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.
‘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.
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?