Who Will Helm the American AKIRA?
One of the most iconic films in anime history may be coming to America. And with it, some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Since Warner Brothers acquired the rights to ’80s Japanese classic AKIRA in 2002, in a deal that would take the sci-fi anime into the live-action realm, rumors have swirled as to its Hollywood fate.
The 1988 film, adapted from a popular manga, shocked and awed audiences around the world with its tale of cyberpunk armageddon circa 2019. Featuring a biker gang led by psychic protagonist Tetsuo Shima, the violent, ambitious flick was met with massive acclaim and became a pop icon in its homeland.
For better or for worse, AKIRA’s explosive genre iconography and futuristic milieu seemed a ripe recipe for an American blockbuster. Of course, Warner Bros., home to THE DARK KNIGHT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and HARRY POTTER, is no stranger to taking on some of the biggest pop franchises in the world, putting together major-budget productions, and making it rain.
In the thirteen years since the American deal, U.S. AKIRA speculation has been rife. Marquee names, from Leonardo DiCaprio, to Zac Efron, to James Franco, have come and passed through the rumor mill, all ultimately amounting to nothing. But in 2015, AKIRA adaptation chatter is heating up once more. And, per usual, some of the biggest names in American moviemaking are in the mix.
A Tale of Two Directors
In September, Den of Geek reported that Christopher Nolan “could be involved” with a new AKIRA live action project. Their report adds that that the INTERSTELLAR director “has met with a previously attached filmmaker… within the past three months to talk about [AKIRA].” Nolan, one of the exceedingly few Hollywood directors whose influence allows him to make his films, his way, on nine-figure budgets, is the kind of name that draws eyeballs.
Not to mention Nolan’s genre credentials. Adapting a universally beloved work, with a potentially contentious fan base? The director passed the test with his three Batman films (we’ll give him a pass on THE DARK KNIGHT RISING). And love them or hate them, INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR are the kind of ambitious sci-fi filmmaking that doesn’t really get made on that scale in the Hollywood of 2015 without a franchise brand attached.
Then, on October 6, news arose via Yahoo that Australian auteur George Miller recently turned down an opportunity to direct AKIRA. Miller, who set the sci-fi world aflame with his low-budget cyberpunk odyssey MAD MAX, and did so once again this year with the visionary FURY ROAD, may have just joined Nolan among the ranks of genre-based directors getting carte blanche from major studios.
The post-FURY ROAD freedom, though, may have played a factor in the Miller’s ultimate rejection of the AKIRA offer. “There was talk of it [the live action AKIRA],” the director is quoted as saying. “But I’ve got so many things on my dance card, I don’t have the time to do everything.” Miller has recently been tied to both a new Superman film and two FURY ROAD sequels.
Japanese Icon to American Blockbuster: Problematic Pop?
The mere suggestion of marquee names Nolan and Miller as targeted crew demonstrates that the allure of AKIRA in America is as strong as ever. Further, the rumors reflect that the project is seeking the kinds of directors with the cinematic acumen to handle its hardcore action, elaborate scope, and fanbase expectations.
But the question remains: should there even be an American AKIRA? Going beyond the fact that all film fans know the rule of thumb with remakes, criticism has mounted through the years about the potential “whitewashing” effect of an AKIRA starring Caucasian actors in originally Japanese role, from an originally Japanese production rooted strongly in its native pop culture.
STAR TREK legend and forty-plus-year Hollywood acting vet George Takei has been vocal in his criticism, coming out against the practice in a 2011 interview with The Advocate:
“ I’m surprised Warner Bros. is not keeping up with the audience. The manga and anime phenomenon is mostly white in this country. It originated in Japan, and, of course, it has a huge Asian fan following. But it’s the multi-ethnic Americans who are fans of Akira and manga. The idea of buying the rights to do that and in fact change it seems rather pointless. If they’re going to do that, why don’t they do something original, because what they do is offend Asians, number 1; number 2, they offend the fans.”
And Takei isn’t the only one troubled by the U.S. AKIRA’s persistent casting rumors. Melissa Leon recently critiqued the practice of Hollywood whitewashing in a Daily Beast article referencing the rumored adaptation. Citing failures-in-translation like THE LAST AIRBENDER, Leon argued that “Casting missteps was just one of many issues plaguing these movies, but the extra inauthenticity [of casting Caucasian actors in originally Asian roles] sure didn’t help.” In a 2014 Culture War Reporters piece, author Evan wrote
“Akira is, in many ways, a Japanese story, especially when you focus on Kaneda and Tetsuo and their positions as youth in the world they live in. It’s not just that Warner Bros. et al are taking away roles that should ostensibly go to Asian actors, it’s that they’re divorcing the story from the context that forms it.”
A film as impactful to its native culture, as renowned worldwide as AKIRA, was always certain to raise arguments and critiques beyond those of your typical blockbuster. For AKIRA, of course, is not just any old film. And one can guarantee that, whether excited or disturbed by whatever news continues to roll out, the debates are just beginning.