The Best Live Action Anime Movies

Popular culture in Japan has a long history of being adapted into different mediums. Novels have become movies, movies have been made into manga, and manga series have been turned into anime (and vice versa).

The movies below are some of the best live-action films based on Japanese anime.

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Joe Odagiri in the Live Action Mushishi Movie
The Live Action Mushishi Movie Starring Joe Odagiri. Showgate

Ginko, a wanderer with a strange affinity for "mushi"—beings somewhere between spirits and parasites—travels the land, aiding those afflicted by these curious creatures. Like the anime before it, the movie is less a conventional story than a study of the ebb and flow of nature, but that only makes it all the more beautiful and affecting. The film was directed by Katsuhiro (Akira) Otomo, with an appropriately subdued Jo Odagiri (Shinobi) in the lead role.

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Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire Live Action Movie

Asmik Ace Entertainment

At the height of America's involvement in Vietnam, Saya, a half-vampire whose teenaged appearance belies her real age, goes undercover at an American military base. Her mission: to find a monster. This live-action reworking of the anime short takes everything that was good about the original and expands on it skillfully. Great photography, some downright startling action sequences (including a fight across the rooftops), and a tightly-plotted story make this one of the best live-action anime adaptations around.

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Casshern Live Action Movie

In this 2004 film, a soldier is brought back to life through a strange experiment, one that also unleashes a new species of humanity hellbent on taking revenge on the rest of mankind via a robot army. The movie has little in common with the original "Casshan: Robot Hunter" anime, but that doesn't matter. "Casshern" combines the astonishing green-screen visuals of "300" with something like a Buddhist take on "2001," and the result is exhilarating from beginning to end.

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Cromartie High School: The Movie

The Live Action Cromartie High School: The Movie

 Media Suites

This movie is gleeful, off-the-wall nonsense, just like the original "Cromartie High" series that inspired it. A parody of a common anime trope—a straight-arrow kid transfers to the worst high school in all of Japan—the film is filled with nonstop absurd humor and a stream of bizarre sight gags. One of the students is a robot; another is a Freddie Mercury clone; eventually, aliens and UFOs appear. "Cromartie High School" was directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, who worked with Ryuhei Kitamura on the infamous "Versus."

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Crying Freeman

Mark Dacascos in the Live Action Crying Freeman Movie
August Entertainment, Davis Films, Toei Company

Before Christophe Gans terrified us with his live-action version of "Silent Hill," he made this remarkable adaptation of the super-macho manga/anime franchise "Crying Freeman," in which a handsome young artist is brainwashed into becoming an assassin. Marc Dacascos is great in the lead role (he later married his co-star, Julie Condra), and Yoko Shimada (of the "Shogun" TV miniseries) is quite frightening as the underworld queen Lady Hanada.

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Cutie Honey

The Live Action Cutie Honey Movie
Warner Bros., Bandai Entertainment

Bubbly Kisaragi Honey, who can transform into Cutie Honey (and any number of other forms) thanks to her father's technology, goes up against the evil Panther Claw and their leader, the sinister Sister Jill, in this 2004 film. A cheerfully absurd version of Go Nagai's transforming-supergirl story, the movie was directed by, of all people, Hideaki Anno (of "Neon Genesis Evangelion"). It's as goofy, stylized, and over-the-top as you'd expect, with some creative use of digital effects, still photography, and stop-motion animation.

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Death Note and L: Change the World

Live Action Death Note Movie, L: Change the World
Warner Bros.

In this 2006 thriller, Light Yagami has in his possession the Death Note, an artifact that allows him to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. L, a legendary and reclusive detective, is determined to bring him down at all costs. This compression of the TV series into two live-action movies keeps almost everything of importance, discards most of the nonsensical complications that cropped up in the final third of the series, and features two wonderful lead performances.

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Detroit Metal City

Detroit Metail City Live Action Movie

Mild-mannered Soichi, who only wants to write love songs and strum his acoustic guitar, has been drafted into the role of the fire-spewing lead singer of a vulgar death-metal band that's all the rage in Japan's underground. He can't fool his family and his girlfriend forever—especially not after his diabolical alter ego begins to take over. Funny and fast-moving, "Detroit Metal City" condenses most of the major plot points from the original comic into a highly entertaining movie.

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Satoshi Tsumabuki in the Live Action Dororo Movie

 Universal Pictures

Osamu Tezuka's manga about a swordsman on a quest to regain his various missing body parts was adapted into a black-and-white anime in the 1960s. This movie version is quite unlike either the manga or the anime in its look—it sports state-of-the-art special effects—but it preserves major elements of the original story. Most importantly, it keeps the strained but touching relationship between the urchin Dororo and the swordsman Hyakkimaru, as they wander through a world that's a blend of ancient Japan and future dystopia.

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Mike Nakashima and Aoi Miyazaki in the Live Action Nana Movie

In "Nana," two girls on a train to Tokyo discover that they share the same name, though they couldn't be less similar. One is a romantic looking to rejoin her boyfriend. The other is a would-be ​rock star setting out to jumpstart her career with a band. The two girls end up sharing an apartment, their lives intertwining in many different ways. The costume designers clearly had a great time bringing the "punk" Nana to life, but the two lead actresses (Mika Nakashima and Aoi Miyazaki) are what make the movie worthwhile.

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Rurouni Kenshin

Takeru Sato as Himura Kenshin in Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno on DVD and Blu-ray


"Rurouni Kenshin" is everything a live-action anime adaptation should be. Takeru Satō stars as Kenshin, a former assassin who wanders Japan offering to protect those in need. The combat scenes are sensational, and the movie is funny without being too jokey for its own good.

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Shinobi: Heart Under the Blade

Joe Odagiri and Yukie Nakama in the Live Action Shinobi: Heart Under the Blade Movie
Joe Odagiri and Yukie Nakama in the Live Action Shinobi: Heart Under the Blade Movie. Shochiku

"Shinobi" is an adaptation of the anime "Basilisk," which features flashy, outlandish ninja action and a Romeo and Juliet plot. The movie deviates from the original story in many critical ways, especially at the end, and is best seen as a showcase for the special effects and stunt teams, who do an excellent job throughout. Jo Odagiri stars as a ninja clan leader forced to betray the one he loves.

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Speed Racer

Rain / Jung Ji-hoon in the Live Action Speed Racer Movie
Rain / Jung Ji-hoon in the Live Action Speed Racer Movie. Warner Bros.

The Wachowskis ("The Matrix") created this psychedelic, hyperkinetic adaptation of "Speed Racer," a cartoon known for its visual design and improbable physics. The film features an impressive cast, including Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, and John Goodman.