Movie Reviews

Hollywood's 12 Live-Action Anime Adaptations, Ranked Worst To Best

Summary

  • The Western film industry struggles with live-action anime adaptations due to difficulty in capturing the essence of the originals.
  • Successful adaptations like “Alita: Battle Angel” and “One Piece” show that live-action anime can resonate with audiences when done right.
  • Despite challenges, adaptations like “Death Note” and “Cowboy Bebop” fall short due to issues with casting, storytelling, and visuals.



With the rising popularity of Anime in the West, film studios have begun creating live-action adaptations to varying degrees of success. Anime was born in Japan in the early 20th Century, but it took time for the medium to become a widespread phenomenon. In the 1980s, anime experienced a boom in popularity thanks to the introduction of shows like Gundam, Macross, and Dragon Ball, which all became incredibly popular.

The art form is distinctly different from Western animated cartoons as the style, focus on scenes and settings, and more mature stories are more common in anime. However, the popularity of these shows in other places like the US was gradual, as it took time for the shows to be translated and find an audience in other parts of the world. With streaming platforms like Crunchyroll making anime more accessible to the rest of the world, Hollywood is taking notice, and creating their own adaptations to the stories with varying degrees of success.



12 Dragonball Evolution

Dragon Ball is one of the first anime shows that became incredibly popular worldwide. With the first manga stories being published in 1984, and the anime series releasing in 1986, the show experienced rapid growth in its popularity and has since become a huge franchise. With several series, multiple movies, and various video games, Dragon Ball is one of the biggest names in anime. However, when Hollywood attempted to cash in on the success of the franchise with a live-action film in 2009, the film fell flat.


Dragonball Evolution missed the mark in many ways, including the actual title of the property on which it’s based. The movie had an uphill climb when it came to adapting a series which already had hundreds of hours of plot, and a vast lore that established the world, the characters, and their powers. However, the resulting movie did very little to even incorporate a surface level understanding of the source material and as a result, it was slated upon release.

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11 Death Note

Nat Wolff as Light and Margaret Qualley as Mia Sutton looking down at something in the movie Death Note


The 2017 film, Death Note, had a lot of competition for best adaptation considering the original manga story had been adapted into an anime, five separate live-action Death Note movies, and a live action series. However, all of these adaptations were made in Japan and received many positive reviews. The Netflix adaptation, which was made in America and starring primarily white actors, did not fare nearly as well, with many people highlighting its failure to capture the message in the original story.

The original Death Note and the anime are widely praised for their intricate storytelling, incredibly intelligent central characters, and the messages about morality contained in the story. Where characters like Light and L are complex, and their motivations and personalities are clearly defined in the earlier versions, the Netflix version saw the characters transformed into caricatures that paled in comparison. However, the visuals and special effects are decent, which brings it just ahead of Dragonball Evolution.


10 G-Saviour

g-saviour movie

In 1999, a Canadian film studio chose to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Gundam franchise, which was a popular Japanese brand. However, due to the series being much less well-known in the West, the movie was only released on TV, with a theatrical release in Japan. Gundam has since become a much more popular franchise as the popularity of the games increased the brand awareness outside of Japan, but G-Saviour did very little to drive its popularity.

The film received mixed reviews, and while it was not an overwhelming disappointment like the above, it failed to make an impact overall. The acting and story were generally well-received, but the utilization of the famous mechanical battle suits and the Americanization of the story were highlighted as negatives. However, it is a significant step beyond the other entries on this list.


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9 Fist Of The North Star

Kenshiro shocked at an enemy in Fist of the North Star.

In 1995, Fist of the North Star was adapted for American audiences with a direct-to-TV movie. The manga upon which it is based, and the anime series came out in 1983 and 1986, respectively. For the first time on this list, the adaptation appears to have a better understanding of the source material, and despite the story being altered in some ways for this version, it maintained many of the core parts of the story that inspired it.


There is a significant loss when it comes to what is possible in a manga or anime format, where incredible stunts and outlandish settings are not only possible, but easily conjured up. However, the sci-fi martial arts movie makes for a compelling and entertaining watch at the very least. The concepts are simple and well established, and the action is entertaining, which is more than many other anime adaptations can say.

8 Kite

Kite movie 2014

Kite is not a movie which many people will resonate with, but the same can be said about the incredibly controversial anime film upon which it’s based. The themes explored and the inclusion of visceral gore and sexually explicit content featured in the original made it a story that appealed to a narrow niche. However, the movie tones down these elements to some degree, and arguably gives it a positive spin on the original.


The 2014 film was made in South Africa and features outstanding talent such as Samuel L. Jackson. However, while it reduces the uncomfortable elements of the original story, they are not absent. The film will likely find itself becoming a cult hit at some point, but it’s also one of the more faithful and well-made anime adaptations to come from Western cinema thus far.

