The Akira remake: what will survive of the original?

As Warner gives the green light to Akira, we wonder, just what will be left of the anime and manga after its trip to Hollywood?

Up until now, I’ve treated the reports of a live-action Akira remake in the same way I’d handle an impending dental appointment – I’m aware of it, but hope that it’ll disappear if I ignore it for long enough.

Now, however, it seems that the Hollywood version of Akira can no longer be ignored. Having owned the rights for almost a decade, Warner has finally given the green light to an Akira movie, with director Jaume Collet-Serra at the helm. Tron: Legacy star Garrett Hedlund is rumoured to be involved, and Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham-Carter have reportedly been approached for fairly major roles.

While we could sit and pick apart the decision to attach a director as workmanlike as Collet-Serra to Akira (his most distinguished movie so far is the indifferent Neeson thriller, Unknown), or the notion of an actor as bland as Hedlund in its lead role, what really interests me is what will be left of Akira once it’s been translated to the big-screen.

To do that, we first need to head back in time to 1982, when Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series was first published.

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Running for a total of eight years in Japan’s Young Magazine, Akira was a sprawling sci-fi epic of multiple plot lines and dozens of characters. It took place in a near-future Neo-Tokyo still rebuilding from a devastating explosion, apparently nuclear in origin, where rival motorbike gangs clash on the streets, and military scientists secretly conduct research into telekinetic powers.

In 1988, Otomo made an animated feature out of Akira, condensing thousands of pages of his still unfinished saga into a 125-minute movie. One of the most expensive anime projects ever made at that point, Akira cost around $11m to produce.

The money was well spent. Akira is necessarily less complex than the manga, but it retains the same sense of scale, depicting a city on the brink of disaster with a richness that recalls Metropolis and Blade Runner – both obvious visual influences on Otomo.

A hit in Japan, Akira became something of an ambassador for anime in other parts of the world. Its Streamline Pictures release in the West was, for many viewers, a first taste of Japanese animation – and what an introduction it proved to be. No other movie looked quite like it, and Akira, more than any other piece of animation, was responsible for the explosion of interest in anime in the US and the UK.

In adapting his own manga, Otomo created a feature that was a little messy from a narrative perspective, but was nevertheless full of characters and themes that immediately captured the imagination. There was Kaneda, the cocksure gang leader. Tetsuo, the bullied, downtrodden youth whose sudden gift of godlike power slowly intoxicates him. Colonel Shikishima, whose glowering demeanour belies a fatherly sense of protectiveness over the three young psychics in his care.

And then there’s Akira himself. Barely seen in the movie, he’s a little like the character Harry Lime in The Third Man – his ethereal presence looms large over the story, even though he’s only occasionally glimpsed.

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Akira could be read as a quite simple fable about scientific hubris, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s deeply rooted in Japanese post-war culture; Neo-Tokyo is a city with its heart ripped out – at its centre sits a pitch-black crater, a scar left over from an earlier, disastrous experiment. Its characters are all outsiders, a young underclass raised in children’s homes or laboratories.

If the casting rumours of recent years are reliable, it seems that the writers of the Akira remake may have missed the point of the original manga and anime. Actors such as James Franco, Zac Efron and even Keanu Reeves have all been connected to the lead role of Kaneda. Andrew Garfield and James McAvoy are rumoured to be in the running to play Tetsuo. None of these actors, including Garrett Hedlund, could pass as troubled teenagers, which leads me to suspect that the protagonists will no longer be a pair of youths as originally written.

This decision would have a huge impact on the story as a whole, since so much of Akira was about young people growing up and surviving in a crumbling future city. Tetsuo’s gradual metamorphosis from an alienated young boy with an inferiority complex to a rampaging monster was so believable because of his age and difficult upbringing – even when he destroys entire city blocks, we can understand where his anger comes from. Casting a 20- or 30-something actor in the same role would completely change its complexion.

It’s long been known that Hollywood’s Akira would relocate events from Tokyo to New York, a move that will result in the loss of the manga and anime’s post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki sentiments.

So if all these elements are taken out of Akira, what do we have left? The answer is, surely, virtually nothing. Akira is a story rooted in Japanese culture and modern history, and its youthful perspective is what separates it from nominally similar sci-fi touchstones such as Blade Runner.

That the US Akira is currently planned as two movies means that some of Otomo’s epic plot strands can be explored in more detail, but in all likelihood, much of the manga’s drug-taking and excessive violence will be trimmed in the quest for a PG-13 rating.

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Without all that, we’re left with a fairly standard comic book movie with some telekinetic powers in it. With none of its Japanese roots left, why even bother to call it Akira? (To help you out, Hollywood, we’ve even designed the poster for you – see the top right of this post. No need to thank us.)

It’s a mystery, in fact, why Hollywood executives didn’t ditch the Akira property, and buy up the rights to the videogame Prototype instead. A sandbox adventure about a generic hero with shape-shifting superpowers, it offers similar scope for destruction in Manhattan, and could even be made without upsetting its pre-installed fanbase.

Veteran actor and Star Trek legend George Takei summed up the Akira situation best. When asked by whether he was surprised that Warner was casting a movie of Japanese origins with an apparently all-white cast, he said:

“Why don’t they do something original? Because what they do is offend Asians, number one. Number two, they offend the fans. The same thing happened with M Night Shyamalan. He cast his project [The Last Airbender] with non-Asians and it’s an Asian story, and the film flopped. I should think that they would learn from that, but I guess big studios go by rote, and the tradition in Hollywood has always been to buy a project, change it completely and flop with it.”

Irrespective of whether the Akira remake is good, bad or indifferent, there’s one we can take as a given: that the resulting film will be totally disconnected from its source.

As galling as it is to have a much-loved story from my youth snatched by Hollywood, I can take comfort in the fact that the manga and its anime adaptation stand alone as a classics of their kind.

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