Adaptations are never an easy thing to sell audiences on, as most fans hold the original material so near and dear to their hearts they couldn't imagine anyone recreating — or, God forbid — changing the source material. One of the genres that has received the most scrutiny from fans and critics are manga adaptations.
The live-action adaptations of Japanese comics often struggle to bring animated events to the real world, due to either filmmakers trying to ground the events or changing the characters to fit Hollywood cliches. However, there are a few adaptations that, though they might have made some mistakes, still got more right than wrong.
Ghost In The Shell
- Release: 2017
- Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk
- Rotten Tomatoes: 44 percent from critics, 54 percent from audiences
The original #GhostintheShell anime film became a worldwide sensation, making big money at the box office and receiving widespread critical acclaim due to its innovative animation and thought-provoking story. Based on the manga of the same name, the anime film followed Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team from the public security agency Section 9 as they track down a mysterious hacker known only as the Puppet Master. The hunt reveals deeper layers of political cover-ups and shadowy dealings involving the identity of the Puppet Master.
After the success of the anime film, the franchise spawned out into multiple films and TV shows, and garnered interest at DreamWorks for a live-action adaptation. After a decade of developmental hell, the remake finally found a director in Rupert Sanders and a star in #ScarlettJohansson, who came under scrutiny with accusations of whitewashing.
In a twist meant to address that criticism, the film reveals that Major's ghost comes from a teenage Japanese girl who was abducted by Hanka Robotics as a test subject for their cybernetic body program.
Not only was this an unfortunate change for the film's story — changing the conspiracy in the film from being connected to the government to dealing with one corporation — it also changed the motivations of characters. For instance, the villain in the original anime film, the Puppet Master, was an advanced artificial intelligence that gained sentience and wished to live inside an actual brain; in the live-action film, however, the Puppet Master was a failed test subject from the Hanka experiments and knew the original Major, Motoko, as they were abducted together by Hanka.
These plot and character changes might have ruined the movie, had it not done a great job of recreating many of the most visually stunning scenes from the original anime and properly depicting Major's identity crisis in the world.
- Release: 2008
- Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman
- Rotten Tomatoes: 40 percent from critics, 59 percent from audiences
Yes, I know, you would all love to rip my guts out for attempting to defend the live-action adaptation of the popular 1960s #anime series Speed Racer, but the film actually had a lot of positive things going for it.
For starters, the movie was a visual piece of art, wonderfully adapting the colorful and fast-paced world of the classic anime with vibrant special effects and endlessly stylish direction from the Wachowskis. The directors of The Matrix knew how to properly translate the frenetic action and often chaotic world of automobile racing to the screen in a way that would be both fast-paced for younger audiences while also satisfying fans of the original.
In addition, the film captured all of the major characters' personalities, their looks and their catchphrases wonderfully. Speed not only has the drive to win every race he's in and do the right thing, but he also has endless devotion to his family and girlfriend Trixie. Rather than change the true identity of Racer X (Matthew Fox) for the film, the filmmakers chose to give him a heroic motivation for keeping it a secret.
That being said, there are some issues, however minor, that the film certainly got wrong, primarily in the story delivered on screen. Instead of adapting any specific storylines from the manga and anime, the writers chose to create an original story for the film while still featuring elements from the source material, such as Racer X's hidden identity. This plan, however, did result in a very cardboard story, even if it was perhaps the most fun to be had from an anime adaptation.
- Release: 2003
- Stars: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung
- Rotten Tomatoes: 80 percent from critics, 94 percent from audiences
I will not try and defend the far inferior American adaptation of Oldboy, a popular Japanese manga series that ran from 1996-1998, but I will pour praise upon the 2003 South Korean adaptation.
The film follows the journey of Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned for 15 years in a solitary room dressed up to look like a hotel room. After being mysteriously released, Dae-su embarks on a path to find his captors that took away his life and murdered his wife. This is one of the most highly-regarded manga adaptations out there. The film captured the compelling nature of why Dae-su's captor held him for so many years, and though much of the film's brutal violence was not present in the manga, it was presented in such a stylish and thrilling manner that even fans of the original can look past it.
