It was announced on Monday that writer Marco J. Ramirez, of Sons of Anarchy and soon to be showrunner of Season Two of Netflix’s Daredevil, would be taking over script-writing duties for Warner Bros’ long-gestating live-action adaptation of the groundbreaking 1988 anime film, Akira. This is, of course, not the first time a popular anime has been in talks for a live-action treatment. You may recall Scarlett Johansson has signed on to play the lead in the live-action Ghost in the Shell, the OTHER landmark cyberpunk anime film that everybody loves. And, the less said about the on-again/off-again Cowboy Bebop project the better.
But, neither of those projects are Akira, a movie that opens with a mushroom cloud and ends with a person exploding into a massive, writhing pile of flesh and psionic energy. It was a punch to the gut of what the Western world thought anime could be; it was grungy and grimy and full of huge ideas, startling visuals, and a decidedly nihilistic worldview borne out of 40+ years of post-Hiroshima anger. Can any American creative team really do that kind of profoundly Japanese story any kind of justice without seeming like it’s just aping those feelings?
Well, it can, and Ramirez is a good enough writer to give it a good fighting chance, provided he follow a few basics.
This is a tough one, for sure, because the anime was known for showing a gorgeously over-populated cityscape in the form of Neo-Tokyo, and of the many strange and disturbing things that happen as a result of nuclear fallout. This took what Ridley Scott had done with Blade Runner and made it much more bustling and outwardly dangerous. We live in an age, though, where cityscapes will take care of themselves. Even movies that do nothing else right in the sci-fi realm can make a cool looking city. There’s nothing about Neo-Tokyo (or wherever the city ends up being) that artists can’t already to perfectly.
Ultimately, this film is about the ever-fraught bond between two disaffected youths. Kaneda and Tetsuo grew up as orphans and Kaneda always looked out for Tetsuo. When they became a motorcycle gang, Kaneda became the leader and Tetsuo lived in his shadow, always wanting more power and respect, from Kaneda specifically. When it’s learned that Tetsuo possesses the same kind of psychic powers as Akira, the cause of the city’s destruction many years earlier, he begins to realize he DOES have more power than Kaneda, but still doesn’t have his respect. Their struggle is a fraternal one, and full of teenage emotions. Everything is heightened when you’re a teenager, especially if the circumstances are themselves heightened. Their relationship and tug of war needs to feel Shakespearean and immature all at once. While there probably won’t be room for the screaming of each other’s names (KANEEEEDAAAAA!!! TETSUUUUOOOOOOO!!!), there’s a lot of greatness to be mined from the two of them.
This is one of the hardest things to get right, and that’s why it’s so important. The story of Akira makes poignant global commentary about what we, through technology and destruction, have done to ourselves, and specifically our children. But the movie cannot feel like a po-faced thinkpiece. It’s a cyberPUNK story, and so there needs to be a definite “F the Man!” mentality throughout. This gets tied back to the main characters, but it needs to be everybody. The whole city of Neo-Tokyo is fed up with the way things are going, and the military control of everything has bred some real discontent. So it’s an angry society, but at the same time there’s a lot of humor in Katsuhiro Otomo’s original film, because Kaneda is funny character. And nihilism can be funny; if nobody cares about anything, they just sort of laugh it off. Akira is like A Clockwork Orange‘s sensibility wrapped in a Blade Runner coating. That almost makes it scarier than if it were played 100-percent straight.
The movie is the movie, and will be pretty much untouchable. Instead of doing a direct adaptation of that film, Ramirez should pull from Otomo’s abundant manga series. There are six huge volumes of manga that exist, the final two of which hadn’t even been written when he made the film. This would provide a completely different point of view or context for everything rather than just a staid remake of the anime in live-action. Obviously, some of the iconic visuals and moments will need to be there, but there’s no reason to slavishly adhere to the two-hours of filmed media when there are hundreds and hundreds more pages of content and storylines and characters to adapt. It would really help set this film apart from simply being a non-cartoon version of the exact same story.
These are by no means hard things to attempt, but they can make a world of difference. Fans of Akira are heavily devoted to it and it’d be a shame not do it justice. While a certain amount of Americanization is inevitable, there are ways to do it without losing what made the Japanese icon what it is. A little bit of care is all that’s needed to make sure Neo-Tokyo explodes in the absolute right way.
For more in depth commentary, be sure to check out Dan Casey’s musings on whether anime adaptations can work in America.
Do you think an Akira movie could work? What would you do to make it so? Hit me up in the comments below or on Twitter.
Featured image via DeviantArt // diablo2003