There’s a strong case to be made for shows and books and games to stay in their mediums. With a few exceptions, movies of books have a tendency to tank, while anime-to-Western-movies range from mediocre to "the actual stuff of nightmares."
That said, Hollywood seems pretty intent on getting its hands on the world of anime, with its rich tapestry of ideas and complex animation, and dragging it all into live-action. Will the results be any good? Uh… maybe? Video game movies may be under some kind of voodoo curse, but adapting anime into live-action is still a relatively new field, at least in terms of major blockbusters.
With Ghost in the Shell on the way, Pokemon on the horizon, and Dragonball way back there in the dust, let’s take a look at 15 Anime Classics That Deserve Live Action Movies. Yes, they’ll probably be terrible. But in a good way.
(and no, none of them are One Piece. Some things truly are best left in animation)
(none of them are Naruto or Bleach either)
15 Fullmetal Alchemist
Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the few anime that straddle the line between immense popularity and great quality. Say what you will about DBZ - it’ll always be great entertainment - but it’s still pretty baseline in terms of artistic nuance. FMA, especially the Brotherhood sequel, is a well-animated, well-told story with a solid magic system and some excellent fights. The characters are likable, the world is carefully constructed and in short, it’s pretty easy to see why the whole thing is so popular.
Despite not being part of the hallowed circle that contains the likes of Pokemon, DBZ and Sailor Moon (or even the manga trio of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece), it’s really not all that much of a stretch for FMA to get its own live-action movie. The series has endured in the popular consciousness, and is certainly still remembered fondly amongst fans as a sort of stepping stone into the wider anime world. Plus one of the main characters is just a big suit of armour, so you’d only really be paying full rates for whoever portrays Edward. There would be a bit of CG involved, but not so much that it’d hork down the whole budget to itself, and there’s no shortage of quality stories to draw from the original manga.
In short, Fullmetal Alchemist strikes the balance between popularity, quality and appeal to a wide audience. The greatest danger of a live-action movie would be getting it totally wrong and watching your profits evaporate under the volcanic fury of 90% of all anime fans ever.
14 Sword Art Online
Despite its flaws, Sword Art Online exploded in popularity, gaining an audience thanks to its mature themes and slick action sequences, along with a load of wish-fulfillment (probably). It tells the story of the titular video game, ‘Sword Art Online’, a fully-immersive virtual-reality experience in which 10,000 players are trapped. Death in the game means death in real life, unless they can fight their way through Aincrad’s 100 floors and defeat the final boss. The story focuses on Kirito, one of SAO’s best players, along with his allies.
Anyone attempting to adapt SAO would have to nail the action from the get-go, since people using their in-game skills is one of the biggest draws of the series. There’s also a pervasive ‘video game’ feel, which can be seen (or heard) in the score and the interactions, so a director who understands the nuances of gaming is a must. Beyond that, the movie would have the chance to redeem the somewhat-flat character of Kirito and show us just what it would look like if people could live, work and fight inside virtual reality, HUDs and all. That said, watch out for a completely truncated and altered story, since the first-season anime ends on an… unexpected note.
Fate/Stay Night may have been the original, and the animation in the remake (Unlimited Blade Works) is second to none… but there’s no denying that Fate/Zero, a prequel to the entire series, is the crowning achievement in terms of storytelling, character development and fights that have you completely invested in the outcome. Or rather, you could deny it, but you’d be wrong. Objectively.
Telling the story of the fourth Holy Grail War, in which seven masters summon legendary heroic spirits to fight for the titular grail’s incredible power, Fate/Zero was an anime unto itself and not bound by the story of a visual novel. It’s definitely not your typical hack ‘n slash anime, taking a whole lot of time to build world lore and relationships between characters with combat scenes somewhat sparse, at least in the first half. Thus, bringing it into live-action wouldn’t require the budget to be blown on massive action sequences every ten minutes, despite the fact that they totally could if they wanted to. What’s more, while a lot of the chatty scenes are interesting and worthwhile in themselves, it wouldn’t even be all that difficult to trim them down and turn the whole series into a single film. Although, to be completely honest, there are a handful of droning, faux-philosophical rants that could easily be snipped so we can get to the fight scenes quicker.
12 Darker Than Black
Darker Than Black doesn’t quite have the big-name recognition as some of the anime greats, but in terms of anime it pretty much has it all: a big, scary thing happening in Tokyo (Heaven and Hell’s Gates), people being given special powers that also make them cursed, a complete lack of concrete answers to anything, inaccurately-portrayed foreigners and a talking cat. The whole package, basically.
