Hoping for 'X-Men'-sized hits, studios and producers turn to Asian comics and toons

When “Oldboy” won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, many critics compared it to Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte Cristo,” but its literary roots were actually far more recent — specifically, a 1996 manga (the Japanese word for comic books).

Drift-racing Hong Kong hit “Initial D” may have been the top-grossing Asian pic of 2005, but it also has its roots in manga (the long-running series has spawned nine videogames, four anime series and two animated feature films). Manga-based “Nana” was a top-10 grosser in Japan for eight weeks running, no surprise considering the fact that the series sold 22 million copies in print.

Across Asia, anime and manga provide the source material for a dizzying array of movies and skeins ranging from the arthouse (Lee Myung-Se’s “Duelist”) to the grindhouse (Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer”). And with the domestic success of comicbook franchises such as “X-Men” and “Spider-Man,” Asian animated fare seems the logical next place to turn for fresh live-action material.

“The popularity of anime and manga here in the U.S. is growing substantially, so the studios are taking chances by putting things into development,” says Roy Lee, who produced the “Ring” and “Oldboy” remakes. “Whether or not any of them will get made is another question.”

Since 1997, Hollywood has been acquiring major anime properties like “Sailor Moon,” about a group of young girls gifted with magical powers and skimpy costumes; “Speed Racer,” a ’60s series about a heroic racecar driver; and “Battle Angel Alita,” in which a skull-cracking female cyborg searches for her past.

The most anticipated title in the trend is ADV Films’ remake of the quasi-mystical, giant-robot anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (“EVA”), a property that has already grossed $2 billion around the world. Progress on the production has been closely tracked by fans since the live-action adaptation was announced at Cannes three years ago.

“We are moving carefully with ‘EVA,’ and I won’t say that it’s been a straight line at every stage of the project,” says company spokesman Chris Oarr. “But we take our stewardship of this property very seriously. I can say there’s no sense of crisis on this end, and it’s gratifying there’s a sense of urgency on the part of the fans.”

The fan base for anime adaptations exists, and the right projects are in development, but everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to step up with the “Spider-Man”-sized blockbuster that will open the floodgates.

The tipping point could be “Priest,” based on a popular manhwa (Korean comicbook) about an immortal priest battling demons in the Wild West. Screen Gems’ live-action version of the popular Tokyopop title is being produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House and starts shooting Oct. 1 with “Amityville Horror” helmer Andrew Douglas.

“Studios are beginning to stand up and take notice that these guys are going to be the next generation of comicbook heroes,” says Steve Galloway, Tokyopop’s film and TV veep. “I don’t think people who go to see it will identify it as Asian or American; it’ll just be judged on how well it’s made.”

Some insiders argue that despite explosive, double-digit growth over the last seven years, anime and manga in the U.S. haven’t reached the critical mass necessary to support the kind of investment required to successfully take titles to the bigscreen. But as Oarr points out: “I don’t know how many people read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ but ‘Blade Runner’ has gone on to be a classic. ‘EVA’ isn’t an ‘Incredible Hulk’ in terms of recognition, but it’s no ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ either.”

Dozens of projects are already rumbling into production. Weta is attached to “EVA” and already started creating concept art. James Cameron is directing “Battle Angel,” and he’s spent the past 10 months developing the technology necessary to bring it to the bigscreen. “Pet Shop of Horrors,” another Tokyopop project that’s a “Twilight Zone”-esque series about a mysterious pet store, is set up with Rogue Pictures, and even Roy Lee is developing a TV series based on the acclaimed “Witch Hunter Robin” anime.

“It’s inevitable that there will be great sci-fi movies made from anime,” says Oarr. “And it’ll be Hollywood that makes them because Hollywood is best at realizing the epic scale of a movie like ‘EVA.’ A live-action ‘Akira’ will not come out of a Japanese studio; it’ll come out of an international co-production with a strong U.S. component.”

Already, the first anime property to be remade as a live-action film by a major U.S. studio has wrapped and is set for a summer release. Warner Bros. leads the way with its adaptation of the popular anime horror series “Death Note,” but the studio is hedging its bets: Starring “Battle Royale’s” Tatsuya Fujiwara, pic will open on June 17 only in Japan.

Grady Hendrix blogs about Asian cinema at Variety’s Kaiju Shakedown.

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