Subtext | Live Action Manga
I love anime. Wait, no, that’s not quite true. I love what the artform is capable of, and I love many of the stories told through it, but I will admit there’s plenty of trash anime out there. A lot of anime started out as manga, and moving from comics to being animated usually doesn’t harm those stories. (Just don’t ask about Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, that wound’s still fresh.) The real question is, can those stories survive the move to live action? Anime isn’t for everyone, and sometimes they might like these stories more if they were in a form that they’d accept. Today we’ll look at three live action properties from 2018 (two shows and a movie) based on manga, and see if they measure up to the anime adaptations.
Mob Psycho 100 (2018)
Pseudonyms are a lot more popular among Japanese creators than in the west, in part thanks to a culture that values the privacy of their personal lives. In previous times these pseudonyms were real names. Legendary director Hiyao Miyazaki originally used the pseudonym “Teruki Tsutomu”, for example. The rise of the internet as a creative birthplace for artists has made these names a bit stranger. That’s why one of the most unique and creative minds in the manga industry is a man called One. One first made a name for himself in 2009 when he started a webcomic called One Punch Man, about a hero who loves to fight but who has become so powerful that all his battles end with a single punch. His art was not great, but his writing drew a huge fanbase. Among them was the artist Yusuke Murata. Murata’s talent was apparent from an early age. When he was twelve, he won competitions held by Capcom twice in a row. This is why he is listed in the credits of both Megaman 4 and Megaman 5 as the designer for the robots Dust Man and Crystal Man respectively. Murata reached out to One to ask him if he could redraw the One Punch Man comic for serialization in a shonen magazine. The series ran in Young Shonen Jump from 2012, and by 2016 it had become one of the top ten best selling manga worldwide. Also in 2012 One began work on a new web comic, Mob Psycho 100.
Mob Psycho 100 is about a young man named Shigeo Kageyama. Because he is so quiet and unassuming, he gets the nickname “Mob”. In early videogame parlance, “mob” was short for “mobile” objects like monsters and NPCs who could move around. The slang migrated into MMO terminology and wound up as a loanword in Japanese meaning “background character”. The reason why he is so quiet is because Mob is actually a powerful “esper”, someone with psychic powers. Fearing harming those around himself, he suppresses his emotions and desires. The comic is about how Mob gradually learns to open up to it being okay to feel things – while dealing with ghosts, other espers, and his crush on an old childhood friend named Tsubomi.
There have been two adaptations of Mob Psycho 100 – an anime (available on Crunchyroll) that first began airing in 2016, and a live action series from 2018. Both the first season of the anime and the live action series cover the same ground in the story. Mob becomes involved with a cult led by a ghost-possessed man who is brainwashing his followers, and then has to confront a criminal esper organisation called Claw. He also joins a club at school, and has his part-time job as assistant to exorcist and psychic consultant Arataka Reigen. Reigen is one of the most popular characters in the show, who appears to be a cynical con artist taking advantage of Mob’s abilities but turns out to be a much better person than he even gives himself credit for.
So is the live action Mob Psycho 100 series actually any good? It’s complicated. The show itself is perfectly fine. It’s a supernatural comedy with decent effects, the jokes are often amusing and the acting is okay. There are issues though – the actor playing Mob is a weak link in the cast, and the way his crush on Tsubomi is portrayed makes him seem a bit stalker-ish. This wasn’t an issue in the anime, where flashbacks and daydream sequences were used rather than Mob peering around corners at her. And there’s the rub. The live action series may be fine, but it’s never going to measure up against one of the most highly regarded anime series of the last five years. It’s also unlikely that a second series of the live-action show would be able to match the scale of the action in the anime’s second season. If you’re looking for a supernatural comedy to dip your toes into, it’s fine. Just be aware there’s a much better version out there.
While Mob falls far short of its anime adaptation, Kakegurui bucks the odds by being better by a large margin. The innate realism of live action helps to contrast with the over the top nature of its premise to make it more, not less, strange. It helps that it’s got great production values and a cast who seem to be taking part in a scenery-chewing competition, something the story pretty much demands. This is a show that commits entirely to its premise, and succeeds.
