It feels like every few weeks a new American adaptation of a Japanese anime or manga property gets announced. The news that It director Andy Muschietti is directing Attack on Titan is just the latest in a long line of proposals, most of which don't get made and the ones that do tend to get fans angry. However, with all the fuss about Americans giving new takes on Japanese series, the less discussed flipside is how frequently American pop culture favorites get turned into anime and manga. The results are sometimes wonderful, other times baffling, but always a fascinating study in how pop culture translates across different cultures.
Given the nature of this website, the focus of this list leans towards superhero adaptations, but other notable geek favorites also make appearances. Of the 20 "anime makeovers" on this list, 17 of them are true anime or manga, as in cartoons or comics created at least in part in Japan. Some of them are co-productions with American creatives. Other times, the American companies just license their brands out leaving the Japanese producers to do anything they want with the material. In addition to these official entries, there are also three separate mentions of varying levels of "honorability." These aren't technically anime or manga, either due to nation of origin or chosen medium, but are still worth discussing in terms of the stylistic influence of anime and manga. This list is only scratching the surface of this topic; there are many other such cross-cultural adaptations out there for curious fans to discover.
20 DISHONORABLE MENTION: MARVEL MANGAVERSE
In the early 2000s, translated manga was suddenly the biggest thing in comics publishing. The big American comics companies wanted a piece of that pie. For Marvel, this meant launching their own "mangaverse"... twice. The Marvel Mangaverse ended up a massive failure run from 2000 to 2002, and its brief 2005-2006 revival didn't fare any better.
It's easy to figure out why just looking at the artwork, which looks more like the cheapest "How to Draw Manga" book than it does an actual manga. Mangaverse consultant C. B. Cebulski would go on to pretend to be a Japanese man named Akira Yoshida writing other manga-influenced comics, and later got promoted to editor-in-chief of the publisher.
19 SEMI-HONORABLE MENTION: X-MEN MISFITS
Marvel once again attempted to get into manga-style comics launching a partnership with Del Rey Manga in 2007. Two comics emerged from this partnership: Wolverine: Prodigal Son and X-Men: Misfits. Misfits, written by Dave Roman and a young Reina Telgemier and illustrated by Anzu, stands out in particular for the unusual choice to adapt the story of the X-Men into a shojo romance.
Misfits' first volume sold well enough to make the New York Times bestseller list but not well enough to cover the expensive licensing costs, so volume two never came about despite being a more respectable effort at imitating a manga style than the Mangaverse.
18 SUPER-HONORABLE MENTION: SPIDER-MAN TOKUSATSU
Unlike the other two honorary mentions on this list, the 1978 Spider-Man TV series is actually Japanese, but it's neither anime nor manga but rather a live-action tokusatsu production. Still, this legendarily nutso version of Spider-Man has a giant robot. You don't get more "anime" than that.
This adaptation was the result of a three year deal between Toei and Marvel which allowed the companies to use each other's properties however they saw fit. This version of Spider-Man really had nothing in common with Peter Parker outside the costume, but the wild action and stunt-work got Stan Lee's seal of approval.
17 THE ANIMATRIX
The Animatrix, a collection of short films released between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, is a true international collaboration. The team of writers and directors included a mix of both Japanese and American talent (including the Wachowskis themselves).
Considering The Matrix was already extremely influenced by anime such as Ghost in the Shell, this was one of the more natural translations across media. The shorts vary wildly in style, but are almost universally considered superior to the Matrix sequels. The best segments (the complex backstory of "Second Renaissance Parts 1 and 2", the visual poetry of "Beyond") arguably surpass even the original movie.
16 IRON MAN
The four official licensed Marvel anime TV series (Iron Man, Wolverine, X-Men and Blade) ultimately ended up being pretty mediocre. Inoffensive for the most part, but nobody really talks about them today for good reason. There's just not much to say about them. That didn't have to be the case, however.
Watch the original pilot teaser for the Iron Man anime and you'll see one of the most frustrating "what could have been" scenarios. The pilot was all gorgeous hand-drawn animation from director Takeshi Koike, the auteur behind the wild anime movie Redline. The CG-heavy visuals from the final show aren't nearly as stunning.
15 SUPERNATURAL: THE ANIME SERIES
The existence of Supernatural: The Anime Series simultaneously makes perfect sense and is completely surprising. It makes sense because of course the obsessive geeky Supernatural fanbase also watches anime. It's a surprise because how many American primetime dramas get the anime treatment?
