Is It Possible To Remake ‘Akira’ With Non-Asian Actors And Remain Faithful To The Original?

Posted Monday, December 5th, 2011 12:00 pm GMT -4 by

The American live-action remake of the legendary anime film ‘Akira’ has had a rocky journey so far. This is in no small part to the studios decision to cast Caucasian actors in the roles of Japanese characters.

The last report from the production of ‘Akira’ revealed that the setting has been changed from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan and set in the aftermath of the destruction of New York rather than Tokyo. The character names are still listed under their Japanese versions as Akira, Kaneda, and Tetsuo, but I would expect those to be changed before it’s complete (except for maybe Akira since his name is the title). Actors Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter, and Ken Watanabe are listed as confirmed for the film.

The destruction of Tokyo

‘Akira’, for the one of two out there who haven’t heard of it, is a bleak tale of two friends set against the backdrop of Neo-Tokyo in the not too far flung future. The original Tokyo was destroyed when a young boy, Akira, with immense psychic powers went mad. When Neo-Tokyo was built to take the old city’s place, Akira was locked beneath the city. Three decades after the destruction, another young boy named Tetsuo develops psychic powers of his own and attempts to awaken Akira. It’s a race against time as the Japanese Military and Tetsuo’s friends attempt to stop him.

The film version of ‘Akira’ was released in 1988 and is still applauded as one of the greatest anime films ever made. The story deals with the issues of a nuclear holocaust (represented by Akira’s destruction of Tokyo) and Japan’s subsequent socio-economic recovery. With a story like ‘Akira’ being so rooted in Japanese history and culture, one would have to ask the question… why recast it with non-Asian actors?

A few weeks ago, actor George Takei (‘Star Trek’) made a few comments on the decision to change the race of the characters and setting of ‘Akira’. Mr. Takei asked the question, “Why buy ‘Akira’ and then change it completely?” He went on to suggest that Hollywood should just make an original story if they’re going to change the entire setting and characters.

I would have to agree with Mr. Takei. In some instances, the race of the character is really not integral to the story. When Marvel chose to change Kingpin or Heimdall into black characters in ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Thor’ respectively, it really didn’t change their character at all. Even when early discussions were going on for the new ‘Spider-Man’ flick and actor Donald Glover was rumored to be courting the role of Peter Parker, I wasn’t upset since race isn’t a key element of Spider-Man’s identity.

Tetsuo in a psychic battle with the Tokyo military

But, in ‘Akira’, the Japanese element is so essential to the story and characters that it’s nearly impossible to change these without drastically changing the themes and purpose of the film. Sure… some might say that America has similar themes in recent history with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but the destruction that day, as terrible as it was, can’t equate to the atomic bombs being dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the death toll eventually neared a quarter-million people.

On top of that, I would ask the question: Why not just change the entire thing to a new setting, title and all, and say that it was “inspired by ‘Akira’”. Even that I wouldn’t mind since one of my favorite films ‘Road to Perdition’ is loosely based on the Japanese manga ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’.

The race/setting changes have sparked an argument that is going to plague the live-action ‘Akira’ into financial failure unless Hollywood takes note now and come to their senses. Otherwise, as much as I love the original anime, I will not see the live version… ever.

What do you think? Can a Japan-centric film like ‘Akira’ be adapted for American audiences without completely losing its focus and meaning? Or will it become a mindless action film as too many of these adaptations do?

  • Solar

    In full agreement.
    I recently went to a showing of the 1988 film at a local indie theatre. It was packed. I can’t imagine more than a handful of those going to see this…. whatever it is Hollywood is making here.

    This is simply going to flop. I actually mentioned being willing to see an “inspired by” version in a conversation I had that night about this remake vs calling it Akira and changing every part that made it a classic that packed a theatre on a Tuesday night.

  • vapefiend

    I agree also,  I never saw the live action DBZ movie, and never will.

     This movie in live action, set in New York, would be a complete slap in the face to the original.  I really can’t believe they would attempt it.    

  • Anonymous

    The people never saw Final Fantasy:The Spirits Within. I enjoyed the movie. I HATED that it was associated with Final Fantasy because NOTHING of it was FF about it besides Cid. It also took place in NYC and OUR reality. WTF was the point of that? The movie flopped, much the same I expect this movie to.

    I think Hollywood still thinks America will not watch a big budget all asian cast. That for some reason, we need to relate to the people on screen and we do that through race?

