What about live action adaptations of anime and manga make them worth watching?

The impression I get from the overall anime and manga community outside of Japan, is that live action adaptations are bad. Rightfully so in many cases when it comes to American live action adaptations. If fans are a little more tuned in and or were around back in the ‘golden’ age of live action adaptations (mid-2000’s) they might be a bit more generous to Japanese, Korean, and Chinese live action adaptations of their favorite franchises.

As you all know, I love them all. Hence the reason I started this blog in the first place. While I know I shouldn’t take it personally when a random internet user immediately writes off a live action adaptation that I’m looking forward to – I’ll admit it still kinda stings at times.

Those kinds of moments got me thinking though, especially with how much has changed since the ‘golden era’ of live actions and how often I review them; I’ve never actually talked about what makes some live action adaptations good or even great. Now that Japanese live actions are getting licensed a bit more regularly, I figured I should buckle down and with my amateur’s expertise answer this very question.

The most obvious point to start with, as much as you hate to see it – is popularity and relevance to the core audience. When Hana Yori Dango‘s live action came out in 2005, the manga was in it’s peak popularity. With the anime wrapped, fans were still clamoring for more and with a combination of other factors to be mentioned, it’s no wonder the series exploded again. You can see the same effect with other live actions like Death Note, and Nodame Cantabile from around the same time.

Iconic folks; there’s a reason they still keep remaking/revisiting this series in live-actions.

It’s a tried and true formula that works in all regards. It takes a lot of money to make a live action, and no one wants to invest in something that isn’t guaranteed to succeed. What has changed a bit, is what titles are receiving the highest amount of success. Right now the live action BL market has run away profit wise with hits like Cherry Magic! and Keita Hatsukoi (technically shojo but since it’s two boys got adopted by the BL community). It’s also worth noting that both of those titles had domestic and international popularity, and were snapped up for international distribution.

However, popularity and relevance isn’t the most important thing anymore. A lot of beloved titles are renewing their fanbase or even kickstarting a new one with a belated live action take. The most notable movie-wise is Rurouni Kenshin. A live action film that no one, including the cast at the time, anticipated doing as well as it did in 2012. It grossed $62.5 million with a $10 million budget. Which then went on to have four more films, two extended behind the scenes specials and that was with controversy regarding the franchise due to the original mangaka. This didn’t particularly stop the series since the last film still grossed $37.8 million, and was nearly immediately released on Netflix on top of it. Not bad for a manga that finished serializing two decades earlier.

Another drama to movie combination with this Kyo kara Ore wa!! – a series that got a live action adaptation nearly twenty plus years after the manga finished serializing. While not as globally renowned as Rurouni Kenshin – it’s domestic audience managed to popularize the series to the point it got a live action movie, distribution in certain regions on Netflix, and even the original manga reprinted.

But for every Kyo kara Ore wa!! or Nodame Cantabile, more live actions are significantly less lucky. You have many more like Akuma to Love Song, which never was really garnered a lot of attention nor when the live action was trotted out or a Nisekoi which was timed just a touch too late to really capitalize on what audience remained.

Coupled with the first point, we now move on to the next big reason live actions are worth watching and that’s none other than casting. While voice actors tend to be the bigger draw for the anime crowd, an actors appeal of being able to embody so many character applies to their live action counter parts as well.

You might not believe it but this is an A-list cast in Japan.

Of course, there’s a lot of shared similarities to Hollywood in these regards. You can’t cast a group of unknowns playing some of the most beloved characters of all time. At the same time, they can’t be so famous that their face is so recognizable that it interferes with the character. On top of wanting to avoid the actors/actress who have played similar roles but have that recognition, there’s a lot that goes into casting. Often even more then in America, since otaku are notoriously possessive of their favorites. You would not believe the hell people raised when people found out Mizuhara Kiko was cast as Mikasa Ackerman in the live action Attack on Titan, domestically and internationally. And even how Shirahama Alan was cast over Sekiguchi Kentaro for Mamura Daiki in Daytime Shooting Star still causes a grumble or two among the super fans of the manga.

I want to spend some time looking at an actor or actress that I think anime and manga fans could take to. Not only because they’re ridiculously talented of course, but because they’ve done live actions AND managed to nail a variety of characters from different genres. The first one I’d like to point out is Yamazaki Kento. The man has been in everything, he’s been Alice in Alice in the Borderland, to Naruse Kakeru in Orange and so many more. For a very long time, you could not have a shojo live action without him. The best part about Kento is while at first he seemed to be forever a shojo prince character – he’s expanded beyond just anime and manga adaptations and brought his fans with him.

The same can be said for the ladies, one of my favorite examples being Tsuchiya Tao. It can be even harder for women then men to grow a fanbase off of live actions. Especially since Japanese actresses are significantly quicker to get pigeon-holed into typecasting but it can be done. Tsuchiya Tao has been in adaptations from Rurouni Kenshin, to Daytime Shooting Star and again managed to steal some hearts and mobilize her fans into her non-live action projects.

