Look, while United States fans by and large disparage live-action anime adaptations there is nothing that makes them inherently bad. In fact, the same way Hollywood churns out adaptations of comics and books, Japan has long been adapting anime and manga to live-action format. And while they’re not all perfection, there are many that are great or fun, or both. Some lean into the unbridled chaos of their source material, others focus on adapting the manga over the anime, and others still adapt the story beautifully while avoiding shot-for-shot filmmaking. While I know it’s great content to slam live-action adaptations I wanted to take the time to point you to the live-action anime adaptations that just work. In fact, anime live-action are why I love attending film festivals like Fantasia International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.
So, to help you fall in love like I have, I’ve chosen 13 to get you looking in the right direction but I’ve omitted those based on manga that doesn’t have anime adaptions of that source material (as much as I wanted to include Cherry Magic!).
An older anime, and a great death game manga, Alice in Borderland was ripe for a live-action adaptation. With a large cast, high stakes, and psychological elements that puts characters into morality-pushing decisions, the Netflix Original live-action anime adaptation was not only well-received by fans but critics too. So much so, that the second season is highly anticipated. As high sci-fi, the series embraces the death game genre in every way it can from the evil omnipotent organization, the mystery of the cause, and of course, rules. What really makes this adaption work is that it doesn’t move away from some of the darkest elements of the anime and manga and instead embraces them, while also updating some scripted moments to 2021 standards that were more problematic in the series’ initial run.
The star of Fantasia Fest 2021 in my mind was Tokyo Revengers. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa, the film captures the first cour-ish of the anime, With an eye for detail when it comes to casting particularly Draken and Mikey. With Moebius as the film’s main villain we get some great character interaction and development. While there are issues with flattening the storyline the stellar warehouse fight, the costuming, and the chemistry make this one a damn good watch for fans and non-fans alike.
Tokyo Revengers was screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and is not currently available in the United States.
A Chinese live-action, Animal World is based on the iconic manga Kaiji by Nobuyuki Fukumoto. A blend of languages and actors across the world Animal World deviates from the source material greatly but it’s a fantastic film on its own. In it, an unlucky and debt-ridden teen resorts to using his math skills to survive deadly competitions run by a nefarious host. This one is a loose adaption but damn is it good and captures Kaiji well.
Wotakoi is my absolute favorite josei romance. It’s about adults who are geeks and awkward and accepting of each other in the best ways. For the adaptation, we get Wotakoi but in a musical style that captures the spirit of the anime and more importantly the manga that makes it shine. Not to mention a killer cast pushes the film into genuinely “great” status. Additionally, this anime live-action manages to make substantial changes that work well and hit an innovative stride. While the musical elements may through you a little off, and the third act deviation is a little out there, Narumi and Nifuji are perfections.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku was screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and is not currently available in the United States.
Okay. This is kind of cheating but all four Rurouni Kenshin live-action adaptations are phenomenal. Not only do they capture the source material but Takeru Satoh‘s physicality and dedication to the role of Kenshin is undefeated. Not only does he capture the adorable moments that wanderer has but his stark shift in demeanor when the Boutousai comes out it breathtaking. Not to mention, the Rurouni Kenshin films manage to knock action set pieces and fight choreography so far out of the park that it stands on it’s own. These films aren’t just good for an anime live-action, they’re good against original stories too.
Kakegurui as a franchise is a chaotic ecchi set in a high school where students gamble. This is a pretty hard concept to bring to a live-action given the age of the characters and it shouldn’t work. What Kakegurui does in the first and second live-action films (and to a lesser extent the live-action series) is to take the chaos, keep the face work, but remove some of the more suggestive elements. Instead, the films focus on the games themselves and wicked practical effects and lighting work to bring the facial expressions that anime is known for to life.
Kakegurui was screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and is not currently available in the United States.
I don’t even know what to say here other than, this is epic chaos that you will have no idea about unless you’ve seen the anime before and it’s also somehow canon and it’s also well-casted and I just don’t know. If you’re a Gintama fan you’ll love it and get it.
Blade the Immortal
The first entry from Takashi Miike on the list, Blade of the Immortal is a samurai epic that is more in the vein of Akira Kurosawa than the campy anime entries on the list. A nearly 3-hour-long film, this one is a lot to watch, but it’s packed to the brim with breathtaking cinematography and a stunning amount of one versus many fight scenes that pushes the actors to their limits. A blend of traditional wandering samurai story and fantasy this is one I can’t stop recommending.
The body horror and sci-fi of Inuyashiki isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but man is it good. That said, the wild and intricate nature of the series’ design made me skeptical of the live-action which aims to Plus, this live-action anime adaptation has a film festival award, which should be enough to show you how well these films can do.
Inuyashiki was screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and is not currently available in the United States.
Alita: Battle Angel
The only US entry on this list, Alita: Battle Angel is a stellar example of taking the source material and understanding the assignment. As my first exposure to cyberpunk, the OVA is one my formative anime. Much like Cowboy Bebop, the world of ALITA is a diverse one set in the future, which allowed Robert Rodriguez to think outside the box when it came to casting without whitewashing the cast unlike a certain ghost in a certain shell. Not without its faults, Alita: Battle Angel is surprisingly faithful to the source material where it counts and features stunning special effects work. In fact, I’m still waiting for a sequel with bated breath.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable Chapter 1
The second entry on this list from Takashi Miike, this adaptation of one of the most satirical and hyper-stylized shonen properties is something that shouldn’t work on paper. But, it somehow does. As is standard with Miike’s other live-action anime adaption work, the visuals of the anime and manga are high priority. From hair that wraps around a hat to the big pompadours, there is a lot of Jojo here and the best part is that the main characters and the stands are totally like anime put into a normal world and it somehow just works out.
Assassination Classroom the Movie 1
Assassination Classroom is essential a death game genre series with a big murderous yellow tentacled teach guy with a big smile that looks absolutely ridiculous. That should absolutely be awful as an anime live-action but Assassination Classroom the Movie 1 is just so damn good. This is due in large part to the execution of special effects that helps keep Korosensei looking like he belongs in the scene versus as something tacked on in post. Fun and campy and just the right amount of dark this is a good one.
Okay, so this pick may be controversial but hear me out. Bleach (which is available now on Netflix) is good, not because it nails the story from Tite Kubo’s iconic manga, but rather because it captures the spirit of it. More particularly, Kubo’s involvement with this one helped make sure that costuming was on point but more importantly that the Hollow design was showstopping. Additionally, when Bleach as a series began its way off the rails journey, Rukia and Ichigo’s connection and comradery (or if you’re like me, implied romance) was a key reason to keep with it. And on that point, Bleach (2018) nails it. Sôta Fukushi as Ichigo has both the bravado and compassion that are necessary for the character and Rukia’s cold demeanor which is perfectly portrayed by Hana Sugisaki hits his energy perfectly resulting in one of the best montages I’ve seen and remaining me why I’m forever bitter about Orihime.
Sure 13 live-action anime recommendations is a lot, but there are even more to sink your teeth into, and even more that are based on manga like Old Boy or Tezuka’s Barbara. That said, over time, I trust US productions will get with the formula in a good way. Not because they’re inherently going to be good, but because more and more anime creators and mangaka are advocating for their adaptations in the West. Plus, companies like WB are already the studios involved in the creation of live-action anime in Japan. Not to mention, Netflix has been knocking live-action webtoon adaptations from Korea out of the park with Sweet Home, Space Sweepers, and Hellbound to name just a few.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.