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7 Knights Of The Zodiac

Mackenyu as Pegasus Seiya in Knights of the Zodiac


In 2023, the Saint Seiya anime was adapted to be released in both Japan and America, and while the movie bombed at the box office (via The Numbers), there were elements of the story worth praising. The animation and acting in the film were generally delivered to a high standard. However, the story and writing let the rest of the movie down.

Knights of the Zodiac clearly had good intentions when setting out to make something that would be a tribute to the popular manga, but it failed to deliver. The story was swallowed up in the CGI and excitement around trying to deliver the style and action that comes in anime. However, it is a fun movie to watch, as long as no deeper analysis is done.

6 Cowboy Bebop

John Cho as Spike Spiegel walking and smiling in Netflix's Cowboy Bebop.


The 2021 Cowboy Bebop series attempted to learn from the mistakes of earlier adaptations and adapt the story into a live-action series rather than a single movie. With this approach, it took a closer look at one part of the original anime, while leaving the door open to go deeper in later seasons. However, Netflix failed to recover its reputation after other less favorable adaptations and the series was canceled after one season.

Cowboy Bebop was a leap forward in terms of trying to capture the heart of the original series and imbue it with exciting and spectacular on-screen visuals. Combined with this, the series featured a talented cast led by John Cho, which all combined to make something that had a clear vision and promise. However, it was not a perfect adaptation, and the effects still failed to live up to the original. Regardless, it certainly highlighted how much Netflix had learned.


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5 Ghost In The Shell

Ghost in the Shell Scarlett Johansson talkign to the Skinny Man

The 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell received significantly more attention than many other anime adaptations due to controversies and claims of whitewashing in the film. Despite the original creator of the series defending the casting of stars like Scarlett Johansson in the title role (via The Guardian), people felt that Hollywood whitewashing played a large role in the casting decision. This then impacted how the final project was received overall, with a disappointing cinema turnout for the theatrical run.


However, the story is compelling, the performance of Johansson is exceptional, and the visuals throughout are nothing short of brilliant. The movie successfully creates an alternate future that feels authentic and eerie, and remains true to the source material. However, there is criticism which remains regarding the film missing the mark in other important parts of the storytelling.

4 Speed Racer

Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer

In 2008, the Wachowski’s, who also directed The Matrix trilogy, came together to deliver an exciting adaptation of a classic anime series, Speed Racer. While the reviews around the movie were mixed, there is no denying that it was a faithful adaptation that had explosive action, outstanding visuals, and a great story. The movie is a trip, and can be overwhelming at times, but this is also true for many anime shows that are full of sensory overload.


The movie effectively explores and expands on the world of the original anime in a way that makes it feel relevant for a Western market but does not discard the source material. It does offer more in the way of trying to stack up against the visuals than the plotting, but it’s one of the best and earliest adaptations that exceeded so many other attempts to bring anime storytelling West.

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3 Avatar: The Last Airbender

Aang looking lost in Avatar The Last Airbender.


Avatar: The Last Airbender walks a fine line as far as anime adaptations go, due to the fact that the original cartoon is actually an American-made series. However, it gets an honorary mention because the story revolves around Eastern cultures and stories. This is also likely the reason that the adaptation of such a story to live-action worked so well, because the original was also American made.

However, the stark difference in quality between the 2010 live action movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan and the 2024 live-action series is vast. The more recently released series manages to take the outstanding story which appeared in the original cartoon and, with some minor adjustments, make it new. The 2024 series is different, and condenses parts of the story that were much more prominent in the original, but it also highlights new aspects that feel fresh and powerful. It may not be, strictly speaking, an anime adaptation, but between the action and the storytelling, it comes incredibly close.


2 Alita: Battle Angel

Alita Battle Angel ending scene

In 2019, Alita: Battle Angel changed the game for anime adapted into live action. The movie was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who had created many stories with over-the–top visual effects and simplistic storytelling that featured strong moral messages before, and this contributed to the films’ overall success. The visual effects, the central character being a CGI cyborg and the gripping action all combined to make Alita something special.

While some reviews criticized the storytelling and script, the movie received a majority of positive reviews, and it marked a change in the way that anime was adapted for live-action. The film was also a major success at the box office (via The Numbers), proving that anime adaptations had a place on the big screen for a broad audience.


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1 One Piece

Luffy wearing his straw hat at a restaurant and talking to the chef in One Piece

However, the top spot for the best live-action anime has to go to Netflix and their 2023 live-action series adaptation of One Piece. Considering that this series is based on a story that has been ongoing since 1999, and has more than 1,100 episodes to date, the Netflix adaptation had its work cut out from the start. The show has a wealth of fans across generations, and there was no way it could ever be successful as a single film.


Thankfully, Netflix learned from its previous mistakes, and managed to create something colorful, energetic, and exceptionally exaggerated that still comes together to make something coherent and exciting for new fans. The show explores just a small portion of the larger narrative, but considering it has also been renewed for a season 2, proving that live-action anime adaptations can work. Leaning into the wacky and wild visuals, while giving time and place to the storytelling, makes this the best live-action anime adaptation to date.

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