It’s an interesting twist on the whole ‘new race of super-powered folks’ trope, as the Contractors (those given power by the big scary Tokyo thing) have their emotions dampened, to the point where many believe they’re all emotionless killers. They also each have a unique ‘price’ to pay for their abilities, which can range from humming a song to breaking their own fingers.
A potential movie should have no problems focusing on the activities of main character Hei, as it’s pretty much what the series does. Against a backdrop of mystery and lore, Hei performs missions for a shady organization and looks fine while doing it, meaning that it could be a straight superpower movie, minus any actual heroes. The movie can go the whole hog and try to explain the gates, but their mystery is practically codified by this point. Best to just use them as convenient table-setting while Hei does his Chinese Electric Batman shtick. And the casting here would be pretty important, since Hei, performing assassinations for that aforementioned shady organization, isn’t the most conventional protagonist.
11 Attack on Titan/Shingeki no Kyojin
Yeah, sure, we already got one of these. Two, in fact, because of the old saying in movie-making: "if you’re going to make a really bad film, stretch it out into two even worse films for no good reason."
There’s a lot that went wrong with the Attack on Titan live-action movie, though surprisingly it has nothing to do with the actual Titan CG (it wasn’t bad). The entirely Japanese production made it impossible to diversify the cast, and for an anime/manga in which race is an important plot point, that was never going to go over well. They replaced the most popular character in the series (Levi) with a bland Marty Stu and expected that people would just lap it up. Crucially, the plot went from faithful-ish to the manga to utterly bizarre over the course of a couple of scenes, subverting all of the original’s themes and turning it all into a dull destruction-fest.
So, when making an Attack on Titan movie? Just don’t do any of that. Cast diversity actually matters here, if only because it makes people easier to distinguish while they’re swinging around (also, the plot thing). Truncate the story by all means, but don’t rip the soul out of it entirely, since there’s a steadily mounting pile of interesting plot points that are ripe for harvesting. Heck, it doesn’t even have to wrap things up entirely. Just finish off the movie with a no-holds-barred smackdown between Eren and Annie in their Titan forms, and you have a perfect climax to what could be a successful series. Oh, and pry Levi out of the author’s clingy hands, because he’s possibly THE main draw in people coming to see this movie at all.
10 The Devil is a Part-Timer!
Most slice-of-life anime don’t need to be adapted into live-action. It’s been done multiple times, and the result is pretty much never what you want or expect. They tend to contain comically exaggerated characters whose mannerisms and lines just fall absolutely flat when being played by a live-action face. No one is a good enough actor to simulate sweat drops, fountains of tears or any of those uniquely anime expressions.
But The Devil is a Part-Timer? It divides its time (unevenly) between slice-of-life and epic demon hero battles, meaning there’s definitely some scope for real-world goodness. A demon lord and his fanatically loyal servant find themselves stranded in the human world, where they have to deal with the rigors of everyday life in their search for a way home. This includes laundry, bad neighbors and getting a part-time job at a McDonald’s spoof.
Japanese humor doesn’t always land with a western audience, but The Devil is a Part-Timer! might just be a rare exception. Littered with dry wit and fish-out-of-water scenarios, it’s the type of things you can imagine comedy giants such as Adam Sandler or Jim Carey penning, without the epic fights. Not that we should let Adam Sandler anywhere near this, but it could still be a hit with some wide appeal.
9 Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji
Creepy implications aside, Black Butler has a movie-worthy premise. After a boy’s parents are murdered, he forges a contract with a demon, Sebastian (yep, more of those), in order to find those responsible and make them pay. Sebastian is supernaturally skilled, but once his contract is complete, he’ll be allowed to feast upon his master’s soul.
The whole thing is set in a slightly off-kilter version of Victorian England where butlers are fighting machines, Grim Reapers use gardening tools and Jack the Ripper was actually a flamboyant floozy with a chainsaw. All kinds of British mythology is dredged up and given a new spin, while we’re left not knowing exactly what to think of a pair of protagonists with some extremely grey morals.
Casting would again be pretty important here, as you’d need a Sebastian who can pull off being deathly smug at every opportunity but somehow manages to make it endearing. To be fair, Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji has already made it to live-action in the form of multiple musicals, though once again all the Victorian-era English folks were rendered as Japanese. A more big-budget adaptation would do well to create a more authentic setting, since it’s one of Black Butler’s most interesting and unique aspects.
