With the recent international success of live-action adaptations of manga and anime like One Piece and Yu Yu Hakusho, Netflix finally seems to have made solid forward progress on a process that it has spent a few years on. Though some major franchises remain in development (no real news on that My Hero Academia movie yet aside from “production might have started”) the streaming service has amassed quite a list to run through if you’re interested.
Now, whether that interest is genuine or morbid is up to you. The live-action adaptations of anime and manga on Netflix were certainly not made equally. And while some creative choices make the series feel like fitting spiritual successors to the source material, others remain baffling or simply disappointing. Note that if an adaptation consists of more than one film, the sequels will be judged alongside the originals here.
13. Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning
The three Rurouni Kenshin films available on Netflix are fine. Director Keishi Otomo does his best to bring the thrilling (and often surprisingly violent) battles to life, and the results are admirable when not chopped up in intense, jumpy editing. The character development, particularly of the lead character, can’t escape comparisons to the source material. In the manga series, protagonist Himura Kenshin is a vibrant man of contradictions, capable of both immense destruction and charming affability, and actor Takeru Satoh does his best with it (it’s clear that he put a lot of work into sword fight training). But it too often feels like an impression of a character rather than a fully realized one.
While this is a more positive take than some you’ll read ahead, it’s hard to recommend any aspect of the franchise thanks to the actions of author Nobuhiro Watsuki. Getting little more than a slap on the wrist for being discovered with an immense amount of child pornography, Watsuki’s legacy (and the series which he is known for) is stained, and as such, these three films are impossible to wholeheartedly endorse.
12. Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead
The concept behind this manga series (what if the zombie apocalypse allowed you to quit your wage slave existence and live life the way you want?) is undeniably fun, but the Netflix series is never quite able to hone in on it. It doesn’t help that it debuted in the middle of the first season of the anime, a refreshing, colorful experience that, despite its various episode delays, took the energetic scope of the manga and ran with it. With two strong comparison pieces, the film becomes little more than a lighthearted exercise in Netflix covering its franchising bases. Watch this only if animation gives you hives or something.
11. Cowboy Bebop
Likely the most infamous series on this list is Cowboy Bebop, an adaptation of the most widely praised anime of all time. In retrospect, it seems ill conceived to have put so much pressure on it to tap into the inimitable cool of director Shinichiro Watanabe’s masterpiece. The anime’s combination of noir aesthetics, space opera grandness, moody character work, and all that jazz makes it unfair to compare it to, well, most other works of fiction. Adapting Cowboy Bebop into live action was a big swing from the top of a high mountain, and sadly, it was a miss.
If it succeeds in anything, it’s the dedication of its cast, particularly the lead, John Cho. Given the unenviable task of trying to replicate a character whose mix of mystery and relatability only really works in animation, Cho is as adequate as any live-action performance of Spike Spiegel could be. The same goes for Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, and though her quips have been reduced to mocking memes, Daniella Pineda’s Faye Valentine can be really fun when divorced from its connection to the anime. The rest, however, is a mess that does little more than fumble through Watanabe’s work.
10. Death Note
Death Note is a weird case. On paper, it has elements that should work. The story is a thriller that seems easy to trim down into a shorter movie length. It’s not so fantastical as to leave one wondering, “Well, how are they gonna pull that off?” And it has Willem Dafoe voicing the death god Ryuk. Willem Dafoe! When assembled, though, none of it coalesces, and it falls apart instantly.
The decision to turn main character Light from the sociopathic deity wannabe of the manga into an angsty outsider meant that, in the mental duel between him and super detective L, there was really no one to root for. This decision takes the effortless drive of the manga and anime and renders it inert. Even when the titular murder journal falls into even more unscrupulous hands, the film is too dragged down to enter its “Oooh, maybe there will be a sequel…” resolution with any excitement. Better luck next time (probably).
9. Fullmetal Alchemist, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Revenge of Scar, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Final Alchemy
There are a lot of great ways to enjoy Fullmetal Alchemist — its fantastic manga, its underrated 2003 anime, or its faithful anime reboot from 2009. The Netflix live-action trilogy doesn’t quite join that pedestal. It’s a fun time if you’ve read the manga previously, but there’s so much crammed in (particularly in the third film, where the glue and tape of editing the narrative down are most apparent) that it’s never clear why anything, outside of the two main brother characters, is important. It’s a trilogy of films, but it only manages to skim the surface of the series’ emotional depth and exquisite themes.
Kakegurui doesn’t have to make any big special effects or labyrinthine plotline leaps to work as a TV series. Instead, it mostly sticks to the manga and the joy of the chemistry of the three leads: teenagers in a private academy where status is determined by gambling. It’s an easy watch, though Netflix has yet to add the live-action film where the actors reprise their roles.
