From classics such as Akira to modern watches such as Demon Slaughter, anime has a genre, a taste and a niche for everyone. With a slow start and a rapid progression to fame, anime is not only loved for its unique animation styles, but for its storytelling. Acclaimed titles offer complex characters, rich lore, humorous interactions, and unforgettable conclusions to long-running arcs.
With this in mind, adapting some of the most intricate stories into live-action films can be a difficult road. Body horror like Parasite would seem impossible to translate beyond animation, and unique, iconic characters like Josuke (JoJo) Higashikata from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure seems unlikely to recreate authentically. When done successfully, live-action anime films can be entertaining and leave a distinct impression on audiences. However, there are many reasons why they can go wrong, and why fans aren’t too open to seeing more of their favorite shows revised.
After some controversial and untouchable movies, here’s why live-action anime movies might not work, and some good exceptions to the rule.
A brief history of anime
The style of animation known as “anime” was originally developed in Japan and intended for the Japanese market and demographic. While some children’s anime shows date back to the 1930s, modern anime began in 1956 and quickly broke ground in 1961 thanks to the “Godfather of Manga”, Osamu Tezuka, and the creation of Munshi Productions. Big animated titles such as Astro boy and Speed Racer became overseas hits practically overnight.
In the 70s and 80s, anime saw the rise of mecha (Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross) and Studio Ghibli’s award-winning films. The 90s saw the growth of the Internet and DVD, which gave way to a wealth of growth, information and interest in anime. Not only were anime titles aimed at children’s shows, but also mature late-night audiences Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite Japan’s eventual “bubble economy” and many manufacturing companies cutting back, the 2000s and beyond witnessed the popular start of Naruto, One Pieceand Bleach. Since then, anime has endured in the ever-evolving culture that it is.
Many of the titles above have been written and developed for decades, spawning multiple seasons, iterations, reboots, and animated films galore. The process of adapting one into a continuous series is dedicated, and fans are especially devoted to the titles they fall in love with. For this reason, adapting any of these shows into live-action movies raises questions and concerns for an entity so beloved.
Attempts at adaptations and notable exceptions
Adapting a light novel or manga series into an animated show is one thing; bringing them into live-action is another process. Early American flops such as Dragonball Evolution seemed to show the audience that the producers and screenwriters were more out for a paycheck than developing a worthy product. Speed Racer may have failed at the time for its storytelling, but is now perceived as a cult classic.
The current focus of unrest and unrestrained hatred for live-action movies now is Netflix. Even in 2022, Netflix’s adaptations are still referred to as having a mixed bag of live-action anime films. Their 2018 adaptation of the Bleach is one of those movies that is on the verge of being a big movie, but misses primarily because, in a time frame of about 100 minutes, Bleach (2018) attempts to fit an entire season of world and character building essential to the anime. The live action in 2017 by Full metal alchemist also hits this same issue, with the CGI and casting being praised, although the film will no doubt appeal to fans of the show, but may elude casual viewers.
The other issue raised with live-action in Hollywood is the common choice to whitewash the cast and story. In 2017, Ghost in the shell Scarlett Johansson starred, sparking controversy for not casting an Asian actress. Also, Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of Death note not only cast primarily white actors, but went so far as to remove the story from Japan and place it in Seattle, WA. Furthermore, reviews differed Ghost in the shell and Death note to take their respective stories and “hollow” them out into derivative, impactful narratives.
At the opposite end, fans have found refuge in worthwhile live-action films. 2015 Assassin’s Classroom the film has been heralded for feeling exceptionally close to the series and for the practical effects to make the story feel real. Alita: Battle Angel is praised not only for its stunning visuals, but for a simple approach to the main story that is welcoming to long-time fans and sci-fi lovers. Furthermore, other live-action adaptations such as 2006 Death note series are held near and dear to be more accurate and faithful to the source material.
The future of live-action anime
After receipt of Full metal alchemist live-action, the creators returned and added two more films to wrap up the story. Netflix decides to circle back to Death note and hand the project over to the Duffer Brothers for a do-over. Despite how some movies are received, production companies and screenwriters still take the risky step of reimagining popular anime titles in a way that can interest their fans.
2023 could be the year fans can expect Netflix’s adaptation of Yu Yu Hakusho; Shinsuke Sato (Alice in Wonderland, Gantz) is brought on to direct My Hero Academia; and One Punch Man could be Sony’s next big project. Production companies may be taking the concerns of fans and creators seriously, with Eiichiro Oda signing on for an adaptation of One Piece on one condition: it stays true to the material and the fans who have supported the series for 20 years. Some of these titles have a lot in store, but leave plenty of room for anticipation and worry.