The Live-Action Akira Movie: A Tale Of Failure, Whitewashing, Development Hell And Hope

By Rick Gonzales | 1 month ago

live-action akira movie

For years now, Warner Brothers has held the rights to Akira, the extremely popular Japanese manga that first came to life in 1982 as a serialized story published in Japan’s Young Magazine. And for years now, Warner Brothers has been saying a live-action Akira movie is on its way. We’re still waiting.

After finding its life in 1982, writer/illustrator Katsuhiro Otomo then saw his creation turned into and released as six tankobon volumes by publisher Kodansha. Akira made its way to the United States in 1992 when Marvel Comics published it under Epic Comics. At the time, Akira was one of the very first manga to be fully translated into English. Its importance in the manga form is shown by the popularity surge it gained outside of Japan, primarily in the U.S. In fact, Akira is well thought of as the genesis of anime and manga in the United States.

So, with all this growing fandom, which included a 1988 anime feature film, what went wrong with the live-action Akira movie?

DEVELOPMENT HELL IN LIVE-ACTION

Akira movie

With the popularity Akira enjoyed when Warner Brothers purchased it, development hell is the last place anyone thought the manga would find itself. But since the property was purchased back in 2002, there has been no less than five different directors attached and along with those, ten different writers.

First up was director Stephen Norrington (Blade, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). With him he had James Robinson (Comic Book Villains, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to write the Akira movie script. It is said that the failure of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the reason those two were removed from Akira.

Next came Ruairi Robinson (The Last Days on Mars) as the director and Gary Whitta penned the Akira movie script. When these two took over, they were told that Otomo gave his blessing for a change. Whitta spoke to Slashfilm saying, “The one thing that had been communicated to us from Katsuhiro Otomo [we never spoke with him directly] was basically to not be afraid to change things, that he wanted to see an original and different interpretation, not just a straight-up remake.”

Obviously, Robinson and Whitta’s idea on how to approach a live-action Akira didn’t pan out. But we were left with incredible concept art showing what might have been. Check it out below…


The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, From Hell) were next in line. They were going to use Whitta’s Akira movie script with additional rewrites from Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby. Somehow leaks of this script got out and it got panned horribly by making too many significant changes from what fans loved so much about Akira.

The Hughes Brothers attempt to make the movie also left behind concept art which gives us a look at what their Akira movie might have been…


Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, The Commuter) was next to sit in the directors’ chair. Albert Torres wrote the screenplay with Steve Kloves providing some revisions. But Warner Brothers said there were issues with casting, budget and the script, so they halted production on Akira.

Collet-Serra eventually left the Akira movie project only to return with a different outlook on the film, one that more closely aligned with the original story. It was almost three years from when Collet-Serra returned to the project to when he finally said no movement was made on the project, so once again he left. Warner Brothers then offered the movie to George Miller (Mad Max series), Justin Lin (Fast and Furious franchise) and Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) but all three declined.

Yes folks, in case you were wondering, this is what Development Hell looks like.

WHITEWASHING THE AKIRA MOVIE

Kaneda in the movie

Not only was the live-action Akira movie running into director and script issues, casting issue were also becoming a concern. Akira originates in Japan and follows a story about Japanese characters, that is, until Hollywood got hold of it.

We are all aware that Hollywood is about one thing and one thing only: Making money. For them to do that, they have to get butts into the seats. And for them to get butts into the seats, they need to put a product out there that will not only attract A-list actors to star in them, but the A-list actors who fill cinemas.

Consider this: Akira is a story with character names such as the title character, Kaneda, Kei, and Tetsuo. But throughout the history of trying to get a live-action Akira movie made, the roles of these roles went out to actors such as Andrew Garfield, Michael Fassbender and Robert Pattinson for Tetsuo.

Chris Pine

Chris Pine, Fassbender, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake and Joaquin Phoenix were considered for the role of Kaneda. Keanu Reeves was also asked. Helena Bonham Carter and Gary Oldman were considered with Oldman actually being offered a part, which he eventually turned down.

When Oldman turned down the part, Warner FINALLY offered the part to Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins), a very good Japanese actor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Evans, James McAvoy, Paul Dano, Michael Pitt, and Keira Knightly were also among the actors approached for roles in the Akira movie.

Yes folks, in case you were wondering, this is what whitewashing looks like.

So what is Hollywood to do when ungodly amounts of money stands to be made or lost on their Akira movie? The main complaint by true fans of the manga is the lack of respect for the source material. Would butts be in the seats if Warner Brothers hired actors in regard to the source material? Time will only tell because as of the writing of this article, not one actor has been hired for the live-action Akira movie.

