The worst nightmare of American anime fans will mercifully never be realized.
It was a terrible concept from the first day of its conception, but finally, the live-action adaptation of AKIRA has been condemned to an unnamed circle of Development Hell for an undisclosed amount of time.
The animated adaptation of AKIRA is very widely known, but it started as a manga publication that first appeared in Japan in 1980. When the movie made it to American shores, it helped dislodged the widely-held belief that cartoons are for children and children alone. It’s one of the most beloved works in its respective genres. However, given Hollywood’s disastrously poor win/fail record of adapting things such as video games, comic books, and other “nerd” niches to the silver screen, (Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Dragonball Evolution, any video game-turned-movie directed by Uwe Boll), the fandom as a whole froze right in its tracks and gasped in abject shock. The backlash surrounding the project started roughly the same hour as the announcement itself, including a vastly popular petition/event that sprang up on Facebook. Fans, especially those of AKIRA itself, believed that the question would not be, “Will they butcher this hallmark of anime and animation in general?” but rather, “How badly will they butcher this hallmark of anime and animation in general?”.
There was a thin ray of hope throughout production, as Warner Bros. was set to produce the movie, which is not the worst studio to handle it, and was backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, who admitted that he’s a fan of the original IP.
That’s about all the good news this project had up until now.
Comic book artist Chris Weston was brought in to design Kaneda’s iconic motorcycle. Or, rather, a redesign. He would later describe the redesign as heretical and a travesty. He described it as being “a bit meatier and nastier: the tyres were bigger, the engine was bigger, some of the casing was stripped off to expose the workings beneath. Kaneda was in a motorcycle gang that used these vehicles as weapons, so we gave it a more beaten-up look, dirtier, a few dents and scratches here and there. In silhouette you’d have no problem recognising it as the Akira Bike, but the lighting would reveal a whole new level of texture and detail.”
He also had to fight to keep the bike red, after suggestions it should be black instead.
Pictured: a better interpretation of Kaneda’s bike in the real world (Canon branding notwithstanding)
Things quickly went from bad to worse when word got out of the casting suggestions for the film. Tetsuo’s and Kaneda’s ages would be roughly doubled. Actors suggested for the lead roles include Justin Timberlake and Robert Pattison. Yes, because “that dude from *NSYNC” and “that sparkly douche from Twilight” are exactly what people picture when they think about AKIRA (Keanu Reeves was also considered, but he turned it down). But the whitewashing and (possible) Americanizations of the script did not stop there. The setting would be moved from Neo-Tokyo to “Neo-New York.” Tetsuo would be renamed Travis. Parables and allusions to 9/11 would be drawn with the delicate touch of boxing gloves made of darkmatter–the latter especially bad, considering an underlying point of the manga is how much it sucks being Japanese in a bombed out, apocalypse-prone Japan.
Someone would come to the fans’ side when they least expect it. George Takei stepped up and formulated his own response to the project, calling out Hollywood for wanting to whitewash AKIRA, but also taking Hollywood to task on the severe lack of Asian leading men and women. This led to director Albert Hughes walking away from the project, and its subsequent shutdown.
Obviously, the only way this could be any better is if they decided not to give it a live-action adaptation at all, but hindsight is 20/20, etc. Takei is credited with a big assist, since if the project was seen to its conclusion, the end result would’ve offended a) Asians, due to all the whitewashing (a.k.a. “Racebending”); and b) the fans, because of the shoddy treatment at the hands of the studio. His points about the lacking representation of Asians in film and television are too serious to be ignored, and we all share his desire to see this problem rectified in the near future.