This 22 episode series was released straight to video in both Japan and the United States in 2011. It basically serves as a remake of the original show's first two seasons. Half the episodes are adaptations while the other half are original content exclusive to the anime. As for the other two thirds of the "SuperWhoLock" fandom, Sherlock was faithfully adapted into a manga, while Japan has yet to give us any Doctor Who content.
14 STAR WARS MANGA
Leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas and Dark Horse teamed up with four different manga artists to create official adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy as well as the new prequel. Hisao Tamaki drew A New Hope, while Toshiki Kudo took on Empire Strikes Back, Shin'ichi Hiromoto did Return of the Jedi and Kia Asamiya worked on Episode I.
While the manga all stuck closely to the films' original scripts, the diverse visual stylings make these adaptations distinctive and memorable (Chewbacca had certainly never been as handsome as he was in Kudo's Empire). Asamiya had the hardest job, as he wasn't even able to see the actual movie while illustrating his version.
13 SHADOWS OF SPAWN
For a hot minute in the '90s, Spawn was everyone. The popularity of Todd McFarlane's anti-hero spread all the way to Japan, where Juzo Tokoro wrote a three volume manga spin-off from 1998 to 1999. Shadows of Spawn concerns a Japanese-American street thug, Ken Kurosawa, who gains Hellspawn abilities.
This series has enough notable differences from the Image comics to not be in the same continuity, but it references enough of the original characters to seem to take place in a very similar universe. Ultimately the manga wasn't a hit, and was forced to end on a cliffhanger due to sudden cancelation.
Lilo and Stitch was one of the more successful Disney animated movies of the 2000s, but the character of Stitch really caught on in Japan far beyond his success in the US. It makes sense, given the 2003-2006 Disney Channel spin-off show Lilo and Stitch: The Series was basically Disney's attempt to replicate Pokemon. In 2008, Japan made its own anime titled Stitch.
The setting was changed from Hawaii to a made up Japanese island, and Stitch's companion was no longer Lilo but a new character named Yuna. The anime Stitch lasted three seasons and got multiple specials even after the main series ended, yet only five episodes ever aired on Disney XD in the United States.
A few different manga artists have had turns writing and drawing for the Caped Crusader. Akira legend Katsuhiro Otomo contributed a story to Batman Black and White, while Kia Asamiya did a full graphic novel, Batman Child of Dreams. The first Batman manga, however, goes way back to '60s.
Jiro Kuwata made a name for himself adapting popular superhero TV shows into manga form. Most of his work was based on Japanese shows, but he also turned the Adam West Batman series into a successful manga of his own. Translations of these fun adventures can be read on ComiXology or in the book Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan.
10 SPIDER-MAN J
The response to the 2004-05 manga Spider-Man J varied across cultures. In Japan, Yamanaka Akira's alternate universe Spider-Man Sho Amano was a popular character. Though published in Comic BomBom, a magazine aimed at elementary schoolers, the comic attracted a fanbase among older otaku. In the States, response was more mixed.
It's an interesting contrast between Spider-Man J and the 1970-71 Spider-Man manga by Ryoichi Ikegami. The older manga was dark and violent at a time the American comics weren't allowed to go to such places, whereas the more recent manga went silly and kiddish when such a style wasn't in vogue in American superhero comics. Both of these manga Spider-Men, along with the tokusatsu and "Mangaverse" versions, are included in the "Spider-Verse" crossover comics.
9 BATMAN NINJA
Batman Ninja is the second anime film to star the Caped Crusader. The first, Gotham Knight, is an adequate but relatively unmemorable co-production, like a lesser Animatrix for the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Batman Ninja, in contrast, is completely off the wall in the best possible way.
If you're familiar with Jojo's Bizarre Adventure or Gurren Lagann, you have an idea of how Jojo opening director Junpei Mizusaki and Gurren writer Kazuki Makashima decide to reimagine the Batman characters in Sengoku-era Japan. Don't expect to take anything seriously, but prepare to be amazed by the stunning visuals and have a great time.
For some fans, the 2006 Witchblade anime might actually be better known than the original Top Cow Productions comics. FUNimation went out of its way to promote the show, the second television adaptation of the comics after the 2001-2002 TNT live-action version. Unlike the live-action show, the anime features a new story and characters set decades after the comics but in the same continuity.