Kakegurui takes place at Hyakkaou Private Academy, an elite private school for Japan’s wealthiest families. This school is dedicated to training them with the skills they’ll need to survive in the cut-throat world of high society, skills it instils in them through a ruthless culture of gambling. They are constantly pitted against each other in games of skill and chance for huge amounts of money, with the winners donating a portion of their proceeds to the student council coffers. They are ranked based on those donations, with those at the bottom labelled “doggy” or “kitty” and forced to obey their more fortunate peers. Into this pit of vipers comes Yumeko Jabami, an outwardly naïve transfer student. It soon become clear though that if they are vipers, she is a mongoose. Unlike those who gamble with something to lose, she is a compulsive gambler (the translation of “Kakegurui”) of unsurpassed skill and daring.
Yumeko in the live action adaptation is played by Minami Hamabe, who has plenty of experience with more unusual dramas. Her breakout role was in the film I Want To Eat Your Pancreas, where she plays a high school girl with a (pancreas-related) terminal illness, and she is playing the female lead in Hideaki Anno’s upcoming Shin Kamen Rider. She gives Yumeko exactly the right edge of derangement, aided by some brilliant special effects showing the inner monologues of those she defeats (courtesy of veteran effects compositer Yuichi Yamamoto). Meanwhile, the anime (also available on Netflix) leans a little too far into cliche with its portrayal and there it fails to have the same impact simply because you expect that sort of thing in an animated series. Kakegurui’s spirited performances humanise its characters, which makes the over the top gambling antics hit that much harder. The public agreed. The anime got two seasons plus an adaptation of spin-off series Kakeguri Twin. The live-action version got all of that as well, plus two theatrical movies (the first of which pulled in more than two and a half million dollars at the box office).
Animal World (2018)
From a series about gambling we move to a film about gambling. Although you might not realise so at first. Animal World opens with an elaborate sequence where a clown wielding twin swords fights zombie-like creatures on a train in a colorful explosion of action. It’s a somewhat deceptive start for a movie that is mostly tense psychological action, and it turns out to be a daydream by the main character Zheng Kaisi (played by Li Yifeng). In reality he works as a mascot for an arcade (in clown makeup) earning barely enough to cover his mother’s medical bills. He’s roped into a get-rich-quick scheme that turns out to be a get-ripped-off scheme, leaving him massively in debt. The owner of the debt, Mr Andersen (played by Michael Douglas) gives him an opportunity to clear his debt by competing in a gambling tournament where the stakes are his life itself.
Though it takes a lot of liberties with the characters, Animal World is based on the first arc of the manga Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji. The manga follows Kaiji Ito, who get dragged into a variety of high-stakes gambling games and subjected to a variety of misfortunes over its run. The manga began in 1996 and is still ongoing. Part of its fascination is that Kaiji is not some superpowered protagonist – he loses as often as he wins, and the consequences for his losses are very real. Over the course of one part he loses an ear and four of his fingers, but his will remains unbroken. The manga is extremely popular and well-known in Japan, with an anime adaptation, a stage show, and three live-action action films as well as a variety of spinoffs. The anime had two seasons released, the first in 2007 and the second in 2011. (It’s available on Hidive.) It sticks a lot closer to the original manga. Animal World takes the basic story that the first ten episodes of the anime covers, but adds a lot of special effects (like the opening sequence) to convey Kaisi’s mental state.
Animal World did fairly well in China, making $77 million off a $28 million budget and topping the box office the week of its release. It’s a sign of how well put together the film is that despite not really fulfilling the promise of its trailer (which makes it look like an action film) or the posters (which really lean into the opening clown-ninja sequence) it still managed to do so well. The device of the character handling tense situations through imagining action setpieces is similar to director Han Yan’s previous film, Go Away Mr Tumour (a true life tale about a webcomic artist dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis). So far Han Yan has only made six movies, but he’s definitely a name to watch out for. Animal World ends with a sequel hook, but none has materialised and it now seems very unlikely due to the personal life of its star Li Yifeng. In September 2022 he was arrested for soliciting prostitutes, which effectively put an end to his career in mainland China and left him having to pay back his brand endorsement deals as well as penalty clauses in his agency contract. While he might find work elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it does mean that Animal World is going to have to stand alone – unless it leads you to go further into the tense and unpleasant life of Kaiji Ito.
So there we are – out of three properties, we got one miss (Mob Psycho 100), and two hits. One of them (Kakeguri) arguably a superior adaptation to the anime, in fact. That’s a decent hit rate, especially given the reputation of “live action anime”. Maybe one day we’ll look at some of the others out there and see if we’re as lucky again. Or maybe we’ll look at some of the more obscure but good anime out there on our streaming services. Either way, I hope you’ll join us.
Images via IMDB.