With superhero film series like Spider Man and Batman done and redone to death, it’s become a cliche to say that Hollywood has run out of ideas.
So what do you do when you run out of ideas? Get them from someone — or in Hollywood’s case — somewhere else. For many years now, Hollywood has been trying and mostly failing to adapt popular Japanese anime and manga for the big screen. Likewise, television networks and streaming services have followed suit trying to produce live action television remakes of the same. A good example of this would be Netflix’s live action series Erased.
Sadly, good examples of American live action adaptations are few and far between. Whether it be the difficulty of adapting stories between very different mediums or failed attempts to please both Japanese and American target audiences, it seems like Western production companies just can’t seem to get it right.
While good live action adaptations may be few, there are some gems out there that definitely deserve a watch. The films or shows on this list comprise three of the biggest failures and three of the most well-done Western remakes of popular Japanese anime and manga.
1. Death Note (2017)
There are very few manga that captured my interest — and scores of others around the world — as quickly as Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
From the same duo that brought us the hit series Bakuman, Death Note is a perfectly-paced, heart-pumping crime-thriller about a boy named Light Yagami who finds a death god’s notebook. The story revolves around a “death note” from the journal that has the power to kill whoever’s name is written within it.
As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Light starts his journey by using the death note to rid the world of evil and heinous criminals. However, while being pursued by police and FBI investigators, his sense of morality becomes clouded and eventually he has no problem eliminating anyone who stands in his way.
Following the manga’s release, both anime and live-action film adaptations in Japan were met with marginally high reception and positive criticism. While the American remake rights were initially held by Hollywood powerhouse film studio Warner Bros. Entertainment, it was ultimately Netflix that ended up purchasing the film for its anime category. Death Note was officially released solely on Netflix on Aug. 25, 2017 and could not be seen anywhere else. It bombed. Receiving a 37% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it had less than half the score of the Japanese live-action Death Note film of 2007.
While there were many reasons for its bad reviews, the biggest mistake was adapting Light’s character to be more redeemable.
In the Japanese Death Note anime and film, Light has no problem using people and disposing of them as if they were mere pawns in his game. In the American Netflix film, Light tries to save everyone but ends up failing. This crucial difference essentially ruined the essence of Light’s character and thus lost the heart of Death Note’s story.
- Death Note is available on Netflix.
2. Dragonball: Evolution (2009)
There are few films — nay, there are few things in my life — that made my blood boil as much as the live-action film Dragonball: Evolution.
Growing up, to say that the anime Dragon Ball Z was my existence would be an understatement. I once found a website that claimed to teach you how to use the Dragon Ball Z ki (spirit energy) attacks in real life. I practiced every day in my front yard with my hands in the air trying with everything I had to create a genki-dama (spirit bomb). Some of my family members thought I was crazy and I didn’t care what the neighbors thought.
Thus, you can imagine my excitement when a live-action Dragon Ball Z film was announced. It was the film I’d been waiting all my life to see. Unfortunately, it was also the worst film I’ve ever seen.
First of all, in the Dragon Ball Z anime, Goku is a Japanese adult man with a wife and child. In the film, he is a white, American high school student. Dragonball: Evolution follows the teenager (ugh) Goku and his quest for vengeance after his grandfather is murdered by an evil alien warlord named Piccolo.
No Dragon Ball series ever featured Goku in any sort of school. Leaving the inconsistencies aside, the story itself was confusing and sporadically paced. It was hard to even follow. If a hardcore fan of the series who knows everything about the lore of the Dragon Ball universe had trouble following the film, you can bet that audiences new to the series didn’t have a clue what was going on. It felt like the screenplay was written by someone who merely read the synopsis of Dragon Ball Z and tried to make the story understandable and palatable for Western audiences.
Of course, as a die-hard Dragon Ball Z fan, I’m biased and have high expectations that would be difficult to fulfill.
However, this type of anime fan was exactly the target audience that Hollywood producers should’ve been trying to cater to. I feel the same about every anime live action adaptation. After all, who’s going to be the most excited for the film? Diehard fans of the source material. I could go on all day about Dragon Ball Evolution, but sometimes seeing is believing and you can watch or purchase the film via the links below.
- Dragon Ball Evolution is available on Amazon.
