Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (based on Yukito Kishiro's manga series ‘Gunnm’) is due out any day now. But while many live-action filmmakers in America continue to take inspiration from Japanese anime (cartoons) and manga (comics), Hollywood's track record for adapting manga to live-action movies has been spotty at best. Films like Rupert Sanders' ‘Ghost In The Shell’ and Adam Wingard’s ‘Death Note’ are only remembered for their controversies and their spectacular failures. Even the Japanese live-action movies of popular manga rarely rise above mediocre. Adapting a lengthy comic book series into a two-hour movie rarely seems to do the original material justice.
Occasionally, however, manga manages to translate between mediums, and the results are sublime. Sometimes it’s because the creative teams understand and respect the material, other times it’s due to smart judgement on which manga makes the most sense to adapt to live-action in the first place.
Here are my Top Ten Live-Action Adaptations of Manga that have either elevated the original source material or reinterpreted it, all while keeping the core of their respective properties.
Synopsis: A series of films based on Hiroya Oku's eponymous manga were released titled ‘Gantz’, the sequel ‘Gantz: Perfect Answer’, and a made-for-TV movie, ‘Another Gantz’. The first film, starring Kazunari Ninomiya and Kenichi Matsuyama, follows two high school students who die and are transported to an alternate world. In this alternate reality, a black globe gives them super-powered suits, hi-tech weapons and a mission to kill the aliens that exist invisibly on Earth.
Why it’s great: ‘Gantz’, the manga, is all about unbelievably offensive sex and violence, with a cast mostly composed of highschoolers and twenty-somethings killing, being killed, posing, and being stripped naked. ‘Gantz’, the live-action film, waters down Oku’s T&A excesses for a mass audience and focuses on the emotional arc of protagonist Kei Kurono, played by Kazunari Ninomiya, as he goes from shiftless and disaffected college student to something approaching a hero. The film also looks amazing, nailing Oku’s unusual science fiction style. It’s too bad the follow-up films (which worked off original material, not the manga) weren’t very good.
Director: Keishi Ōtomo
Synopsis: ‘Rurouni Kenshin: Origins’ (2012), ‘Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno’ (2014) and ‘Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends’ (2014) comprise an action-adventure film trilogy based on the manga of the same name originally written by Nobuhiro Watsuki. The story focuses on fictional events that take place during the early Meiji period in Japan, telling the story of a wanderer named Himura Kenshin, formerly known as the assassin Hitokiri Battōsai. After participating in the Bakumatsu war, Kenshin wanders the countryside of Japan, offering protection and aid to those in need as atonement for the murders he once committed as an assassin.
Why it’s great: Largely eschewing CGI, the series is all about good old classic filmmaking, with slick production design and art direction. Not only do all the duels, swordfights and samurai poses look extremely bad-arse, but the trilogy treats the source material with respect and love, leaning on the compelling nature of the transition from the Tokugawa to the Meiji era. Heroes and villains alike are presented as basically being relics of a now-outmoded warrior culture.
Director: Shūsuke Kaneko
Synopsis: Based on the ‘Death Note’ manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the films primarily centre on Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a Tokyo college student who attempts to change the world into a utopian society without crime. He does this by committing a worldwide massacre of criminals and people whom he deems morally unworthy of life, through a supernatural notebook, the Death Note, that kills anyone whose name is written in the pages. Meanwhile, Light is being hunted down by an elite task-force of law enforcement officers within Tokyo, led by an enigmatic international detective named L (Kenichi Matsuyama). Oh yeah, Light also hangs out with an apple-eating demon named Ryuk (voiced by Shidou Nakamura).
Why it’s great: While there are many more live-action additions to this series (such as a spin-off film directed by Hideo Nakata called ‘L: Change the World’ and another sequel, ‘Death Note: Light Up the New World’), the first two films feature a dark tone, excellent pacing, a well-plotted storyline, strong performances from the cast, and a satisfying ending. Screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi deserves a lot of credit for stripping back a 12-volume manga into a few hours of core material.
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Synopsis: Adapted from Mari Yamazaki's award-winning manga, it's about Lucius (Hiroshi Abe), a browbeaten architect in ancient Rome who finds an unexpected source of ideas: his local steam bath conceals a time tunnel that leads to a modern-day Japanese bathhouse. He greets the scrawny patrons as "flat-faced slaves" and quickly becomes enamoured with 21st century society, with Lucius inspired by the Mount Fuji murals in Tokyo bathhouses to paint the similarly graceful curves of Mount Vesuvius on the walls back home.
