Bring Me To Life: How 2.5D Musicals Bring Anime and Manga to the Stage

Bring Me To Life: How 2.5D Musicals Bring Anime and Manga to the Stage

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2D musicals
Many live-action manga and anime adaptations are received poorly. So how has musical theater captured the imagination of fans worldwide?

We anime and manga fans have all felt it before: the momentary excitement at the mention of a favorite anime series getting a new, live-action movie, only to be just as quickly shut down into disappointment as we realize…it’s probably going to suck.

Why do so many people hate on live-action anime adaptions?

One reason is that, being animated, there are many elements that are just hard to recreate in real life, such as magic, superpowers, mythical creatures, and the like, which usually end up being portrayed by less-than-perfect computer graphics that look awkward when contrasted with the rest of the real-life background. However yet another reason, and probably the most important to fans (as very recently seen by the outrage sparked with the release of the new live-action Sonic the Hedgehog Trailer), is that the human actors just don’t look anything like their respective characters.

Are fans just being too unreasonable in desiring a more accurate depiction of a cartoon character in real life?


Enter 2.5D Musicals (2.5次元ミュージカル, 2.5 jigen myujikaru). 2-D refers to two-dimensional “flat” media – in other words, anime and manga – and 3-D is our real, three-dimensional world. 2.5 aims for something in between, where anime meets real life. And its popularity suggests that it’s the anime/reality hybrid that fans have been waiting for.

The Takarazuka Revue and the First Manga Musical

The first official Japanese-based media 2.5D production that sparked the boom was the 2003 musical adaption of The Prince of Tennis, which attracted over 2 million visitors during its run, and through social media, gained enough success to lead to international growth, and the coining of a new genre.


However, the first actual manga-based production was performed in 1974 by the Takarazuka Revue, a musical called The Rose of Versailles (ベルサイユのばら), before the development of 2.5D as a genre. The Takarazuka Revue is a huge part of Japan’s theater scene, established in the town of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture in 1913. Comprised of all-female performers and often likened to a Broadway act, Takurazuka’s structure was based on a reversed-roles version of kabuki, a traditional form of Japanese theater in which all roles were played by men.

Takurazuka’s productions are widely based on folklore, Western musicals, and yes, even manga stories. In fact, it was Takarazuka that paved the way to 2.5D musicals by being the first to establish “manga musicals” as a concept. However, while their performance of The Rose of Versailles was a catalyst for the growth of Takurazuka’s popularity as a group, the concept of “manga musical” still had a ways to go before growing into the popular art form it has since evolved into.

This is likely because manga-musical as a genre was still overshadowed by Western musicals, and the traditional forms of Japanese theater such as noh and kabuki, which still exist to this day and play a great role in the developments of other forms of theater. Because of Japan’s great respect for tradition cultural preservation, it’s easy to see how such art forms continue to thrive and influence us today. Understandably, the older generation sometimes fears the loss of their precious culture due to the youth’s growing obsession with technology and decreasing interest in history. Yet what better way to reignite that interest than combining the two – theater and technology – in a way that is enjoyable to everyone, including the kids?

(JP) Link: What is this ‘2.5D Musical’ We’re Hearing About Lately?

Bringing Anime to Life

With this history of theatrical performances and knack for technology it was only a matter of time for the birth of the 2.D musical, and with its ever-growing popularity, the genre only offers more room for the expansion and development of even greater stage technology. But what kind of technology is necessary to recreate an entire animated piece?

The first thing (anime lovers, rejoice!) is the special attention the actors give to portraying their characters as accurately as possible, down to the looks, attitude, and even movements. The costumes are carefully styled to look as close to the original character as possible. The dialogue, sound effects, and visual cues are all perfectly timed, and the acting incorporates exaggerated motions, expressions, and freeze-frame poses, to give the appearance of watching an actual cartoon.

Depending on the anime that the performance is based on, additional special effects may be employed. For example, the use of trampolines and acrobatics to depict the exciting ninja battles of the Naruto musical; props and pantomime techniques to enact a bicycle race without the use of actual bicycles in Yowamushi Pedal; and projection mapping for other visual effects such as background images, and images from the actual anime or manga to add to the scene.

Another useful technology employed not on stage, but right in your seat, is the use of subtitle glasses available in English and several other languages so that overseas visitors can be a part of the fun, too.

Of course, being a musical, there is also singing! What could be more fun than watching your favorite anime characters singing and dancing right before your very eyes, in REAL LIFE?

