd.com (Ratings are given out of 10 and encompass average of User and Critic scores.)
RT: rottentomatoes.com (Ratings given in percentages out of 100%. Percentages indicate critical rating unless noted as “User”)
MC: metacritic.com (Ratings given on 100 point scale. Points indicate critical rating unless noted as “User”.)
Avg: Average rating taken from total ratings on a 100 point scale out of 10.
This was the moment I knew for a fact that Hollywood was out to get me. They wanted to take my money at the theater and take a big Super-Saiyan sized dump all over my precious childhood.
No tact. No style. And, somehow, so easily avoidable. It’s hard to know what anyone was thinking in releasing Dragonball: Evolution, or if anyone did any market research for this fim.
I loved Dragonball and Dragonball Z. All my friends loved Dragonball and Dragonball Z.
No one I knew even bothered to see this movie. And if huge fans of this anime wouldn’t give Dragonball: Evolution a chance, who the Hell was this movie for?
Dragonball: Evolution profoundly represents every facet of what is wrong with live-action anime movies. It strips an embarrassing amount of source material, and uses an egregiously enormous budget to attempt its interpretation of what ends up being so far removed from the original manga and anime, that it becomes something completely different.
Something fans and bystanders can agree-- nobody really wanted.
The thing that I appreciate about the Death Note film most is that it didn’t completely ruin the careers of actors I genuinely love--Willem Defoe and LaKeith Stanfield. Netflix tried it’s darndest to do otherwise in it’s huge entrance into the live-action anime movie trend.
Similar to Dragonball:Evolution, Death Note suffers from removing so much of the source material while adding nothing interesting in its place, that it makes you wonder who the intended audience was here.
Aside from a few good performances (Willem Defoe as Ryuk in particular), this film is an easy one to pass on. Which is a shame, because the original show explored some interesting philosophies in morality while showcasing some truly outstanding showdowns in logic between Light as Kira and super-eccentric Super Detective L that I would have loved to see.
While the Guyver is a huge dud in review scores, this movie has a passionate cult following.
It’s bad in a way that truly only a 90’s movie can be. Resembling sci-fi horror flicks that it obviously drew inspiration from. Part creature feature, part superhero movie, the Guyver loosely adapts the 80’s manga and takes an even darker tone to create what feels like a straight-to-DVD B-movie.
As long as you're savvy to some cheesy effects, downright bad dialogue and awkward jokes, I think there’s something very much worth watching here. But in that charming 80’s and 90’s way, like the Highlander and less like the cringeworthy Dragonball:Evolution way.
Terra Formars is adapted from a manga of the same name, and has one of the more insane scripts I’ve ever read.
Humans go to colonize Mars and start terraforming the planet. 500 years later, they find out humanoid superpowered cockroaches have evolved and shred the crew of humans that arrive. There’s a confusing back and forth--the humans keep genetically splicing themselves with a slew of bug abilities (the creators seemed to do a LOT of research regarding breeds of cockroaches and insects) in order to fight these things.
The movie is just as surprising and awkward as you’d expect. With frankly some of the strangest facial expressions and character design that I’ve seen in a film.
So, I suppose if any of that resonated with you, there’s something entertaining here. All the B-movie, sci-fi and cockroach enthusiasts out there.
It’s funny how something can look so terrifying when animated, and so laughable in live-action.
Unfortunately for Attack on Titan, this is what happened with their monsters. The original manga and anime exploded on the scene in American Audiences particularly when the show was put onto Netflix, getting well deserved attention to a wide audience. The Titans were terrifying and the story was downright gruesome and despairing.
With so much to live up to, and so much required CGI, I don’t know how much hope there was for an Attack on Titan movie. Props for trying, I guess.
While critically poorly received, fans seem to have generally gracious feelings towards the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist, in a very, *shrug*, “I guess”, sort of way.
What Fullmetal Alchemist succeeds in is refraining from totally offending its fans. It attempts to beat-for-beat recreate much of the show, capturing the essence of what made it such a phenomena in anime. It supports a fully Japanese cast which further avoids the whitewashing shade thrown on many other adaptations of its kind.
However, despite all that effort, and an honestly visually stunning film, Fullmetal Alchemist still misses the magic of the original content. There is something here worth watching for sure, but it seems a direct copy into the flesh isn’t what animation needs to be successful. Which begs the question if a good live-action anime movie is possible at all.
Well, what do you know, a Warner Brothers produced live-action anime film that ISN’T whitewashed. I’m almost proud of Hollywood now...almost.
Gintama is based on a manga and anime of the same name, and scratches all the itches that anime should. Edo-era samurai fight invading aliens in this alternate history narrative. The manga and anime are well known for mastering comedy and action in its storytelling.
The film seems to mostly hold up to its source, but with poor CGI and no surprises in its interpretation, it misses out on being something truly great.
Although either way it seems to be underrated and perhaps deserving of a higher placement on this list.
Psychic Kusuo is based on the manga The Disastrous LIfe of Saiki K. and revolves around superpowered psychic high schooler Kusuo who just wants to live a normal life, but is often thwarted by his oddball friends.
