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Tales from Development Hell: Akira

By Ryan Fleming.

Katsuhiro Otomo riding Kaneda's motorcycle. That must be fun.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Remakes are everywhere in film. In every form, so much so that we even have a whole new vocabulary to describe essentially the same idea of a new version of an older film. There are remakes, reimaginings, and reboots. It’s reached a stage where there is actual disagreement over which term to use in the case of the emergence of seboots or requels. A lot of these are just buzzwords used by media corporations to rebadge a remake. Remakes are done for many surprious reasons: updating a film for a modern audience, making a live action version of an animated film, localising a film to a new international market, and myriad more.

Despite the sheer pervasiveness of remakes, there are still those that never actually see the light of day. One such example is Akira, originally based on the Japanese manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo. Despite having been attempted since the 1990s, not a single frame of footage has ever been shot of the live-action version of the tale originally adapted in the famous 1988 anime film.

The 1988 Toho adaptation of Akira was a very rare case of someone adapting their own work into a film. Katsuhiro Otomo had been writing the manga Akira when he adapted it into a film for Toho. In fact, the manga kept running for an additional two years and finally wrapped up in 1990. In a 2017 interview, Otomo revealed that, having already finished the manga and adapted it into film, he was done with Akira. He did give approval for a live-action version, but with the condition that he had to check and approve the scenario. Sony had the rights to the property in the 1990s, but nothing came of it. They were then taken over by Warner Bros. In 2002 at the behest of Jon Peters, he of the demand that Superman fight a giant spider in Superman Lives. Since then, the film has been linked to numerous directors, including Stephen Norrington (Blade), Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents), Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan), George Miller (Mad Max), Justin Lin (Star Trek: Beyond), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and most recently Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok). Drafts have been turned in by writers such as Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and Steve Kloves (Harry Potter), whilst names like Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) have been attached as producers at various times.

Most of the versions have one detail in common that no one has really acknowledged as the major problem in adapting the tale: transplanting the story from its native Japan to the United States. There is an aspect of that which is always cited as a problem, both in attempts to remake Akira and in wider popular culture, but less talked about is the location change. The earliest script treatment in the 2000s transplated the action to Chicago. Later attempts have abandoned Chicago to set the film in Manhattan, an off-piste choice for a film setting, to say the least. These versions have New York City, like Tokyo in the original, destroyed and a new city built on the ruins. Most of them also have the Japanese government in control of the city, building New Tokyo on top of the remnant of New York. Versions also turned protagonists Kaneda and Tetsuo into brothers, a change from the original anime, with the latter also occasionally being renamed to Travis or Trevor.

Neo-Tokyo, 2019. According to the manga, that is.

In the late 2000s, Chris Evans was in line to play Kaneda while Joseph Gordon-Levitt would play Travis. At various other points, Keanu Reeves, Zac Efron, Robert Pattinson, and Justin Timberlake were linked with lead roles. Gary Oldman and Ken Watanabe were both suggested at different times for the main antagonist, Colonel Shikishima; with Helene Bonham Carter playing another villain. Keira Knightly, Mila Kunis, and Kristen Stewart have been considered for the lead female role of Kei, in most versions of the remake reduced to a stereotypical role from the source material and first adaptation. The characters and their casting have proved a constant headache for those attempting to adapt the property. Just as they did another adaptation of a classic anime film whose success, or lack thereof, in being remade sent the planned Akira adaptation back to the drawing board. The 2017 remake of the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell (itself adapted from the 1989-92 manga of the same name) came under heavy criticism for the casting of white actor Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. So much so, it was actually felt to hurt it at the box office, and that’s a pain Hollywood can understand. Criticism of whitewashing the cast of Akira had been criticised as far back publicly by George Takei in 2011, but it took seeing how it could actually hit them in the wallet for Hollywood to acknowledge it.

Kaneda from the manga, and Chris Evans, proposed to play the role. Um...

Pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By the time the live-action Ghost in the Shell was released in 2017, directors like George Miller and Jordan Peele had actually been turning down the opportunity. Taika Waititi was brought on board to direct, and immediately set out to reassure fans his intent to cast lesser-known Asian-American teenage actors in the lead roles. Not mentioned was if this version of the remake would still transplant the action from Japan to the United States. Development seemed to be moving again, with Waititi also co-writing the script with Michael Golamco. It was put on hold again when Waititi opted instead to direct Thor: Love and Thunder as his next project and, as of April 2023, remains on hold while he moves onto a new Star Wars film. Despite two decades of failed attempts, it seems that Hollywood still intends to press ahead with Akira. Waititi also justified the very idea of a remake for Warner Bros. by saying it would be an adaptation of the original manga rather than the anime. Further attempts may still struggle as each and every development has struggled to get a finalised script by virtue of just not getting the source material.

