Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Americanizing "Akira"

You've probably heard by now that a new draft of the script for the American remake of "Akira" is circulating in Hollywood, and there's a shortlist of Caucasian actors up for the two leads, Kaneda and Tetsuo, who were originally Japanese teenagers, but are now almost certain to be transmogrified into twenty-something and thirty-something white guys. I wrote up my thoughts on the casting issues over a month ago, when James Franco was rumored to be up for one of the roles. And since I spent most of yesterday examining the Katniss casting controversy, I'm just about fed up with anyone working as a casting director in Hollywood right now.

So let's switch gears. If you have to Americanize "Akira" - an idea I'm not crazy about, but if you have to - what would be the best way to do it? How do you balance what the studio wants, which is a big, easy-to-sell, effects-driven action movie, with what the fans want, which is something more faithful to the original Katushiro Otomo manga and/or 1988 anime adaptation? First, it needs to be said that what Warner Brothers is really interested in exploiting here is not the complex, groundbreaking story of "Akira," but simply its recognizable title and notoriety. And so few people are really familiar with either version of the story, especially the younger audiences this film will probably be aimed at, it makes little difference to them if the American adaptation has anything to do with the original beyond a few superficial similarities.

In order to minimize the damage then, Warners should avoid attempting to court the original fans, and make no claims to faithfulness to Otomo's work. Frankly, experience has shown that they're not capable of delivering a faithful adaptation, and they would only invite backlash by making any half-hearted attempts to do so. "Akira" is a story of an anarchic motorcycle gang causing mayhem in a dystopian Neo-Tokyo, and Warners is clearly unwilling to feature either Asian actors or a Japanese setting. I highly doubt that they would be willing to depict the full extremes of the violence and gore that were present in the originals either, though the content is one of the reasons why "Akira" is so fondly remembered by my generation of anime fans - it was one of the few available animated films of the time that was unapologetically R-rated.

One alternative, that is probably the most likely approach, is to entirely transplant the story into an American context the way that "The Departed" adapted "Infernal Affairs," or conversely, the way "Throne of Blood" adapted "Macbeth." Simply take the concepts and ideas behind "Akira" and reinterpret them with American settings and characters. Early reviews of the script reveal that the action has already been moved from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. The only thing that would need to remain Japanese would be the title, for the sake of brand recognition. I'm honestly puzzled why the current Steve Kloves version of the script apparently keeps the original names of the protagonists, Kaneda and Tetsuo, which are obviously Japanese. If Warners seriously wants anyone on the announced shortlist to be involved without controversy, they're better off creating entirely original, Western characters.

Another possibility would be to create an original story set in the same universe as "Akira." That way, the filmmakers could use or reference some of the familiar events and characters while not being beholden to them. Instead of trying to reimagine Kaneda as a New Yorker twice his original age, simply tell a story of an entirely different biker gang from Neo-Manhattan, and maybe let Kaneda cameo as a survivor of the original film. That would preserve the fact that he's a Japanese icon, and avoid stepping on too many toes. They could even reuse the mysterious Akira as a macguffin in the story, and thus provide a reason for why the film is titled "Akira."

As I have said before, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an Americanized "Akira" adaptation, but there are a whole lot of ways it can all go wrong, and I think Warner Brothers has already taken some serious missteps here. Fortunately, they're still early in the process, the script can be rewritten, and that shortlist of actors isn't set in stone. There's time to do some damage control and address these problems. Still, I'm continuously amazed at how shortsighted and tone-deaf the filmmakers have been. Are they completely cut off from the current culture? Do they think that the teenagers who have grown up with anime for the last fifteen years aren't going to notice the whitewashed Japanese characters?

I can't help feeling that we're in for another cinema trainwreck. Oh well. Maybe they'll only learn through failure.

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