The live-action film is accused of being both over-the-top with acting and it’s anime tropes while falling flat in its story. However, I have to give the film points for having the most realistic looking anime hair. So, that’s something.
Ghost in the Shell has a huge cult following based on it’s 90’s run of manga and anime which drew from the cyberpunk ideologies of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, while thoughtfully exploring Eastern philosophies in consciousness and the blurred lines between man and machine.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to attempt to please this vivacious fanbase, but it went about as well as you’d expect. Ghost in the Shell’s live-action take showed ambition, but ultimately stopped short due to scathing reviews and questions regarding Scarlett Johanssen’s casting.
Speed Racer was Hollywood’s flex in 2008 for the future of CGI. Boasting a star studded cast and banking on the familiarity of the Speed Racer cartoon for American Audiences, Warner Brothers pulled all the stops for this majestic flop for live-action anime.
Arguably the first major effort to make a big budget live action remake of an anime, Speed Racer spared no expense with pedigree and state of the art cinematics. However, Speed Racer also proved that even if you threw everything Hollywood has to offer: respected directors, known actors and pretty effects, there is something unquantifiable missing from the formula that makes anime so great.
Speed Racer’s detriment appears to be the heavy handed visuals which took precedence over the storytelling. However, Speed Racer is still generally nice to look at, and fun enough for a good Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe that is enjoyable.
Reading the synopsis for Black Butler sounds like the imaginings for a deep cut Black Metal band.
Ciel who is a teen in 19th century London is the victim of an attack on his home, leaving him orphaned after both of his parents are killed in a blaze. He is captured by cultists, physically, mentally and sexually abused until finally being sacrificed to summon a demon--who ironically decides to kill the cultists and bestow its powers on Ciel in return for his soul...Rock on…
The film leans into the dark tone of the manga and anime, with some liberties taken narratively.
The live-action film received some less than stellar reviews. It was referred to as “a failure at every level” by Film Business Asia and “Compellingly weird” by The Times, which honestly draws me to this movie even more.
I mean c’mon. Bad movies are fun sometimes.
Wow. If you have never heard of Assassination Classroom… change that.
This anime follows rejected students from a prep school charged with killing an alien octopus (which looks like a smiley-faced emoji) who is threatening to destroy earth after decimating the moon. The alien named UT (unkillable teacher) takes over their homeroom class and teaches them assassination techniques. The government offers a reward for whoever can kill the tentacled alien, which becomes complicated as it turns out to be the best teacher these outcast middle-schoolers have ever known.
Expectantly comedic and outlandish, the Assassination Classroom live-action anime tips its hat to its manga and anime predecessors which began in 2012.
A little rough around the edges in terms of CGI and acting, there’s a fever dream of a good time to be had here.
The most surprising adaptation on this list is an interpretation of Nintendo’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series. Little did I know fans were hungry to see our titular detective in the flesh.
Yet here we are. Able to witness blown up realizations of our dust covered Nintendo DS systems. Complete with Wright’s classic “OBJECTION!” text filling up the screen, the film attempts to capture the magic of the game on screen.
Unfortunately, the movie suffers from some expected road bumps--awkward acting, and tacky Lego piece hair--which detracts from what I think is a pretty neat idea for a live-action anime movie.
Cassern is loosely adapted from an animated television series in the early 70’s. One of only a few films with live actors to be shot entirely in a digital setting (ex. Sin City). Which, to this films detriment, consistently looks over green-screened, over digitized, and under budgeted.
The campy sci-fi narrative has some value for a low stakes movie night. Even if you are unfamiliar with the source material, Cassern’s Russian Avant-Garde inspiration gives the film a unique tone that sets it apart from its peers.
Your Lie in April is a shojo story that has permeated itself as a manga, anime and live action film. With a little more production value than other remakes of its kind in the genre, the film benefited from a loyal fanbase.
Consisting of your expected high school lovebird narrative tropes, Your Lie in April finds its niche in musical prodigies, conspicuous (if not suspicious) onsets of rare and debilitating diseases, and lots and lots of tears.
Yet, another classic shojo love story to give your teenage heart all the warm fuzzies it needs.
This manga adaptation looks like it benefited from a very low budget and a large fanbase. Compared to many of the other live-action anime films, From Me to You looks like it was made as a home movie for mere nickels and dimes.
Which isn’t necessarily bad.
A cheesy love-story doesn’t need too much polish--which this film is certainly lacking. Looking at the ratings, there seems to be enough charm to spit-shine this adaptation into a mid-tier live-action anime flick.
Bunny Drop benefits from some quality source material in this manga adaptation. Daikichi is a 27 year-old who takes in his grandfather’s 6 year old illegitimate daughter. He has no experience with children, and must deal with a highly conservative family, so there is a wealth of opportunity for social commentary and comedic moments.
Both sweet and offbeat, Bunny Drop tells a story easily adaptable to the big screen--no demons or sci-fi shenanigans here.
Bleach seems like a bad idea all around for a live-action remake. There’s a memorable protagonist to portray and the narrative requires heavy use of CGI or amazing puppetry in order to properly replicate the demons in the anime.