Akira is a story heavily influenced by Japanese history. The power of the military portrayed in the story bears resemblance to the rise of militarism in Japan during the 1930s. The experiments performed on the title character and others recall the crimes of Japan’s Unit 731 during the Second World War. The destruction of Old Tokyo in the background of the plot is deliberately evocative of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. When the nation that dropped those bombs came to adapt the tale and moved it to their own country, they instead chose to make heavy-handed references to 9/11 instead. This was reminiscent of the 2006 film adaptation of V for Vendetta, based on the 1988-89 comic of the same name, swapping the rise of Fascism following a nuclear war in which the United Kingdom escaped relatively unscathed for a critique of the George W. Bush Administration following 9/11. However, since V for Vendetta was set in a European, English-speaking country, it was allowed to retain its original setting. That, and the producers were probably too cowardly to set a satire in their own country. Coincidentally, both V for Vendetta and the planned Akira film were under the auspices of Warner Bros.

This assumption that you can just set a work in a different country has the production in the same way the lazy casting of established white stars has done so, but with far less controversy. Barely an eyelid was batted at the story element of Japan owning the land that was formerly New York City and establishing New Tokyo there and populating it with Japanese, reminiscent of racist ‘yellow peril’ tropes going back to the 19th century. Waititi’s mention of Asian-American rather than Japanese (or even Asian) actors possibly indicates the intent to still move the location of the story from Asia to North America. The sad truth is that no Hollywood studio would commit hundreds of millions of dollars for a science fiction manga adaptation set in Asia with a mostly Asian cast, without even considering doing it in a language other than English. That might change in the future with China becoming more and more a source of film revenue, but even there the themes of Akira might struggle in a live-action adaptation intended for audiences in that country. Efforts at adapting Akira have been marred by laziness, in writing and casting. If an AI was tasked to come up with a Hollywood adaptation of Akira, it could not have turned in a blander prospective product than the industry managed on its own.

What if they had actually succeeded? How might popular culture have been impacted if there was a live-action, Hollywood remake of Akira at any part since the rights were first purchased? The blunt answer is probably not much. Sony did nothing with the rights in the 1990s, and any plans they did have are unknown, so any idea of what form a film night take dates to the Warner Bros attempts from 2002 onward. Aspects of these attempts are reflective of trends in Hollywood contemporary to them. In that respect, the potential remakes of Akira sound as cookie cutter in how a finished product might translate to the screen. As cookie cutter as the casting choices that have been suggested over the years. In fact, during the 2000s it seemed almost as though the studio thought it should be treated more as a horror picture than science fiction. This was at the time when Hollywood was adapting Japanese horror films of the 1990s and 2000s into parochial American versions. Ring (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and Dark Water (2002) were remade by Hollywood during this period as The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), and Dark Water (2005) respectively.

Some directors linked with the project like Norrington, Collet-Serra, and more recently Peele have been known for their horror films. The attempt by Albert Hughes in particular, that had its script leaked, turned the title character into a creepy child from a horror film reminiscent of those in Ring or Ju-on. This maybe indicates another aspect in which those attempting the remake simply did not get either the source material or its first adaptation. At other points in the mid-00s, it was going to be adapted as a two-part affair, which was in style at the time and has been revived several times since. Most of the Akira attempts before the mid-10s would likely be forgettable, muddled films that might receive praise for their production design and look, but would be otherwise negatively received. This was still the era where studios weren’t afraid of the word ‘remake’, though most people had grown tired of it. It was during the 2010s that marketing began to go all in on using every possible way of describing a remake except calling it a remake. Akira would just be another 2000s remake.

A successful adaptation in the 2010s would likely be more notable, but not for the reasons the studio or the filmmakers would have wanted. It could very well have been an adaptation of Akira instead of Ghost in the Shell that precipitated a major cntroversy over whitewashing and might actually have caused some change. This version would likely have been a far more grandiose affair than any successful 00s attempt, but it would also just be like any other blockbuster of the era with only the controversy and the source material making it stand out from others. Like Ghost in the Shell, it might have been stripped of a lot of the themes and nuance of the original story, with the current Hollywood machinery being unable to find time even in today’s inflated running times. The 2010s live-action blockbuster would probably have far less depth than the 1980s cartoon. Just another aspect of the chauvinism that is shown in attempting to adapt Akira, that a live-action version will inherently be a more mainstream, succesful film than an animated one. Akira would just be another 2010s over-budgeted, mostly CGI popcorn flick whose only notability was controversy over its casting.

Akira has proved to be a troubled project for Hollywood, but it has seemingly not dissuaded their attempts to remake the seminal 1988 anime film as a live-action, United States-set film. Rumoured casting has rightly attracted criticism, whilst at the same time adapting a story heavily drawn from another country’s history attracts almost no notice. Hollywood studios well likely continue to attempt Akira until it is finally made, but it is difficult to imagine anything special about the film in the current Hollywood blockbuster industry. The rights to Akira have sat with Warner Bros for over twenty years as of 2023, and considering the trouble they have had producing a remake, perhaps fans better hope they remain there since the incompetence involved might be the best prevention of a remake actually happening.

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by Sealion Press, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland.

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