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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.

  1. NANA


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.

  1. Mushishi


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.

  1. Detroit Metal City


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. 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.

  1. Death Note

death note movie

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.

  1. Crying Freeman

crying freeman

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.

  1. Cromartie High School: The Movie


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. 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).

  1. Blood: The Last Vampire


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.