Surprisingly, the film does a pretty damn good job on all fronts. The protagonist doesn’t completely suck and the monsters actually look pretty cool. A lot of work--and a shit ton of money--went into making this adaptation that is at least decent. However, the box office revenue didn’t nearly justify the means to bring this anime to life.
Alita Battle Angel is a monster of a film.
Boasting the the largest budget of any anime film production, Alita rode the wave of stellar CGI work to stir up hype in a similar way that James Cameron did with Avatar. You likely saw a trailer and were drawn in by the incredibly life-like, fully CGI android more than it’s narrative or its source material.
Sadly, it seems that while visually titillating and some semblance of stellar acting performances (Rosa Salazar as Alita), Alita Battle Angel doesn’t offer that much more. Considering the pedigree behind this project, you might expect a little bit more out of this outrageous monetary effort to bring the 90’s manga Battle Angel Alita to life.
Still, there is a perfectly enjoyable movie to be found here.
I confess that I missed the train on Jojo’s bizarre adventure. My only experience with the show was late night in a Japanese hotel room just trying to understand what the hell was happening (I confess that I don’t speak a lick of Japanese). Running since the late 80’s, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has attracted generations of fans. It’s unmistakable style and truly “bizarre” characters, donning some of the most out-there costume and hair styles, seems like a recipe for disaster when dreaming about the big screen (Look to Dragonball Generations). However, JoJo breaks the mold for large-scale anime reboots with beloved source material and outrageous character design by receiving better-than-decent reviews.
The film offers fans a good time without totally offending them. That’s a lot more than most live action anime movies can stand on.
Assassins and swordsmen. Revenge and peace.
Rurouni Kenshin’s strength lies in its simplicity and serious tone. Taking place in the 1800’s in Japan, the story follows a wandering assassin who is trying to live a life of atonement for the many lives he has taken. Like a very sweet, Japanese Robin Hood.
Originally released as a series in Shonen Jump magazine in the mid-to-late 90’s, It has since been adapted into an anime series, translated and distributed as a manga, made into multiple video games and spans several live-action movies.
Rurouni Kenshin (2012) is a good starting point and scratches all the itches you’d expect from a movie revolving around a stoic, traveling assassin. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a classic.
Originally a manga in Japan, Oldboy has been adapted multiple times for the big screen. While recently getting made into a film in 2013, the 2005 Korean adaptation is the most beloved.
Deeply philosophical and violent, Oldboy explores the dark corners of the human experience as the protagonist is captured and isolated for 15 years, only to be released and forced to find his captor in 5 days time. Exploring some of the darkest corners in the human psyche, and following the footsteps of Oedepus, Oldboy’s plot is rich enough to draw audiences in almost any form. The 2005 adaptation holds a special place in cinema compared to many films on this list, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, arguably opening the door for Korean cinema to audiences world-wide--like Oscar winning Parasite in (2020).
A young woman is orphaned at birth from a band of criminals killing her entire family. She is immediately trained to be an assassin with the sole purpose of seeking revenge for her lost family. Both bad-ass and beautiful, Lady Snowblood became a major inspiration for Quentin Tarentino in making Kill Bill.
Originally written as a manga in the early 70’s as a serial entry in Shenuisa’s Playboy Weekly, the story was adapted for the big screen as well as made available in print by Dark Horse Comics in 2005. If you are down with some early 70’s film, there is a lot in Lady Snowblood (1973) that ages elegantly.
Inuyashiki Ichirou is a sad, old man with cancer who gets abducted by aliens and graced with tech that essentially turns him into a superhero. The problem is, a high school student is also given these abilities and wants to use them to wreak havoc on the world around him. Inuyashiki must use his new Inspector Gadget powers as all kinds of nonsense comes out of his body and stop this angsty pretty-boy from destroying Shinjuku. Seeming suspiciously akin to Deathnote in terms of it’s villain and plot, the live-action adaptation of Inuyashiki is over-the-top and high octane, making for an entertaining ride.
A huge boost in this rating is a huge influx of perfect user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which tells me there is a big cult following for this movie that likely deserves some attention. While technically the best rating on the list, I hesitates to place it “1st” due to this caveat. However, I also couldn’t ignore the hype.
Live-action remakes of animated stories are nothing new. As seen on this list, it's been happening since the 70's for anime and manga. This trend doesn't seem to be losing traction anytime soon despite cries of despair from fans all over the world.
Since 2017 in particular, there has been a huge influx of live-action attempts at remaking popular anime and manga. This likely coincides with the popularity of anime on streaming services, making this content more lucrative for film production.
Several things seem to lead to a relatively successful live-action film:
In any case, no matter the effort behind the production, it's concerning that for as long as these films have been around no film has knocked it out of the park critically. When the best film on a decade spanning list is only slightly above an 8.5 average review score, there should be cause for concern. This data leads me to question if these movies are contributing anything important to the genre, or are they just attempting to pump out more revenue from proven narratives, rather than come up with their own.
Assuredly, these films will keep getting made.
And, maybe, just maybe, someone will crack the code and make a truly great live-action anime film.