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Can a pop opera bring Japanese animation to life?

By Dean Irvine, CNN
  • Japan Anime Live is a stage version of popular Japanese cartoons and comics
  • Toured four European countries in the last three weeks
  • Production is by an all Japanese cast and crew, apart from Italian director
  • Drive by Japan to market its entertainment industry to wider audience

(CNN) -- For years movie theaters have been awash with adaptations from comic books (or "graphic novels" if you're over 25), but can the experience translate from the page to the stage?

Add to the mix an all-Japanese cast performing in Japanese scenes from Japanese manga comics and cartoons (known as anime) and it sounds like a challenge akin to the improbable quests often featured in the comics themselves.

However during the past three weeks "Japan Anime Live" has been touring Europe doing exactly that.

"It's a sort of compendium, a sort of bible," says Francesco Fiore about the show. Fiore is executive manager of the production, and the only-non Japanese member of the touring production crew.

"It contains many different ingredients and we'd like to develop singular shows out of it. It's a showcase of anime and manga into live entertainment," he says.

There are so many things in Japanese culture that you cannot get if there is dubbing. A lot of the expressions you can only get from the original actors.
--Francesco Fiore, Japan Anime Live

Manga comics regularly list among the top-sellers in the U.S. and Europe. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, manga products made over $200 million in the U.S. market in 2006, while anime DVDs made $450 million in 2005.

By bringing some of the most popular Japanese characters to life, Fiore and the production crew are trying to discover if there's a growing appetite for the globally known, but niche, cultural export.

The show has played dates in Germany, Belgium, France and Italy and attracted an audience made up mostly of "hardcore fans" according to Fiore, the rest he says were curious families.

With the majority of the audience dressing up as characters from comics featured in the show, Japan Anime Live is more "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Circe du Soleil" than a normal theatrical experience.

The show itself features action, live music and specially-made episodes from popular Japanese cartoons like Naruto Shippuden and Gundam displayed on a big screen behind the stage (with subtitles).

With special insights into their characters, Fiore thinks there's enough to keep the cosplay-dressed fans happy but also accessible enough to be family entertainment.

Similar live stage shows dedicated to Anime have been running in Japan since 2002, but adaptations had to be made for the European tour.

"Japan is different, just live songs and an LED wall displaying episodes with live dubbing by the actors. We decided that was not enough for European and western audiences, because it's still very Japanese. There's not enough movement," says Fiore.

While the stunts quota was upped, the idea of switching from Japanese to other languages was not up for discussion.

"There are so many things in Japanese culture that you cannot get if there is a dubbing. A lot of the expressions you can only get from the original actors," he says.

Backed by a consortium of companies that produce anime, the show is part of a wider drive to take the Japanese entertainment industry into the global mainstream.

"The goal is to have in 10 years time intellectual properties to be one of the biggest sources of export for Japan and stop being just a big manufacturer," explains Fiore.

There are plans for another European arena tour next year and a visit to North America.

"America is a very big market, with different characteristics. We would need to restructure the show. In terms of numbers [of Anime fans], it's very big but very fragmented," says Fiore.

Recent rumors have spread that a Hollywood adaptation of 1988 animated Manga film "Akira" will be made, with an unlikely cast featuring of Morgan Freeman and "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron.

Fiore doesn't think a Hollywood version of it or any Anime would be a wise decision.

"It can be possible, but in a Japanese way of treating and managing the stories. The American way is different, allow me to say, it's more like a mincer. Japanese take extreme care in protecting the stories, it's not just about money, its more about the story, it's more a long-term operation," he says.

"There were already situations where American [companies] tried to buy rights to do movies from Japanese stories, but it didn't work at all, and the track record is quite bad."

"More and more we will see a situation like the one I'm managing now, [Japanese companies] trying to understand the foreign market directly, trying to establish operations themselves."