The anime had family drama, with amnesiac heroine Masane struggling to protect her six-year-old daughter Rihoko. It also had a lot of fan-service and extreme violence, beyond even the level of the risqué American comics. Finding an appropriate image for this entry, given the show's extremely revealing outfits, was a challenge.
7 ULTRAVIOLET: CODE 044
Many of the anime and manga on this list are adaptations of highly beloved properties. The 2006 action movie Ultraviolet is... not that. Critics hated it and it barely made any money in theaters. It did, however, perform slightly better in Japan than in other international markets. This might have been the impetus for Sony to give this flop an anime adaptation.
Ultraviolet: Code 044 actually has impressive talent behind it. The director, Osamu Dezaki, had been animating since Astro Boy and had such classics as Lupin III, The Rose of Versailles and Golgo 13 on his resume. The plot's still nothing special, but if you want to enjoy the eye candy, the show is streaming on Crackle.
6 POWERPUFF GIRLS Z
Japan has so much anime of its own that American cartoons rarely break through there aside from the big Disney/Pixar films. The Powerpuff Girls proved a noteworthy exception. The original cartoon, inspired in part by anime, was a cash cow in Japan. In 2006, a year after the original series had aired its final episode, an anime reboot titled Powerpuff Girls Z made its debut.
Though an English dub aired in the Philippines and Australia, Z never made it to America. That's probably for the better. While fans say the show slowly improves, first impressions are rough. The sharp humor and energy of the original is replaced with magical girl show cliches. The less said about Peach, the annoying robot dog sidekick, the better.
5 HIGHLANDER: THE SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE
It's weird enough that a Highlander anime exists. What's even weirder is it's actually a quality production. Many critics say Highlander: The Search for Vengeance the best film in the Highlander franchise since the original. That might sound like faint praise, but still, there's genuine enthusiasm about this movie.
The film was written by David Abramowitz, the writer of the live action Highlander TV show, and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, well-known for Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D. Around 10 minutes of the film was cut against Kawajiri's wishes for in the initial 2007 release, but his Director's Cut got released a year later.
4 ATTACK ON AVENGERS
What do you know, Akira Yoshida- er, C.B. Cebulski shows up again! This time, he's co-writing an eight-page comic with Attack on Titan creator Hajime Isayama. Illustrated by Gerardo Sandoval and Dono Sánchez Almara, the art in "Attack on Avengers" is much closer to a traditional Marvel comic than a manga, but with Isayama on board, the Attack on Titan Wiki considers it a manga.
So this was a crossover story which The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy team up to take down a bunch of the Titans from Attack on Titan. Yes, this is a real comic crossover which actually exists! It was released on Free Comic Book Day 2015 as part of Secret Wars #0.
3 MUTANT TURTLES: SUPERMAN LEGEND
Looked at objectively without the factor of its omnipresent popularity, the American versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are some of the weirdest pieces of pop culture imaginable. Given that, it might not be totally fair to say the Japanese version, Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend, is really that much crazier than your usual cartoon about turtle superheroes with pizza addictions.
What it is, undeniably, is crazy in different ways. The differences will jolt any potential viewers of this unavailable-in-America direct to video series. You have magic fairies, crystals which further mutate the Turtles into buff Wolverine-looking dudes, a giant robot called the Turtle Saint and all sorts of delightful insanity.
2 MARVEL DISK WARS: THE AVENGERS
Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers sounds like the lazy parody version of what an Avengers anime for kids would be like, but it's real. The premise of Disk Wars is that the Avengers are basically Pokemon trapped in Beyblades. A group of kids find special disks from which they can summon Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Wasp.
Naturally, this anime exists more to sell toys than to tell compelling MCU-worthy stories. An English dub exists and has aired throughout southeast Asia, but Disney XD shows zero interest in ever importing Marvel Disk Wars over to the United States. Another Avengers-themed kids anime, Marvel Future Avengers, was also made.
1 DRACULA: SOVEREIGN OF THE DAMNED
A result of the same deal with produced the tokusatsu Spider-Man, Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned is a movie adaptation of Tomb of Dracula, the horror comic which first introduced Blade. Blade doesn't actually show up in the movie, but a lot of the comic's storyline is included. Too much of it, really. The movie's story is so jam-packed that it's an incomprehensible mess.
Though the designs are close to Gene Colan's comic artwork, the animation is cheap as heck, and the terrible English dub only makes the wacky scenarios (Dracula eating a hamburger!) even more unintentionally hilarious. This is definitely one of the most memorable "so bad it's good" anime.