Like it or not, Hollywood’s “Akira” is finally happening.
The live-action adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s legendary manga and anime had been in development limbo since the rights were picked up by Warner Bros. in 2002. Now, after years of speculation, it’s been given the release date of May 21, 2021.
“Akira,” which began life in the pages of Weekly Young Magazine in 1982, takes place in the then-far-flung year of 2019 in a Tokyo reconstructed after a mysterious explosion that destroyed the city and sparked World War III. That Tokyo is populated by corrupt government officials, cultish doomsayers, biker gangs and psychic kids, all of whom get thrown together by a mysterious child named Akira.
While Otomo was writing the manga, he also directed the animated film version, which is still considered one of the most well-animated (if not most comprehensible) anime movies of all time. Released in the U.S. and U.K. shortly after its Japanese run, it was one of the first films to kick off the West’s fascination with Japanese animation and inspired filmmakers, musicians, fashion designers and more.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why Warner Bros. decided to snap up the remake rights to “Akira,” especially following the success of dystopian cyberpunk films like “The Matrix” (1999) and J-horror remakes like “The Ring” (2002). Still, just because one can, doesn’t mean one should. The details released about the project in the intervening years — that the setting would be changed from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan, and that leads Kaneda and Tetsuo were to become brothers — did not inspire confidence among fans of the original.
Meanwhile, the project bounced from director to director, from Stephen Norrington (“Blade”) to Albert and Allen Hughes (“The Book of Eli”) to Justin Lin (“Star Trek Beyond”), just to name a few. Along the way, filmgoers became more aware of issues surrounding cultural appropriation and “whitewashing,” the practice of casting white actors in nonwhite roles. The conversation around whitewashing came to a head with “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), another Hollywood version of a beloved anime property. That film starred Scarlett Johansson in the role of (caveats about cyborgs and science fiction aside) an Asian woman, and was roundly criticized, leading to decidedly unspectacular box office sales.
But on that front, there is hope. The Hollywood take on “Akira” will be directed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who said in 2017 that he wanted the cast to be made up of “Asian teenagers” with “unfound, untapped talent.” A recent Variety piece notes the film will be set in “2060 Tokyo,” meaning the project has found its way home from Neo-Manhattan (though it will be shot entirely in California). And it’s been noted that while Waititi is best known for “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), his earlier films “Boy” (2010) and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) deal with themes of childhood trauma and neglect, a big part of the motivations of the film’s biker punks Kaneda and Tetsuo.
Why make a live-action version of “Akira” at all? The cynical answer is to try to recoup almost 20 years of costs and get some tax credits. But at least they’ve finally found a passionate director to take the helm.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” is currently streaming on Netflix.