8 Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon has made it to live-action a couple of times, but never to a major movie adaptation. It’s probably only a matter of time at this point, since we live in an era where every intellectual property of yesteryear that could ever be considered ‘popular’ is being revived and rebooted. It’s difficult to sum up in words what a popularity juggernaut Sailor Moon was, both in its native Japan and its transition to the west, which for many was their first glimpse of anime. Sure, the dubbing process was still fresh and green, but to impressionable kids it didn’t really matter.
This one is actually set in real Japan, so no one should begrudge them an all-Japanese cast once the movie rolls around (although we know they won’t). Otherwise, there’s plenty of juicy source material to tuck into, with volumes of manga, scads of episodes and metric tons of supplementary media to dig into if the writers need ideas. Fans of the original should probably brace themselves for added grit, a-la Saban’s Power Rangers, but that might not be such a bad thing. A bunch of high school girls fighting evil in tiaras and absurdly short skirts is just one of those things that we can accept in animation, but will just come off looking ridiculous in a movie with a sizable budget.
In any case, this one is coming at some point. Prepare for the internet forum flame wars about whether they should use the English or the Japanese names.
7 Gundam (the franchise)
When you think of Japan and its obsession with humongous battle mecha, Gundam is the king of the trend. In fact, it pretty much solidified the whole genre in the public consciousness. Like Sailor Moon, it’s credited with grabbing the reigns of the robot genre and steering it in a totally new direction, as it was one of the first to have humans piloting robots in a real war setting. The themes of the show are also of note, since this isn’t your average, brainless slug-fest. The characters are developed across the entire franchise, as are the themes of the devastation of war, politics and the fact that punching someone a load of times eventually converts them to your cause. Just like in real life!
We already got a pseudo-Gundam in the form of Pacific Rim, albeit with much slower mecha and monsters instead of robotic enemies. Applying physics to the Gundam world would more or less ruin the entire thing, so we’d be happy with the real-world mechanics being totally ignored. The movie would hopefully focus on the visual splendor of the aerial battles, the contrast between pilots dueling with words and their mecha dueling with rockets, and hopefully just enough explanation to give us hope that these things could really exist in the future.
As with Sailor Moon, this is a live-action reboot that stands a good chance of seeing the light of day. Prepare for a CGI budget that could purchase a small European nation, though.
Folks love them some police drama, almost as much as they love dystopian fiction. Mash the two together and you have Psycho-Pass, which is set in a futuristic Japan that classifies people based on a ‘crime coefficient’. Supposedly a system that determines whether or not people will commit a crime, it’s essentially a way to keep the populace utterly paranoid about their mental state at all times. Police carry guns (Dominators) that apprehend suspects based on their crime coefficient, Japan is walled off from the rest of the world and you can walk around inside the internet, which is the only fun part.
Without a heavy reliance on CG, Psycho-Pass wouldn’t be incredibly tasking to bring to the big screen. Most of the drama is created in the interactions between characters as they weigh up the effectiveness of the system they’re sworn to uphold… and it’s not like we’ve never seen that in a Hollywood blockbuster before. However, there’s definitely enough originality, action and heart-rending drama to keep people interested with a compelling cast holding things up. The rating may be interesting, as there’s a fair chunk of gore and the Dominator kills people in the most traumatic and disgusting way possible (they swell up and explode). A Psycho-Pass movie could definitely do well with an R-rating to show the sorry state of the world, but some clever film-making could still accomplish the same by just…having it kill people with a long-range lethal injection or something.
5 Dragonball Z
No, we didn’t get one of these; that was Dragonball, not Dragonball Z.
And even that didn’t actually exist and no one remembers it, at all, ever.
Yeah, so, Dragonball Z. Its earth-shaking popularity alone might qualify it for the live-action treatment, with thousands upon thousands of children growing up with watching the show on their weekdays mornings and still tuning in all those years later for Dragonball Super. The only major caveat is the immense amount of work that would go into the near-constant fights. People would be expecting them, and a LOT of them, almost to the point where any plot becomes secondary. But DBZ’s caliber of battles are a complex mix of superhuman aerial feats to blowing up entire galaxies, and it’s simply a medium that works better (or at least, is easier to render) in animation. There’s a pretty good reason that Dragonball fell flat on its face, and that’s because the fights and ki attacks were utterly underwhelming.
‘Underwhelming’ is the absolute last thing you ever want to hear about a DBZ movie. The manga and anime are many times larger than life, meaning that a realistic, grounded take just won’t work. A big-budget movie would need to embrace the ridiculousness of green space slugs, bleach-blonde super-beings, talking pigs and all the silliness that makes the DBZ package a wonderful package of weird, with a whole lot of flashy, destructive laser beams on the side.