Why it’s great: The film is hugely benefited by the excellent casting of actor Hiroshi Abe as the cartoonishly handsome Lucius and other established Japanese actors with “un-Japanese” or “strong-faced” features as Romans. This unusual casting heightens the commonalities that the time traveller eventually finds between ancient Rome and modern Japan. The humour, adapted from the manga by screenwriter Shogo Mutoalso, also works well within the live-action context.
Director: Takashi Miike
Synopsis: Based on the eponymous manga series by Hiroaki Samura, the film is set in Japan during the mid-Tokugawa Shogunate period and follows the samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura), who is cursed with agelessness at the hand of an 800-year-old nun named Yaobikuni and some “sacred bloodworms”. When Manji crosses paths with a young girl named Asano Rin (Hana Sugisaki) and promises to help her avenge her parents, who were killed by a cadre of master swordsmen led by Anotsu Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi), a whole lot of bloodshed ensues.
Why it’s great: Not only does it feature a similarly gruff hero and themes as James Mangold’s ‘Logan’, but ‘Blade of the Immortal’ is impressively adapted from the manga by screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi, whose previous credits include the live-action adaptation of ‘Death Note’. Oishi manages to hammer a sprawling storyline and myriad of characters into the plot of a 2 hour 20 minute film.
Director: Takashi Miike
Synopsis: Based on Hideo Yamamoto's manga series ‘Koroshiya 1’, Takashi Miike’s crime-horror film stars Nao Omori as Ichi, a psychologically damaged young man who, when faced with any kind of confrontation, bursts into tears and breaks down emotionally. While Ichi has a cowardly personality, he also has extensive martial arts training, a concealed blade in his left boot, and a psychological kill switch. Throughout the film, he is manipulated into assaulting or killing rival faction members of feuding yakuza gangs while being pursued by a sadomasochistic enforcer (Tadanobu Asano), hoping that this mysterious assassin will bring him to undreamed of heights of pain.
Why it’s great: ‘Ichi the Killer’ strips away a lot of the comic’s plot and characterisation in favour of exploring manga-style violence and sadism in live-action; but, as a Takashi Miike joint, it also bears an undeniable brand of quality and style. Also, as is typical with Miike, it’s uneven, almost by design, changing from yakuza intrigue to splatterpunk (a man’s face is literally kicked off and slides down a wall) to campy black comedy in a heartbeat. The tricky story echoes both ‘Yojimbo’ (in the way one character pits rival crime factions against one another) and ‘Memento’ (in the way a vulnerable man’s memories are manipulated to make him a tool of vengeance). As with every Miike movie, it contains a few moments of poetic ultra-weirdness, like when Jijii (played by ‘Killing’ director Shinya Tsukamoto) strips off his shirt to reveal an improbably jacked physique.
Director: The Wachowskis
Synopsis: An American adaptation of the 1960s manga series by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, young Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) dreams of following in his legendary brother Rex's footsteps on the cross-country, anything-goes race called The Crucible. His natural driving talent draws a lucrative offer from Royalton Motors, a corporate giant intent on crushing all comers. When Speed turns down the offer, he and his team - parents John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, girlfriend Christina Ricci, his mischievous little brother, and a pet monkey named Chim Chim - try to go the independent route. As diabolical forces conspire to keep him off the track, Speed joins forces with the mysterious “Racer X,” a one-time rival turned unlikely ally.
Why it’s great: Humour and heady political themes (small business versus big brand overlords) meld with whiz-bang editing and searing primary colours - ‘Speed Racer’ starts off with a literal, visual representation of a kaleidoscope. It lets you know exactly what you are in for from its first moments. The film uses a multi-layered editing technique, in which multiple disparate elements are layered on top of each other, transitioning, appearing and disappearing at the directors’ will. The Wachowskis’ intention was to create a continuous visual flow in the narrative, straying away from the more traditional cut. The end result is a cinematic sugar rush… 135 minutes of manic, kitschy inanity. Stephen Colbert memorably described ‘Speed Racer’ with something along the lines of, “it’s like taking ecstasy and then being thrown into a spinning dryer full of fireworks for an hour.” It’s still the best Western adaptation of a manga series to date, narrowly edging out Doug Liman’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (which was based on the Japanese light novel ‘All You Need Is Kill’ by Hiroshi Sakurazaka).
