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.
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.
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.
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.
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?