Americanizing Akira's Live-Action Adaptation is a Big Mistake
Christos Tsirbas
There are two beloved science-fiction films set in 2019. The first is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The 1982 masterpiece is set on an ecologically devastated Earth that has mostly been abandoned as humanity reaches for the stars, colonizing space through the use of genetically engineered slaves called replicants. The other is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. Adapted from his own 2,000 page manga—which was halfway done at the time—the1988 animated feature was set in a future dominated by militarized police, working class anarchists rioting against crony capitalism, and the constant threat of terrorist violence.
The dystopian cyberpunk futures of these two films proved far more prescient than the nuclear-powered, flying car fantasies of science-fiction’s golden age. Their influence is enduring. In a few weeks, we’ll be treated to Blade Runner 2049, a direct sequel to the 1982 original, directed by Arrival helmer Denis Villeneuve, produced by Scott, and co-written by Hampton Fancher, who also scripted the original. And if we’re to believe the rumors, Thor Rangarok director Taika Waititi is in talks with Warner Bros. to direct a two film live-action version of Akira that will encompass all six volumes of the original manga, unlike the anime, which only covered the first three.
Deadline Magazine broke the news about Waititi, who is the latest in a long list of names that have been attached to the project, including -- most recently -- Get Out’s Jordan Peele, and Star Trek Beyond’s Justin Lin. But excitement over the news that Akira may have finally left development hell was quickly replaced by disappointment and anger about whitewashing: The film is described by Warner as taking place in “the rebuilt New Manhattan where the leader of a biker gang saves his friend from a medical experiment.”
There are sound economic reasons for adapting established properties like Akira, and revisiting the worlds of beloved films like Blade Runner. These projects have built-in audiences, and if done correctly, fans of the originals will flock to the sequels and the remakes. Get them wrong, or overestimate the extent of their appeal, then you’re in for a world of trouble, and a guaranteed flop.
Is Warner Bros. still looking to Americanize Akira? If the recent box-office failure of the live-action Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson as Major, is any indication, American fans aren’t willing to embrace whitewashed versions of beloved Japanese properties.
Filmgoers are also increasingly mindful of the whitewashing of Asian roles in film. Ed Skrein—the British actor who was cast as the Japanese-American marine Ben Daimo in Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot—stepped down upon learning of the character’s ethnicity (thanks to online outrage) and was replaced by Daniel Dae Kim.
The recent Americanized version of Death Note -- about a high school student who discovers that he can kill people by scribbling their names in a mystical notebook -- tanked. Stripped of its Japanese setting and aesthetic, it became a cookie-cutter exercise in the teenage horror genre. Both fans of the original and newcomers were equally unimpressed.