WHY IS AKIRA SO DIFFICULT TO ADAPT INTO A MOVIE?

Akira source material

Maybe a better question would be: why is Akira so difficult to adapt for American audiences? The answer may surprise you as it is not actor related. It is story and setting related.

Akira tells the story that is heavily related to Japan’s major role in World War II. The history of the manga is steeped in certain aspects of a war that specifically revolved around the atomic bombings of Japan and Japan’s own Unit 731. This was an Imperial Japanese Army run covert unit that specialized in biological and chemical warfare research and development. Taking a story that is so woven into Japan’s history has been a tough nut to crack.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying. In the attempt to westernize Akira and bring in an American audiences for the live-action Akira movie, screenwriters took the story from a World War II standpoint and brought in elements of the September 11 terrorist attacks. This did not sit well with those closely attached to original material, causing more delays.

WHAT’S THE STORY OF AKIRA?

Akira movie poster

The original story is set in post-apocalyptic Japan called Neo-Tokyo, some 20 years after a mysterious explosion destroyed the city. Akira centers around the leader of a biker gang, Kaneda, as he teams up with Espers, a military leader Colonel Shikishima and Kei, a militant revolutionary. Together they try to stop Kaneda’s childhood friend, Tetsuo, who is mentally imbalanced and has powerful, yet unstable, telekinetic powers. Tetsuo is bent on ravaging the city and waking up a mysterious person who has similar abilities and who is also responsible for the explosion that destroyed Tokyo.

The Akira story is vast as it comprises those six volumes. Otomo touched on many issues that surrounded Japan. He spoke of corruption to the government level, societal pressures, youth alienation, old-fashioned Japanese military honor and the displeasure of compromise to modern society. It is deep at times, one of the many pleasures of Otomo’s Akira.

HOLLYWOOD’S CURRENT PLAN FOR THE AKIRA MOVIE STORY

Currently the last we heard is that Hollywood was working on a new version of Akira movie. That new version, while holding on to similarities with the original manga, is bringing the story of Akira to the city of Manhattan, New York, at least according to the latest synopsis.

The rest of the live-action Akira movie story sounds familiar to the original. Manhattan was destroyed by an explosion 30 years prior and Kaneda and crew are in a race to stop Tetsuo from linking up with Akira, who was responsible for the Manhattan explosion.

There are a few other minor changes on top of the Manhattan one. In the original, Kaneda and Tetsuo are childhood friends. In this Akira movie version, they are brothers. In the original, Kaneda is the leader of a bike gang. In this one he is a bartender.

It won’t come as a surprise that there has been much fan backlash not only to the many, many delays in the live-action Akira movie’s production (sorry folks, get ready for more) but also the storyline changes.

Otomo spoke to Forbes about the changes and why he is okay with them. “When it comes to Akira, I have already finished the original manga and my own anima version, too. So, in that sense, I am basically done with Akira. If someone wants to do something new with Akira then I am mostly okay with that. As I accepted the offer for a live-action Akira to be made, so I am generally okay with whatever they want to do with it. However, I did give one major condition to a live-action version and that is that I had to check and approve the scenario.” If only fans could be so understanding.

CURRENTLY IN CHARGE OF THE LIVE-ACTION AKIRA MOVIE

One of the biggest news items to come from the live-action Akira movie production is the revolving director’s chair. Thankfully, it seems to have finally settled, we think. Recent Academy Award winner Taika Waititi has signed on as director.

He addressed his thoughts with GQ on the whitewashing scenario. “Asian teenagers would be the way to do it for me and probably no, not, like no name, I mean sort of unfound, untapped talent. Yeah, I’d probably want to take it a bit back more towards the books.”

Waititi also spoke about fans concerns that he won’t be following the source material. “What I wanted to do was an adaptation of the books, ‘cos a lot of people are like, ‘Don’t touch that film! And I’m like, ‘I’m not remaking the film, I want to go back to the book.’ A lot of the people freaking out haven’t even read the books, and there are six gigantic books to go through. It’s so rich.”

All is well, right? We’ve got a director who is gung-ho. We also have Leonardo DiCaprio and Katsuhiro Otomo producing the live-action Akira movie. They even gave a May 21, 2021 release date. Not so fast, mate. Seems with all the delays and Waititi’s past and present directing schedule (Thor: Love and Thunder), Warner Brothers has now removed the Akira movie from the May 21, 2021 date. It has not yet offered a new date which has left Waititi’s status up in the air.

Developmental Hell strikes again.

AKIRA FANS TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS

Eventually Akira fans got tired of waiting and simply decided to make the live-action Akira themselves. The result was this incredible fan film. Watch it and dare Hollywood to do better…

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