Director: Lam Ngai-Kai
Synopsis: Based on the Japanese manga ‘Riki-Oh’ by Masahiko Takajo and Saruwatari Tetsuya, this Hong Kong martial arts thriller stars Fan Siu-wong as Ricky Ho Lik Wong, a young man who has superhuman powers and fighting abilities. Ricky likes nothing more than to frolic with his innocent girlfriend Anne and play the flute all day long in the dystopian future of 2001. When Anne is killed, Ricky is sent to a privatised prison for avenging her by punching a drug dealer to death. Indeed, he has a superpower of his own: a command of breath control that somehow allows him to punch straight through anyone's chest. This is something we will watch him do many, many times. Also, crime bosses, for reasons never explored, have superpowers.
Why it’s great: An obscure grindhouse director, with the rights to a manga in one hand and a shoestring budget in the other, made an early-90s Hong Kong action movie based on a late-80s Japanese comic book, and it takes full advantage of both forms' ability to go absolutely crazy with story. Plainly amazing, we are talking heads punched in half, guys using their intestines (hanging out of their body cavity) to strangle Ricky, people exploding, internal organs flying all over the place and an Assistant Warden who keeps mints in his glass eye (it is hollow). The movie offers an explanation for none of this. With fights that are clumsily choreographed, laughable acting and a ton of continuity errors, there is plenty to enjoy here.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Synopsis: Based on the Japanese manga of the same name written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, this South Korean neo-noir thriller follows the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is imprisoned in a cell which resembles a hotel room for 15 years without knowing the identity of his captor (Yoo Ji-tae) or his captor's motives. When he is finally released, Dae-su finds himself still trapped in a web of conspiracy and violence. His own skull-cracking, teeth-pulling, eardrum-perforating quest for vengeance becomes tied in with romance when he falls in love with an attractive young sushi chef (Kang Hye-jung).
Why it’s great: The film faithfully reproduces the style and circumstances of the original, but with a bluntly menacing tone and some very different story elements. An even more bloody and brutal tragicomic revenge story, immersed in live octopus-eating madness and lengthy hallway battles (there’s no hammer fight in the manga), the film also dispenses with some sillier elements of the source material and finds a deeper humanity in its characters. Subtle as Christopher Nolan and as brutal as Quentin Tarantino, Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of ‘Oldboy’ is also waaaaaay better than Spike Lee’s later attempt.
Directors: Kenji Misumi (first three films), Buichi Saito, Kenji Misumi and Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Synopsis: Based on the long-running manga created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, the six film series stars Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Ittō, the shōgun's executioner who uses a dōtanuki battle sword. Disgraced by false accusations from the Yagyū clan, he is forced to take the path of the assassin. Along with his three-year-old son, Daigorō (Tomikawa Akihiro), they seek revenge on the Yagyū clan and are known as the assassins Lone Wolf and Cub. Starting with ‘Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance’, the first three films, directed by Kenji Misumi, were released in 1972 and produced by Shintaro Katsu. The next three films were produced by Wakayama himself and directed by Buichi Saito, Kenji Misumi and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, released in 1972, 1973, and 1974 respectively.
Why it’s great: Darren Aronofsky dreamed of adapting it. Max Allan Collin remade it in his ‘Road to Perdition’. Frank Miller, the artist/writer/director of ‘300’ and ‘Sin City’ fame, cited it as one of his biggest inspirations. The ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ manga pulsed with oversized masculine energy with classic bushido values in a grounded and hyper-violent setting. The movies are surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the epic manga, and while the actor that plays Ogami Itto may seem kind of short, fat and maybe not up to the task of playing the warrior-on-the-road-to-hell from the comic, he is so determined to be this guy, he somehow manages to pull off a convincing hell-bound ronin just with his scowling facial expressions. The first three films by Kenji Misumi are genuinely fantastic, the fourth is good, and the fifth is a little weak but it has a great ending. While the sixth and final film is flawed, it has the best title of any movie ever, ‘Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell’, so it deserves a pass for that alone.
Honourable mentions: ‘Lady Snowblood’ and ‘Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance’ (1973, 1974), ‘Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon’ (1977), ‘Casshern’ (2004), ‘Crows Zero’ series (2007-2014), ‘20th Century Boys’ trilogy (2008, 2009), ‘Tokyo Tribe’ (2014), ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014), ‘Bleach’ (2018),’ Inuyashiki’ (2018) and ‘River's Edge’ (2018).