It's not as great as the anime, but I still liked it a lot. It comes alive in its own right, which is important since a live-action adaptation can't just reproduce the original manga with the directness of anime. I had high expectations, both due to the source material and the director (Sabu), but for the most part those expectations were met. There's a lot to admire here. It's charming.
Most importantly, I enjoyed it even though I was comparing it with both the manga and anime. Live-action manga adaptations are a bit of a lottery. You're taking your life in your hands. How can a single movie live up to a full season of a TV series? Fortunately, though, here the original is a gentle slice-of-life piece without much plot, letting Sabu capture its essence without making it feel compressed or rushed. Daikichi becomes the guardian of a small girl (Rin) who happens to be his late grandfather's illegitimate daughter. That's it, really. Who needs a plot? There are lots of films like that, many of them very likeable, although most of them don't have the wrinkle of the child being the guardian's aunt.
The film stands and falls on its actors, obviously. Fortunately at their best they're superb, although not flawless. There are some splendid near-cameos (Chizuru Ikewaki owns the screen in her limited screen time as Gotou, while Atsuko Takahata is class), but fundamentally it's all about Rin and Daikichi.
The latter is Kenichi Matsuyama, who unfortunately I don't rate that much. I was underwhelmed by him both in the Death Note movies and in Norwegian Wood. This film showcases the best work I've seen from him by far (albeit in my very limited viewing), but also unfortunately the worst. He can be superficial. He's capable of mugging rather than acting, especially in solo moments where he's the only person on-screen and he doesn't have another actor to bounce off. Here he gives us some moments of ugly ham, including one painful scene where it would seem that he processes emails by reading them aloud and talking to his computer. (Yes, I realise movies do that. This is still a particularly horrible example.) After that, his scene with Rin's mother is shocking. It's sort of okay on a surface level, but he's giving nothing to the scene and there's not a scrap of emotional honesty in his performance. He wastes what should have been one of the film's most powerful scenes. (I reckon Sabu's as aware as anyone of how badly the scene turned out, given how much he's cut it down. Look at it. That scene runs short.)
At the same time, though, Matsuyama is fantastic with Mana Ashida (Rin). Sabu shot the film with no script, for the sake of natural interaction. Matsuyama was apparently like a "natural parent" to Ashida, both on-screen and off, and with her he's showing us something real. Ashida has made Matsuyama raise his game and create, at its best, something beautiful.
As for Ashida, she's a freak. She's an established film and TV star, also doing Japanese dub work for Hollywood movies, releasing top ten singles and being one of the regular hosts of a talk show (!). Last year she played the lead in an NHK TV drama (as a 10-year-old company president). Apparently she also reads over sixty books a month. She's incredible. I really, really hope she's being allowed to have a childhood.
Anyway, here she's Rin. She's a big name... but she's six. Let's be realistic. She's not projecting thought processes and she can't always carry big dramatic close-ups, which Sabu can't wriggle out of entirely. She can look vacant in them, although admittedly this works like a charm for the one where she's meant to be bored and lonely. What she can do, though, is to be. She can embody both Withdrawn Rin at the beginning and Vivacious Rin once she's got used to Daikichi. You don't doubt her. She can also deliver dialogue convincingly, which is impressive at six. She's very likeable and she can do subtle moments like that flinch when she's afraid that Matsuyama's going to be angry with her...
...and then towards the end she gives us the Discuss A Dead Dad scene with Kouki, which has emotional power and feels as if it's showing us something true about children. So, yeah. I admire Ashida.
The characters have evolved from what they were in the manga. Matsuyama's Daikichi has turned a "trying to look cool" throwaway line into a character point. He has mildly embarrassing fantasies based on fashion magazines. That's not a big change, but I think Ashida's Rin is significantly different. She's more normal. She's completely and utterly a six-year-old. This creates its own dynamic and it works very well, but I don't think she's the manga's occasionally disconcerting Rin, who's capable of sounding like your grandmother and has a more complicated relationship with Daikichi. Sometimes she's the mature one. She can be older than her years and in the manga at times it's as if she's raising Daikichi, not the other way around. You'd never say that of Matsuyama and Ashida.
It's possible that a true representation of the manga's Rin simply can't be done in live-action, because no actor of the right age would ever be capable of it. (Kodocha's Sana-chan would be another example of that, albeit far more extreme.)
I like Sabu's choices. He really brings out the brutal family discussion at the beginning about what to do with Rin, or the intimidatingly different world Daikichi enters on requesting a change of job. I didn't like the Kiddies In Danger jeopardy bit towards the end, which felt like tacked-on movie business because Act Three needs something like that. However I liked where it led and in any case it's not the real ending. That would be the pointless, goofy school play, which I admire for what an offbeat choice it is.
And then there's the song at the end. Puffy AmiYumi's "Sweet Drops", just like the TV series, but over the closing credits. I love that song and it's soaked into my brain over the course of eleven anime episodes. Ending with it, to my astonishment, floored me.
I love Usagi Drop. (I'll reserve judgement on the manga's notorious later chapters, though, which I haven't reached yet.) I prefer the anime to this film, mind you. I've seen the anime on more than one "best of the year" list, which I don't think is true of the film. It's more generic. Its Rin is basically just another six-year-old, even if Ashida is doing some pretty good work in the role. However the film's still sweet and doing enough differently to be well worth watching.