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Hollywood turns its gaze to anime

As Hollywood runs out of comic books to adapt, anime looks set to emerge as the next big thing.

The Japanese anime classic Akira
The Japanese anime classic Akira

Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men, Iron Man, Watchmen ... it won't have escaped anyone's attention that Hollywood is bleeding dry the superhero tales from Western comic-books. By the time Joss Whedon has finished filming The Avengers - in which Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine and many more come together to "fight the foes no single superhero can withstand" - it's a distinct possibility that we'll be sick of the sight of them. And what will Hollywood do then? They'll start on the characters from anime.

That's because anime - the animated version of Japan's hyper-stylised, sometimes futuristic and often violent manga comics - is clearly the hot new trend in Hollywood. Proof came with last week's rumours that High School Musical's Zac Efron is to star in a live-action, American remake of the classic anime Akira. The original Akira is a dense, dystopian drama set in Neo-Toyko, following the destruction of the original city in an explosion caused by a young boy with strange powers. If the blogosphere is correct, Efron will play a gang leader - which is either a pleasing career shift or horrifying casting, depending on your relationship with Akira in the first place.

Indeed, it seems barely a day goes by without an announcement that a major director or studio is beginning work on a live action anime remake. Hot on the heels of the Akira rumours came news in the Hollywood Reporter that Sam Raimi - he of Evil Dead and Spider-Man fame - is to work on developing Noir, a 2001 anime featuring two mysterious female assassins. This one's for a US cable network so it'll be interesting to see where Raimi sets this update and how closely he follows the original storylines.

So will 2011 be anime's year? Not quite - although schedules for 2012 and 2013 are packed with anime remakes from some of the biggest names in Hollywood today. In fact, in the case of Battle Angel (where a cyborg attempts to rediscover her past in a post-apocalyptic world), probably the biggest. James Cameron actually wrote a live-action adaptation many years ago, but then Avatar and its sequels got in the way. Still, he admitted to the Coming Soon website in August that Battle Angel was still very much "on my radar".

If anime is attracting the attention of the man responsible for the most successful film of all time, you can guarantee it's piqued the interest of his contemporaries, too. Spider-Man's Tobey Maguire was so fascinated by the stories of robots on earth in Robotech, he not only took the lead role but is producing the film too - although it currently appears to be stuck in development hell. Perhaps that's because it's rather too close to the Transformers films for comfort - they weren't officially anime but certainly borrowed many similar themes. The same fate has befallen Voltron (where - and stay with us here - five robot lions combine to protect the planet Arus), although Paramount has at least started to release artwork for the film. And Alex Tse, the screenwriter who adapted Watchmen, has begun work on Ninja Scroll - an anime set in feudal Japan - for Warner Brothers.

But before Efron suddenly became the hottest news in anime, Keanu Reeves' involvement in a version of Cowboy Bebop, one of the most critically acclaimed anime to date, had certainly whet the appetite of the genre's many fans. Like many of these live-action adaptations, its journey to the screen is proving tortuous, but the addition of Reeves is important. After all, he was the star of the film that has done more than any other to suggest that live-action anime can work: The Matrix.

That might be a surprising assertion - The Matrix was not a remake of an existing anime. But it was so heavily indebted to Mamoru Oshii's 1995 masterpiece Ghost In The Shell, Matrix directors Larry and Andy Wachowski actually played the DVD to potential producers in the pitching process, intimating that they wanted to do it for real.

They didn't, quite, but it was revealing that Ghost In The Shell features humans plugged into a virtual world via holes in the back of their necks, stylised violence, and a smidgen of "who am I"-style existentialism.

The virtual reality elements of Ghost In The Shell can also be seen in Avatar, of course - unsurprisingly as Cameron called the original manga "a stunning work of speculative fiction". And Steven Spielberg also referenced it in both AI and Minority Report. In fact, Spielberg liked Ghost In The Shell so much, he bought the rights to a live-action remake, currently at the scriptwriting stage.

Hollywood, then, is increasingly obsessed with anime. And when the credit crunch is over and these long-delayed films finally get the green light, it's likely that we will be too.