3. Fist of the North Star (1995)
Whenever a film is made straight-to-video it’s never a good sign. There’s usually a reason why it wasn’t good enough to be shown in theaters.
The same could be said for the straight-to-video, live-action film adaptation of Fist of the North Star.
The Fist of the North Star follows a martial artist named Kenshiro in the aftermath of World War 3. Kenshiro travels the wasteland defeating members of an evil gang known as The Crossmen searching for the man who killed his master.
Watching the film now, over 20 years after its release, it’s almost unbelievable that anyone involved in its production took the film seriously. The dialogue is overly dramatic and the acting poor. From the awkward and weird camera angles to the ridiculously over-the-top fight scenes and poor special effects, the entire film just seems like one big mess. The protagonist’s catch phrase — “You are already dead” — may sound cool in the Japanese anime, but when uttered in English and in live action it comes across incredibly silly.
However, the film isn’t without its merits. The post-apocalyptic wasteland setting is well presented and reminiscent of Mad Max or the popular ’90s sci-fi anime Trigun. The chaos and the brutality of the original anime also transferred well to the live-action film.
4. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
One of the highest grossing films of 2019 so far, Alita: Battle Angel was produced and written by acclaimed director and producer James Cameron — of Titanic and Avatar fame.
The film is based on the cyberpunk manga known as Ganmu (“Gun Dream”) in Japan. It’s set over 500 years in the future during the aftermath of an interstellar war. The story follows a cyborg named Alita who awakens with no memories. After being saved from death by scientist Dr. Dyson Ido, Alita and Dr. Ido are later ambushed and nearly killed by three cyborg serial killers. On instinct, Alita kills two of the cyborgs, but the leader of the group, Grewishka, gets away. Through that encounter, Alita realizes her mysterious heightened combat ability and embarks on a quest to take down Grewishka.
With a strong cast including Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and more; Alita: Battle Angel received a score of 7.6 out of 10 on IMDB and a 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
- Alita: Battle Angel will be available on Blu-ray and DVD this July 2019.
5. Edge of Tomorrow
With Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as the lead actors, Edge of Tomorrow packs a punch and keeps you interested from the opening scenes all the way to the end credits. Based on the Japanese light novel and manga All You Need Is Kill, the film follows William Cage and his efforts to suppress an alien invasion.
Cage, essentially a mere news reporter, finds himself thrust onto the frontlines of a major assault on the invading alien forces. Inevitably Cage dies, but in Groundhog Day fashion, Cage awakens at the beginning of each day before the army’s assault. After somehow hijacking the alien’s ability to control time, Cage restarts each day and dies again and again in fruitless efforts to stop the alien invasion — illustrated by the tagline of the film Live. Die. Repeat.
Edge of Tomorrow was well received both by critics and audiences scoring both a 90% critic score and a 90% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
- Edge of Tomorrow is available on Amazon.
6. Hunger Games
While it may come as a surprise to many fans of the The Hunger Games series, writer Suzanne Collins and her popular young adult novel trilogy were accused of ripping off the popular manga and Japanese film starring Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, Battle Royale.
Numerous online media sites reported on the similarities between the two and fans debated ad nauseum in online forums about whether or not the similarities were a mere coincidence. The two stories do share striking similarities: both feature a battle royale survival game at the center of the plot and in both stories, children are chosen at random to participate.
These claims have never been substantiated and Collins herself claimed that the idea for the series came while watching television and switching between game shows and footage of the Iraq war.
In The Hunger Games, every year two children, one male and one female, are chosen from each district to participate in a televised death match — called The Hunger Games — in memory of a past rebellion. The games serve as a memorial and threat to scare the citizens from revolting again.
The story follows Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteered to take part in the Hunger Games deathmatch in place of her younger sister, and her struggle to survive and bring down the cruel totalitarian empire that controls its population through fear alone. As a huge fan of the Battle Royale and The Hunger Games film series, I highly recommend both. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, but wanted a more mature story, Battle Royale is basically a more tragic and more gruesome version.
Sometimes Hollywood adaptations can hit a surprising homerun, but more often than not they end up striking out. Hopefully the upcoming Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog live action films will stick to their source material and give loyal fans the movie experience they deserve.
Will you be giving one of these films a watch? Know of a film we missed on this list — and whether it’s worth watching or not? Let us know in the comments!