    One of my most anticpated movies this year is The Raid. A movie from Indonesia (I think). Looks amazing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=608284895 John Fitzmaurice

      The problem stems from producers thinking the American audience is too dumb to understand another place in the world that isn’t NYC, or American. (spoiler alert: we can)  They always think that we have to ..ah @^%$ it .  It will sucks, especially if Kristen Stuart is in it.  I’m out.

  • Tee

    Maybe the Japanese can make a film called 9/12: the day after tomorrow about an aerial attack on the tokyo sky tower and we’ll see if any Americans have a problem with it

  • Neotoasty

    Ohhh what a shit storm this will end up being. Like bastardizing Dragon Ball wasn’t enough.

  • future kei

    I am a Nissei (so technically Japanese America) and I grew up watching Akira thanks to my dad (being young I was horrified and enchanted at the same time lol) and have never been more passionate about a movie being made… I can’t stand the fact that they are going to cast Americans for THIS movie!!  I agree w the writer..Hollywood can do their own movie and say it’s based on Akira but don’t make Akira and change every setting, character, etc and expect it to be a good movie.  If they do keep going w it..it will be a total bust and will make Hollywood look more like a douche just to make pocket change.  Cast REAL Japanese actors/peoples..keep the original story or DON’T DO IT AT ALL!!!  Thanks xo

    PS.  If any production ppl are reading this..I will glady take Kristen Stewarts part of Kei!! :)

  • SuzukiJ

    It would be like trying to do a remake of Seven Samurai or Tokyo Story without changing the story completely while using non-Asian actors.  The race itself isn’t so important to the integrity of the film as is the nuances and unique “Japaneseness” that are required to make films such as these work properly and have the desired effect.  Wouldn’t it be just a bit ridiculous if you cast an ensemble cast of Japanese actors to do a remake of the film 1776?  I’m sorry, but most Americans would laugh at Watanabe Ken playing Ben Franklin and Kaneshiro Takeshi playing Thomas Jefferson. 

    Likewise, unless some key components and nuances of the original story and indeed the original animated film are retained (through the unique Japaneseness of the cast) then the story itself becomes profoundly lesser in impact and meaning. 

    In this case it becomes another pulp summer action-thriller with fast vehicles and loud bangs.  Let’s just get Michael Bay in on it to completely ruin it by putting it over the top in those areas…

    But that’s just my two cents! 

    ~J.

  • VinDC

    I was really upset when I heard about this.  WHAT?!  The potential to see a slew of hot Asian men taken away from me?!!???  THEY FINE!  (Daniel Henney…)  I don’t want them to whitewash Akira.  There are a lot of remakes of foreign films like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Ring/Ringu.  There were aspects of each that I liked–ours and theirs.  I usually end up liking the foreign films better anyway.  Hollywood does this.  When Bruce Lee came up with Kung Fu, Hollywood thought the US wasn’t ready to see (gasp) an Asian (HOTTIE) male as a lead.

    SuzukiJ has a funny idea.  That would be hilarious putting in non-white actors in 1776.  I might actually enjoy that musical if they did do that!  I vote for Russell Wong as John Adams.  SWOON!!!!!!  (An IKEA commercial…????  REALLLY???  Not that I wouldn’t mind him handing me a tulip rose…  Is that all that we have out there for this talented actor????)

  • Brad H.

    I think a compromise could be made in terms of ethnicity but not setting. It could be used to expand the underpinnings of the story rather than make it a carbon copy of the manga. 

    Still base it in Neo-Tokyo, but have it that the rebuilding of Japan required a lot of Allied help and bring in issues of racial identity, global political interventionism (US/UN) and indigenous resistance towards a government seemingly controlled by outside forces and whom can’t tackle the increasing hedonism and corruption.

    Very key characters should be Japanese or Sinosphere actors playing Japanese people. Maybe inclusion of half-asians could be beneficial, as Tetsuo’s personality could be shaped by those shunning his mixed-blood and feels sort of in-place with The Capsules.

    The rest could be a diverse mix of anything. The Clowns could be a bunch of south-east asians that don’t fit in Neo-Tokyo society. The Japanese military complex could be shown as being controlled by Americans and Colonel Shikishima could be played out as forced to pretend to bow to their interests but holds honour in protecting The Espers and Japan first. 

  • metaxeno

    I think the author of this article misrepresents his knowledge and understanding of the manga “Akria.” The manga story is similar too Shakespeare in that it can be told in any language, in any place with any race in almost anytime.