Popular culture in Japan lives to be adapted -- books become movies, which become manga, which become anime, or any combination of the above. And now, more and more anime are becoming live-action theatrical productions, in Japan and now in other countries as well. Here's a list of titles worth seeking out either as complements to their animated counterparts or just on their own.
Some of these are also adaptations from a source manga (e.g., Dororo), so I've tried to stick with productions that were originally anime, or where at an anime version also exists, and where a licensed English/U.S. release exists.
Also check out our list of suggestions for anime that should be live-action movies.
At the height of America's involvement in Vietnam, Saya, a half-vampire whose teenaged appearance belies her real age, goes undercover in an American military base on Japanese soil. Her mission: to find a monster. This live-action reworking of the short film takes everything that was good about the original and expands on it skillfully. Great photography, some downright startling action sequences (there's a fight across the rooftops that's worth it all by itself), and a tightly-assembled story make this one of the best live-action anime adaptations around.
A soldier is brought back to life through a strange experiment, one which also unleashes a new species of humanity hellbent on taking revenge on the rest of mankind via a robot army. It bears only the most tenuous relationship with the original Robot Hunter Casshan, to say nothing of the new series Casshern: Sins, but it doesn't matter. Casshern mixes the eye-filling green-screen visuals of 300 with something like a Buddhist take on 2001, and the end result is exhilarating and overwhelming from beginning to end. Well worth watching more than once, as on a second viewing you absorb far more of the story nuances (of which there are surprisingly many).
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 -- littered with nonstop non sequitur humor and one bizarre sight or situation gag after another. One of the students is a robot; another is a Freddie Mercury clone; eventually aliens and UFOs appear. Best sequence: our hero makes a case for the others to quit smoking, which backfires in ways no one can imagine. Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, who worked with Ryuhei Kitamura on the infamous Versus, another movie that plays like a live-action anime (even though it was an original creation).
Befor Christophe Gans scared the pants off us with his live-action version of Silent Hill, he made this remarkably on-target adaptation of the super-macho manga/anime franchise, wherein a handsome young artist is brainwashed into becoming a perfect assassin by a shadowy organization. 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 the underworld queen Lady Hanada. The film was never released in the U.S., for reasons which still remain unclear, so the only way to see it is via an import DVD edition.
5. Cutie Honey
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. This cheerfully absurd version of Go Nagai's transforming-supergirl story 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 to create a halfway house between live-action and animation. The plot's nobody's idea of groundbreaking, but yes, they did keep the original themesong.
6. Death Note
Light Yagami has in his possession the Death Note, an artifact that allows him to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. L, the legendary (and reclusive, and eccentric) 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 or so, and features two wonderful lead performances, most especially Kenichi Matsuyama as L.
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, the movie condenses most of the major plot points from the first couple of issues of the comic (and the accompanying TV series, not yet officially released in English). It's also a casting and acting marvel: you won't believe for a minute that Soichi is played by Kenichi Matsuyama, the same man who gave us L in the live-action Death Note.
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 anime in its look—it sports up-to-the-minute 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 mix of ancient Japan and future devastation. Jo Odagiri (Mushishi) plays Hyakkimaru, in yet another performance that demonstrates why he's one of Japan's most in-demand young stars.
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, it's less about a plot than about the ebb and flow of nature, but that only makes it all the more beautiful and affecting. Directed by Katsuhiro (Akira) Otomo, with an appropriately subdued Jo Odagiri (Shinobi) in the lead role.
Two girls discover on the train to Tokyo that they share the same name, but couldn't be less similar. One's a romantic looking to rejoin her boyfriend. The other's a would-be rockstar, setting out to jumpstart her career with a band. The two of them end up sharing an apartment and having their lives intertwine 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 it most worthwhile. Followed by a sequel, which is regrettably not as good.
An adaptation of the same source material as the manga and anime Basilisk, the novel Kouga Ninja Scrolls, which emphasizes flashy, outlandish ninja action via a Romeo and Juliet plot. The storyline's explored in far greater detail and to much better end in the animated series, and the movie deviates from the book in many critical ways, especially at the end. It's best seen as a showcase for the effects and stunt teams, who do very good jobs throughout. Jo Odagiri once again stars in the lead role, as the ninja clan leader forced to betray the one he loves.
12. Speed Racer
Yes, the psychedelically-colored, hyperkinetic Wachowski Brothers' version of Speed Racer belongs on this list, if only because of the visual design and the way the improbable physics of the cartoon world have been translated to the screen. The film did poorly at the box office, though; evidently the nostalgia value of the franchise wasn't enough to draw a wide audience. But the cast is appealing—my personal favorite is Christina Ricci as Trixie—and look fast for the late Peter Fernandez, one of anime's longtime voice talents and the voice of the original Speed in the U.S. version of the show.