This adaptation was, however, not without its faults. In addition to changing the events of Dae-su/Goto's life immediately post-incarceration, the film altered the family ties that he had prior to being abducted, from only having a fiancee that he unintentionally left at the altar to having a wife that is murdered and a child whose whereabouts are initially unknown (until a major reveal near the end of the film).
Aside from the change in characters' motives, there are also a few key players from the manga missing in the movie, chief among them is Dae-su/Goto's former schoolteacher, Yayoi Kusama. Kusama was one of the most intriguing supporting characters in the manga — not only did she leave her teaching job to become a mystery novel writer, but also had a few insights into who the mysterious antagonist could be, suggesting an old classmate.
Overall, this film got much more right than wrong in adapting the eight-volume manga series, and still stands up as one of the most highly-revered adaptations of all time.
Death Note (2006)
- Release: 2006
- Stars: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Shidou Nakamura
- Rotten Tomatoes: 78 percent from critics, 84 percent from audiences
Before Netflix controversially adapted Death Note, there was the 2006 Japanese adaptation of the manga series, which is regarded by both critics and audiences as a far superior film and a much more faithful adaptation.
The story follows Light Yagami, a young college student at the top of his class who stumbles upon the mysterious Death Note, a notebook that grants its owner the ability to take the life of anyone whose name is written in it, as well as determining the time and cause of death. As the deaths rack up — and Light's alter-ego, Kira, becomes more prominent worldwide — an intense manhunt by the reclusive, genius detective L begins.
This adaptation of the popular manga series got so many things right in transferring the story from page to screen. The characters were all mostly kept intact; Light hopes to rid the world of all its evil and become a god-like figure, but is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way; L is a methodical and endlessly questioning detective who can predict Kira's moves and knows what buttons to press to get him closer to making a mistake and revealing himself.
Even the story was kept mostly faithful to the manga, ranging from how certain characters were killed to specific pieces of dialogue. Though there were a few major changes to the story, including a girlfriend not previously in the manga and a new ending for Naomi Misora's character, these changes actually help the story flow well for the screen.
Most of the problems with this film came from some very questionable special effects, even for the time, especially on the animation of Ryuk and a tone that often felt more like a Japanese soap opera than a dark thriller like the manga.
Death Note (2017)
- Release: 2017
- Stars: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Willem Dafoe
- Rotten Tomatoes: 46 percent from critics, 25 percent from audiences
Oh yes, haters, the American adaptation of the #DeathNote manga does appear on this list ... because it is an actually good adaptation of the novel. Hear me out.
While some complain that it doesn't remain faithful to its source material in even the most basic sense — including the highly-controversial decision to Americanize the manga (with the majority of the main characters performed by white actors) — the filmmakers actually worked hard to make it connect with general American audiences. They told the story that fans of the original know and love; the creators of the Death Note manga, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, have even praised the new film.
Yes, the latest live-action adaptation did change numerous elements, ranging from Light not having a sister to the motivation behind the murder of L's assistant/father figure. Some of these story changes are frustrating and unnecessary, such as Watari's death being used to keep L's true identity a secret from the audience and Light. Also, Mia being unable to see Ryuk after touching the Death Note is a major rule change from the book, which states anyone who comes into contact with the book — even if it's a page separated from the book — will be able to see the death god that originally owned it.
With that being said, the film still did a good job of keeping the core story intact and got the characterizations nearly perfect. Though Light is a bullied kid in this film, instead of the popular genius that he was in the manga, he's still generally intelligent and genuinely seeks to rid the world of evil. L, though more emotional in this film than his source character, is still a very calculated and masterful detective.
In addition to the characterizations, the film is a visual marvel, with Adam Wingard lending his stylish eye for some intense and thrilling sequences. The special effects and backgrounds create a moody and compelling atmosphere, and also recreate the look of many of the manga characters for the screen, especially fan-favorite shinigami (death god) Ryuk. Blending a practical suit with a face captured through motion-capture CGI technology, Ryuk is not only brought to life in a very realistic and terrifying way, but is very faithful to the source artwork.
With the door left open for potential sequels to the Netflix adaptation — and with other American adaptations of mangas coming up — filmmakers need to ignore some of the criticism that comes from the production of these remakes ... but they can also learn from the films' many avoidable mistakes.
What are some of your favorite manga adaptations? Which upcoming adaptations are you looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below!