It’s still a tough ask, but someone’s probably going to attempt it at some point. Let’s hope they take lessons from that other Dragonball movie that sort of exists, but really doesn’t.
4 One-Punch Man
You like superhero movies, but think they’re getting bland? Well, there’s an anime for that. One-Punch Man follows the adventures and very brief struggles of Saitama, an underappreciated superhero looking for a challenge. He’s grown so incredibly strong that all of his fights are easily finished with a single punch, leading to an existential crisis.
Possibly the greatest challenge of a One-Punch Man movie would be casting Saitama. His distinctive look of complete baldness and an utterly bland expression just won’t look right being portrayed by some handsome A-list star, and he’s otherwise a tricky character to get right because of how little he tends to emote (except when he does, when he goes completely over the top).
However, this is an anime/manga that could absolutely work in the current climate, when comic book movies are still good but more than a couple are starting to blend into one. Saitama’s crisis is that he’s too powerful for anything to challenge him, which flips the entire genre on its head and possibly creates a new one. And if you’re wondering how the movie could possibly contain any compelling drama or fight scenes… there are plenty of other, weaker, flashier heroes whose fights are a whole lot more interesting to watch. Or at least they last longer than a single second.
3 Terror in Resonance
The reason there are so many shonen/action anime on here is that your average, slice-of-life show is better off staying in the realm of animation. No point in dragging something into live-action if it’s not going to resonate with a primarily non-Japanese audience.
Telling the story of two mysterious teenagers, Nine and Twelve, the anime portrays their targeted terrorism upon the city of Tokyo in an attempt to uncover a devastating truth. It’s a story of grey morals and the means justifying the end, while also steadily unveiling a tragic past.
Terror in Resonance isn’t slice-of-life, but it’s far more psychological and more drama-focused than the likes of Sword Art Online and Black Butler. The primary themes are terrorism and social change, both of which are pretty hot topics at the moment, though the series is just fantastical enough not to press any of the wrong buttons. While set in Japan, the themes and struggles cross cultures and can be appreciated by practically anyone, meaning that the story could have a wide appeal if rendered in live-action with a budget and cast that people could get behind. In short, it’s a series that you’d have to try a bit harder to screw up than, say, Dragonball Z. Though that’s not to say that it won’t be.
2 The Irregular at Magic High School
And on the complete opposite end of the scale we have The Irregular at Magic High School, which is so intrinsically Japanese that watching will give you a craving for Pocky.
Every trope you can imagine is here: an obscenely complex magic system, student councils, impractically awesome school uniforms, a rainbow of hair colors that indicate personality and a sister whose infatuation with her brother goes just a tad beyond what’s family-appropriate. No, this isn’t one of the anime greats, but for that matter, neither are Sword Art Online, DBZ or necessarily anything on this list. But the fact remains that IMHS has some interesting lore and enough movie potential to make a standalone film, despite the fact that it’d probably still be bogged down by some of the source problems.
Seriously, the magic system has to be seen to be believed; while the end result is people with sparkly swords and laser beams, how magic is performed is both intricate and sort of impressive, even if you can watch the series ten times in row and not really get it. And while the main character is kind of bland, there’s also a load of backstory and world-building that go into explaining exactly why. Bringing it to film would be a risky venture, and probably the first thing to go would be the clunky title. And yet, just seeing someone try in this case would be fascinating.
1 Black Lagoon
And now, just for a bit of fun… Black Lagoon. The series was directly inspired from movies made by people like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. The former explains all the graphic violence, and the latter explains the abundance of guns. An ordinary Japanese businessman falls in with a crowd of pirates/mercenaries/smugglers who follow their own code and shoot up a lot of people, though they’re usually the good guys. Sort of.
This one is ripe for a live action movie that would thrill western audiences, as it has quite a number of familiar tropes in play. You like strong female characters? There are a ton of those, and most of them can do flashy gun gymnastics. Got a thing for black comedy? It’s like someone animated a Tarantino movie. Really into characters with grey morals who live by their own creed? That’s pretty much everyone.
Not that an anime film needs to adhere to ‘western’ tropes, but any potential, unlikely Black Lagoon movie would probably try to use that to its advantage. There’s no shortage in Hollywood of lovable criminal rogues, people doing amazing things with guns or quipping in the middle of firefights. It’s like it was made to be a movie someday.
Any other anime that would make a good movie? Let us know in the comments!