You can tell how old someone is by how they recommend Bleach. Older manga fans remember the dynamic, genre-bouncing early days, while those who came in later likely know it by how it fell into a swamp of storytelling tropes and incomprehensibility. Luckily, the live-action Bleach film harnesses a lot of the mythology when it was at its most potent before manga author Tite Kubo exhausted it. In fact, the film’s best quality is that it’s able to deftly build its world without feeling like it’s preparing the audience for a pop quiz after. Whereas a few of these adaptations, like the aforementioned Fullmetal Alchemist, approach the details of the manga in vague, bullet-point fashion, Bleach weaves them into its story, which uplifts a film that is otherwise middling in most respects.
6. The Ingenuity of the Househusband
Disclaimer: The Ingenuity of the Househusband is not a direct adaptation of the delightful manga series The Way of the Househusband. You’ll have to watch the lackluster anime series for that. Instead, it’s a collection of shorts that show the husband, a former yakuza boss, dealing with various domestic duties, like making coffee or fixing a screen door. It’s cute and certainly doesn’t aim for the heights of anything else on this list. But playing it safe is its most appealing quality, and it serves as a pleasant side gig for fans of the manga (which you should read.)
Kingdom, running at over two hours, is one of the most fun efforts of Shinsuke Sato (a director who, having helmed films like Gantz, I Am a Hero, and Bleach, is a go-to in the space). It’s also a noble attempt at tackling a manga/historical fiction series that, to date, runs 70 volumes. Very little of the emotional weight of the manga carries over, but Sato brings undeniable visual panache to the battle choreography and stunt work here. Kingdom is best when it’s pure spectacle, with sequences that even folks with no connection to the manga can enjoy. At one point, during a barrage of arrows, the camera lingers briefly on a man that dies from having been shot through the mouth by one. What’s not to like?
4. Alice in Borderland
Directed by Shinsuke Sato (jeez, that man is everywhere), Alice in Borderland is a series that thrives whenever you don’t have to think too much about the “who” of it all. Character development is slim — the actors are mostly around to look tense and nervous in a Battle Royale-esque survival situation where they have to win “games” to survive. Even if new viewers might compare it to Squid Game but without all that pesky social commentary, Sato is very good at building stakes and making you grip the sides of your chair as you wonder who is going to get gruesomely murdered next.
3. From Me to You
This live-action adaptation of a powerhouse shojo manga (Another “If you haven’t read it, go read it right now!” series) was never going to approach the charms of its source material. Karuho Shiina’s art, both quirky and engrossing as it expresses the blushing warmth of young love, would leave any live-action adaptation struggling to fit in. So From Me to You mostly works as a tribute to an irreplaceable series and, as such, does an exceptional job. It’s got cuteness to spare and the dedication of its lead performers carries it through any stumbles.
2. Yu Yu Hakusho
Yu Yu Hakusho’s main offense is that it’s just too short. At only five episodes (which cover over 100 chapters of manga), there’s simply no time to get through everything. As such, events that would otherwise be big emotional moments (especially in the latter half, which is full of them) get little more than a shrug. However, the first half of the series is rather marvelous. The fight choreography in the opening battles is top-notch, and the way we get to know each of the four main beloved boys is appropriately awesome. It also handles the tonal shifts of the story well, jumping from genre to genre (horror to fantasy to martial arts to comedy) adeptly. And just as in the Yu Yu Hakusho manga and anime, co-lead Kuwabara shines through with his trademark masculine insecurity and swaggering pathos.
1. One Piece
It’s weird to live in a world where we not only got a serviceable live-action One Piece adaptation, but one that’s good enough to adequately capture the spirit of the manga. Eiichiro Oda’s epic, 25-plus-year saga is such a testament to the power of manga art that trying to recreate it with flesh and blood, on first glance, looks like a dumbfounding proposition. But Netflix’s One Piece found a way.
This is mostly thanks to the enthusiasm of its cast, who are all able to capture the broad emotional swings of the characters without falling into parody, and what looks to be an every-penny-spent approach on set design. There are so many practical flourishes, from the exteriors of the ships and seaside towns to the interiors of locations like Kaya’s mansion and the Baratie floating restaurant, that it manages to feel less like an imitation of Oda’s world and more like its own entity. The commitment paid off: The astounding viewership of One Piece’s first season led Netflix to greenlight a season 2, one that, from the looks of things, will be a flagship (pun intended) addition to the service’s manga-to-live-action lineup.