Of course, there are many others I purposefully chose not to mention so I wouldn’t spend forever talking about them here. It just takes one strong actor, or actress, sometimes both to win over just viewer into giving more dramas and movies from Japan – live action of something or not – a chance.

Getting popularity, relevancy down and adding an amazing casting is still only part of the formula of what makes a good live action adaptation. These projects, just like anime are made or broken by whose at the helm i.e. the director, and then the screenwriter(s).

Probably my favorite live action director, Tsutsumi Yukihiko. He did the early 2000’s Black Jack trilogy which was pretty fantastic by the way.

It’s regrettable that at least in my case, I care significantly less about the director or screenwriters. I usually focus too much on the literal visuals and if I think the end result is enjoyable or not. I am working on this, but not mentioning this critical factor would be a disservice to my point.

Personally, I don’t mind a director or screenwriter for being known for making live action adaptations. I mean no one is telling Hayao Miyazaki or Hosoda Mamoru to stop doing what they do, so why would anyone feel that way to a live action director? I would hope that it would be a good thing and that means the project is in capable hands. That they are a master of their craft, and know how to make a true adaptation. I’ll lift this from my post about Ase to Sekken:

“I want to watch something that understands the source material, it’s appeal, weakness, overall themes and concepts, and adapts those ideas. Aside from what to cut and add, takes the time to show why those changes enhance it as an adaptation”.

Those elements fall strictly on the shoulders of the screenwriter, and director. It’s one thing to understand exactly how the big confession, kiss, kill, whatever in the manga. It’s completely another to understand why it works in a manga, or anime and then adapt and alter it to suit live action. Panel for panel simply does not work, and is no longer interesting to watch. It worked back in the 2000’s but in 2020’s we can do more then that. What’s more important is capturing the feeling that a single panel, or a quick sequence would do with real actors in real time.

I won’t go on a huge tangent here, but I personally find myself increasingly more fond of projects that take the source material and manage something completely unique to the live action. Projects like the live-action original plot like Mr.Osomatsu, adding in a unique element like Love is Hard for Otaku, even combining different stories together for a familiar but different take like 2000’s Black Jack specials. Some of it might be a hit, some might be a swing and a miss, but you have to give those projects props for attempting something different.

We’ve covered popularity/relevance, casting, directors and screenwriters what possibly could be left to help convince a soul or two to try a live action take? My final trump card is none other than locations.

Tochigi has the Edo Wonderland Nikko Edo Village – if it’s a historical or historical fantasy live action in Edo, it’s probably been partly filmed here.

Unlike like the West that seems uninterested in location scouting, Japan loves boosting tourism through live actions. It’s a very legitimate part of the film industry of Japan, prefectures like Tochigi, and cities like Hakodate have dedicated websites and pages with information where a live action was filmed at. There’s even some areas of Japan that have budgets set aside to help any production that choses to film in their prefecture for cost efficacy. In addition to the fact that stories that are super local, there’s usually printed guides and special offers to promote the story!

There’s obviously so much more I could continue to talk about in favor of live actions. The details of soundtracks, sound design, filming techniques, acting techniques, real people cast chemistry, but I think the biggest and most enticing reasons are elaborated on above. Honestly in writing this, there’s a lot of overlap between what makes a good anime adaptation in here too. There’s just something special, at least to me, about involving real people in the mix as some beloved 2D characters.

Let me know down below a live action drama or movie that you loved so we can gush about it together! Or a series that you think would make for a better live action adaptation then an animated counter part. I’m utterly curious, so don’t be shy in letting me know!



  1. I’ve actually never really watched a live action adaptation. People around me always told me that they were really bad and that I wouldn’t like them. And I guess I just believed it without actually trying to watch them. Now that I think about that, I feel terrible about blowing off live action stuff without trying them. I’m always saying that it’s important to check and double check sources of information, and yet I didn’t do that myself! Reading this post has inspired me, I’m totally going to try to watch a live action manga adaptation this week!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m actually genuinely surprised to hear you’ve never watched one. Then again with full context, it makes sense. The power of peer pressure lol. And plus there are a lot of bad ones to be fair. >..>

      Fingers crossed that you find one that works out!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t watch a ton of live-action anime/manga adaptations (mostly because I just don’t have time to be anything other than extremely selective about what I do watch), but recent(ish)ly, I quite enjoyed the TV live-action Erased, as well as Kakegurui. Admittedly, I watched the latter mostly because I was extremely curious about how the camerawork and actors would manage to pull off all the anime’s notorious Crazy Faces and general weird-but-fun-as-hell vibe… which it did somehow do at least in part, so I was entertained enough.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s totally fair. Being picky does have a lot of upsides. I’ve always heard that that live-action of Erased is one of the better adaptations, despite me not having seen it yet. And if you were entertained enough while watching the live action Kakegurui I consider that a win for now!

      Liked by 1 person

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