If the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell proves anything, it's that it's not entirely impossible to make an Americanized version of a Japanese anime. For, although the Scarlett Johansson vehicle has engendered some controversy online with its casting choices, it has to at least be commended for actually getting to the point where they're pointing a camera at something. This certainly isn't the case for that other famous "upcoming" American anime remake: Akira.
The 1988 dystopian animation about biker gangs and unethical government psycho-experiments is commonly held as introducing anime and manga to a broader Western audience, and quite rightly, it is perhaps the most famous anime outside of Japan. Unfortunately, despite this impressive accolade, its live-action remake has been mired in development hell since 2002 and has never moved beyond the pre-production phase. However, could the potential success of Ghost in the Shell defibrillate Akira back to life? Well, maybe.
Remaking Akira: 14 Years Of Frustration
Warner Brothers originally acquired the North American rights to Akira back in 2002, but since then it's been passed around Hollywood more often than a joint at Snoop's place, with a staggering amount of directors, screenwriters and actors being attached at some point. Here are just some names who at one time or another were attached, or rumored to be, with the project:
Directors and producers: Stephen Norrington, Jon Peters, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Whitta, Albert Hughes, Ruairi Robinson, Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Gary Whitta, Dante Harper, Marco J. Ramirez, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Actors/Actresses: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zac Efron, James Franco, Chris Pine, Keanu Reeves, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Justin Timberlake, Joaquin Phoenix, Andrew Garfield, Robert Pattinson, Michael Pitt, Paul Dano, Garrett Hedlund, Ken Watanabe, Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham-Carter.
However, despite all these big names being involved at some point, we're still nowhere near seeing anything resembling a release date. In fact, officially Akira still doesn't even really exist. It has no wikipedia page and even its IMDb page makes for a forlorn visit. It is entirely bereft of information save for a handful of posts from fans and an almost mockingly vague disclaimer stating the reasons for this is because it is "in development."
It seems the Akira remake came closest to realization under the tutelage of Orphan and House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra, who in July 2014 hired the initial Edge of Tomorrow writer, Dante Harper, to rewrite the script. Collet-Serra even began tentatively casting the film, approaching Ken Watanabe and Garrett Hedlund to star, and went so far as to suggest Akira could be a trilogy. This all came to an end in March 2015 with Collet-Serra announcing he was no longer involved.
Currently, it seems Akira is still (presumably) with Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way and the last we heard, albeit over a year ago, is that Sons of Anarchy and Daredevil writer Marco J. Ramirez has been brought in to completely rewrite the script. However, there appears to be no director involved, with George Miller revealing in October last year that he turned down the offer to take on the project.
Why Is The Akira Remake Struggling?
One the main reasons for the continued delays and restarts seems to be budgeting. From the start it seems that Warner Bros. was reticent to spend more than the bare minimum on Akira. Back in the early days, Albert Hughes asked Warner for $180 million to direct his vision of a live-action Akira. Collet-Serra managed to get that figure down to $90 million, although reportedly Warner preferred a price tag of $65 million. Clearly, they felt the Akira property might still be too niche to become a mainstream blockbuster. In fact, it seems Akira might have been pushed to the wayside to make room for Warner's development of their DC slate.
It's not entirely clear when in the 14 year history of the Akira remake these budget discussions occurred, but one thing is now clear, in 2016 $65 million is a tiny, essentially impossible, budget for a science fiction actioner. To do it correctly, an Akira remake is going to have to involve large set pieces, expensive sets and props and a huge post-production effort. All this would require a budget that might even rival that of AAA Marvel movies.
There also seemed to be continual issues with the scripts, hence the high turnover in screenwriters. Gary Whitta is the only screenwriter to have opened up about the experience, and suggests Warner's strict adherence to a below R-rating made adapting the originally graphic Akira a challenge. In a 2013 interview, he stated:
"I worked on it for about six months. And I pretty much lived on the lot with the director at the time, Ruairi Robinson, trying to work out that movie. It's a tough movie; it's hard to figure out how to do it below an R-rating. It's a difficult movie, which deals with very mature subject matter; it's hardcore."
He did, however, reveal his version of the script had an interesting way of relocating the action to the United States:
"We came up with an idea that I actually thought was really cool; I don’t know if it survived into future versions. It’s not New Manhattan—because that was the [initial] idea, right? They moved it in to New Manhattan. I said, ‘it’s not New Manhattan, it’s still New Tokyo but—this is going to sound weird—it’s actually in Manhattan.’ What we did was, the idea is that there’d been a massive economic crash in the United States and in our desperation, we sold Manhattan Island to the Japanese, who were becoming a very powerful economic force, and they were having an overpopulation problem, because Japan is a series of islands, it can only accommodate so many people. So they just bought Manhattan Island, and it became the fifth island of Japan, and they populated it. It became New Tokyo, and it was just off the coast of the United States. So it was Japanese territory, it wasn’t New Tokyo, but there were Americans who kind of lived in little Americanized quarters of it. I felt it was a way to do a kind of cool Western-Eastern fusion of the two ideas; not fully Japanese, not fully westernized. Whether or not you’ll ever see that version, I don’t know."
Given the constant change in directors, writers and producers, it's not clear how much of this story remains.
Can Ghost In The Shell Help Akira?
So, how does Ghost in the Shell play into all this? Well, the success of an American remake of a Japanese anime could persuade Warner Bros. to finally dust off their Akira scripts and get moving.
Studios will naturally want to replicate the success of other studios and this is partly why we're seeing a glut of "cinematic universes" in the wake of Marvel's meteoric rise. So it stands to reason that if Warner Brothers see there is money to be made in American remakes of Japanese anime, they will also want to move into that sector. Indeed, Akira is the trump card in this genre, and if Ghost in the Shell proves to be a big success, Warner might stop seeing it as a liability and start looking at it as a gold mine.
This would, of course, require Warner to cough up a little more dough though. Budgeting information for Ghost in the Shell — which is being produced by DreamWorks and co-financed by Paramount — is not currently available, although the fact they spent a reported $10 million on Johansson alone probably suggests its budget is not a small one — and certainly not in the realm of $65 million.
However, there is another side to all this. If Ghost in the Shell turns out to be a flop, the chances of seeing an Akira remake will be completely scuppered. In fact, if Ghost in the Shell is only a very modest success, it still might not be enough to persuade Warner Akira is a risk worth running.
At the moment, it is hard to see Ghost in the Shell as a sure-fire hit. The project took early flak from its controversial casting of Johansson over a Japanese actress, and although it is one of the better known animes, it is still a genre the broader audience is unfamiliar with.
In any case, those of you out there who do (or do not) want to see an Akira remake should probably watch the 2017 release of Ghost in the Shell closely.