【動画】ライブ・スペクタクル「NARUTO-ナルト-」~暁の調べ~公開ゲネプロ | エンタステージ

初心者からツウまで!演劇総合情報サイト『エンタステージ』 関連記事: 2017年5月19日(金)より東京・AiiA 2.5 Theater Tokyoにて開幕したライブ・スペクタクル「NARUTO-ナルト-」~暁の調べ~。待…

Above: A clip from the Naruto musical, showing how various special effects are employed to bring the famous manga and anime to life on stage.

Despite using no computer graphics, the excitement, engagement, and attention to detail and accuracy creates an experience more enjoyable for fans than live action movies. Live musicals don’t demand the high level of perfection such as “realistic” graphics and heavy editing expected from films, and are all about the in-the-moment action, and feeling like you’re part of the scene. And unlike another popular, similar-yet-different form of live entertainment, Vocaloid, the scenes are played by actual human beings, giving more life to fans’ favorite characters.


ロビーに溢れ返る女性、女性、女性。バッグにペンライトを忍ばせ、オシャレにめかし込んだ女性たちが今日も劇場を賑わせている。 の主要な観客はほぼ女性。その中で男性の僕は、これが『ウォーリーをさがせ!』なら2秒で見つかるレベルで浮いている。 だが、一抹の居心地の悪さも何のその。2.5次元舞台に通うことは、すっかり僕の日常になっている。 …

(JP) Link: The Charms of the 2.5D Musical: As Told By A 35 Year Old Male Fan

No Business Like Show Business

So what does this modern form of stage technology mean for Japan? It means another healthy revenue stream from its largest cultural export.

As mentioned above, the 2.5-D musical movement reached a boom with the production of The Prince of Tennis, or “Tenimyu” for short. The success of this production lead its producer Makoto Matsuda to not only coin the term “2.5D musical,” but also establish the Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association, as well as a permanent theater for 2.5D shows in Tokyo, the AiiA 2.5 Theater. Bringing in over 2 million viewers, Tenimyu boosted the awareness of manga musicals, and soon, many other manga publishers followed suit and jumped aboard the 2.D musical train.

Nearly 70 2.5D musicals were produced in 2013 after the boom that piggybacked off the initial success of Tenimyu, and the numbers have been increasing. Though initially targeted to young females in Japan, as word spread like wildfire, older fans soon flocked in to get a taste of nostalgia. And the Japanese pop-culture craze that still flourishes overseas didn’t let this trend fly under the radar, either.
(JP) Link: The Well Thought-Out Branding Behind 2.5D Musicals’ Popularity

The huge interest from foreign fans has contributed greatly to the art form’s development in success. Acts in Japan are now an important addition to many tourist’s itineraries, and some of the more popular productions have expanded to hold live performances overseas. 2.5D musicals have even made their way into the states, with the most recent adaption being the live action Sailor Moon musical. In fact, it showed right here in New York last month! (Still low-key jealous that so many of my friends got to see it and I didn’t…but I digress!)

The worldwide popularity of 2.D musicals shows promise that the business could become a major form of entertainment. That fact isn’t lost on the academic world. A Tokyo college has become the first institution to establish 2.5D Musicals as an official college major. The college offers a curriculum that includes classes in essential acoustics, illumination machinery operation, stage planning, and scriptwriting as its four key subjects. Other lessons throughout the curriculum include stage makeup, vocals and dance, and sword fighting.

2.5次元演劇科 | アニメ・声優・マンガ・イラストの専門校 代々木アニメーション学院

ファンを魅了する個性と作品のキャラを活かす芸能総合力を持つ俳優になる。 2.5次元業界をけん引するパートナー企業とともに実践的なレッスンで2.5次元で活躍できる俳優を育てます。 2.5次元俳優、ミュージカル俳優、アクション俳優 など 2.5次元演劇とは、簡単に言えば「漫画やゲームなどの2次元作品を舞台化したもの」。 …

(JP) Link: 2.5D Musical Department

The Future Of Japanese Pop Culture?

Anime, theater, and technology are significant parts of Japanese culture. they are likely to continue to remain and grow with the times. And the combination of all three has created a movement so innovative and with so much potential for growth, it’s exciting to see what this means for the future of not just theater and anime, but entertainment and Japan as a whole.

2.D musicals bring in all kinds of people, but its popularity with the younger generation as well as international audiences show promise for continued development. And the passion and enthusiasm of the actors brings our favorite cartoons to life in a new and unique way no other form of media has done before. Now if only live-action movie directors could take some notes on character styling and development, all would be right in the world of live-action entertainment.

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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