ByKatie Granger, writer at
MP Staff Writer, come to bargain.
Katie Granger

Development hell, what a place to be, eh? Case and point, it's been 13 and a half long years since Warner Bros. acquired the rights to produce a live action version of the cult manga Akira, which has already spawned one of the most most critically acclaimed animated films ever with Katsuhiro Otomo's famed 1988 adaptation.

A grim, dystopian view of a post-apocalyptic 2019 era Tokyo (called Neo-Tokyo), Akira charts the tensions between the psychic biker gang (Bōsōzoku) member Tetsuo Shima and his friend, gang leader Shotaro Kaneda, who is set on releasing the dangerous psychic Akira from prison. There are turf wars, violent murder, nudity, gore and plenty of good old fashioned blood and guts, another point that Akira has become famous (or infamous) for.

So back in 2002 Warner Bros. got the rights to make a live action version of Akira, and the news was met with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance from the fan base. Since then the project has languished in pre-production, with several scripts being written and rejected and many different writers, directors, producers, actors and actresses being attached in one way or another, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Zack Efron, James Franco, Gary Oldman and Garrett Hedlund (all white dudes, as you may notice. We'll get to that).

At the moment, Akira still stalls in development hell, though we recently received news that Daredevil showrunner Marco Ramirez was on board to write the script. The Dark Knight trilogy director, Christopher Nolan, is now involved in some capacity too, and thinks the adaptation would work best as a trilogy (and he's probably right on that count given the scope of the original).

It's always tricky to try and readapt a cult film, especially an animated cult film and especially when it's a Hollywood remake of an Eastern animated cult film. You only have to look at the backlash against the whitewashing of the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live action remake, starring the very not-Japanese Scarlett Johansson as the iconic, part-cyborg and fully Japanese, law enforcement officer Major Motoko Kusanagi.

Ghost in the Shell: Motoko Kusanagi
Ghost in the Shell: Motoko Kusanagi

The problem is two fold; remaking something which has such a strong cult backing will always be met with ire from fans of the original, and remaking an Americanized version of something that did not originate from the country has a tendency to smack of cultural appropriation.

Even Star Trek actor and LGBT / political activist George Takei put his two cents in when production started creaking forward again back in 2011, addressing the issue of the lack of actors/actress of Asian heritage being courted for the roles in Akira.

"It’s an old Hollywood tradition that we’ve always been battling, not just Hollywood but Broadway too... So, no, I really wasn’t surprised, but the audience has changed now, and I’m surprised Warner Bros. is not keeping up with the audience.
The same thing happened with M. Night Shyamalan. He cast his project [The Last Airbender] with non-Asians and it’s an Asian story, and the film flopped. I should think that they would learn from that."

As with Akira, I love Ghost in the Shell. I'm a fan of Scarlett Johansson. I probably will see the movie at some point, but I highly doubt it's going to work as live action. Not purely because of the whitewashing overtones, but rather because adapting an anime/manga series into a Hollywood live action film is a very difficult transition to pull off.

Imagine this in live action...
Imagine this in live action...

Over the past decade or so we've seen the Marvel and DC comic book universes achieve massive success with their Hollywood counterparts, which may suggest that screenwriters and directors have cracked the page to screen formula. But the American comic book and the Japanese manga, whilst both comic forms at their core, are very different. They come from different backgrounds, they're steeped in different cultures and contain different themes, both stylistic and ideological.

Both Ghost in the Shell and Akira contain elements that are born of their source media – image and animation. Heads explode, bullets tear holes the size of fists, augmented cyborgs have their limbs torn off, psychic powers explode the surroundings and people mutate into writhing biological masses.

These are all the philosophical horror and sci-fi markers of anime and manga, not live action, not even the American comic. Ideological arguments of adaptation aside, translating these particular elements from stage to screen is very difficult to pull off properly; something that Warner Bros.' 13-years in development Akira and DreamWorks' 7-years in development Ghost in the Shell stand as testament to. Perhaps it's not so much a case of they shouldn't adapt these media, but rather that they can't produce a true adaptation?

Of course the opposing argument stands too; Warner Bros. has the rights to the name now. They can do whatever they want with it and no one can change that, it's the nature of the beast. And there is nothing inherently wrong with building on what came before to create a new story for a new generational audience.

Neo-Tokyo as it appears in Akira (animated movie)
Neo-Tokyo as it appears in Akira (animated movie)

But it is a fine line to walk, especially given that the success of the original will be determined somewhat by the existing fanbase, a fanbase that is currently not particularly happy with what they've heard of the adaptations. Another problem is that anime/manga storylines tend to be pretty niche, and if you alienate the fans who already exist, you're not leaving yourself with very much space for commercial gain, never mind critical.

So, though Ghost in the Shell moves steadily onwards, with a March 31, 2017 release date set, perhaps it's not such a bad thing if Akira stays where it is: back in the 1980s, firmly cemented in the minds of those who have experienced and been affected by it and be secure in the legacy the original adaptation leaves in the annuals of animation history.


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