Though talk of a Hollywood-made version of Akira has been around for years, it's been all the buzz amongst fans of the classic manga and anime since the project was greenlit last month. Unfortunately, that buzz hasn't been good. Many have said that this film has become an example of “whitewashing,” with Caucasian actors now linked to play Japanese characters and a purported change in setting from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-New York.
Akira's influence has reached far and wide. Katsuhiro Otomo, who created the original manga, also directed the anime. Despite the differences between the two works, when it comes to Akira, we're largely seeing one man's vision of a deeply unsettling future. That's about to change.
I've been grumbling about this newfangled version of Akira alongside my fellow anime aficionados for months. (Let it be known on the record that I would much rather see a live action Cowboy Bebop starring Keanu Reeves.) But, for purposes of this story, I talked to someone far more knowledgeable of the world created by Otomo.
Joe Peacock is an Atlanta-based writer. He's also curator of the traveling exhibit “Art of Akira,” which launched at Pittsburgh's ToonSeum and has since hit Pixar, Scotland Loves Animation, Otakon and Dragon*Con.
“Art of Akira” is a result of Peacock's long-running obsession with the manga and film. He first saw the film when he was 13, in 1990, at a University of Georgia screening where Akira played in Japanese and without subtitles. When the movie was eventually released on laserdisc, he began collecting production art. The work featured in the exhibit comes from his own collection, a 15,000+ piece behemoth that's among the largest in the world.
Of all the anime and comic books Peacock has collected over the years, Akira holds a special place for him.
“The major thing is that Akira came to me at the right time in my life. It hit me on multiple aspects,” he says.
Peacock admits that the film has its flaws. He will even point out those flaws at his convention presentations. However, he maintains that it's a “fantastic adaptation” of the manga. It's a 24 frame-per-second, hand-drawn work of art that mimics many of the techniques used in live action film.
“When we saw it in the West,” says Peacock, “it was really the first and only animation to emulate film.”
For that, and other reasons, Peacock considers Akira “the finest animated production ever made.” Undoubtedly, someone with this kind of passion for the original would have some strong opinions about the forthcoming film.
“My hopes, and they're pretty high hopes, is that the live action brings a general awareness to the fan base and that people will take the opportunity to research the source material,” he says as a preface to his firmly stated opinion.
“To be blunt, I think it's just going to suck.”
Is it too soon to be predicting a horrible outcome for Akira U.S.A.? Not if you've seen Hollywood's track record for live action anime adaptations. Not if you're talking about a work that holds as much significance to the U.S. anime fandom as Akira does. This isn't simply messing with nostalgia.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, heavily adapted versions of Japanese animated programs began appearing in the U.S. Space Battleship Yamato became Star Blazers in the U.S., while Gatchaman became Battle of the Planets. Meanwhile, several developers pieced together multiple series as though they were building a mecha, to create major cartoon hits. Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV became Voltron. The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA formed Robotech.
Even in their relatively watered-down forms, anime was completely different from anything we had seen during after school programming time. These were serialized, sci-fi dramas broadcast to little kids who didn't know much beyond episodic cartoons with laugh tracks ready to remind us when something was funny. The shows made an impact. They prepared us for what was to come. By the time Akira was released, there was an audience ready for the movie.
Akira first hit the U.S. in the early 1990s and it paved the way for the anime boom that hit over the course of the decade. Not long after, we were going crazy for Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop and scores of other titles. By the turn of the century, anime became the biggest cult sensation in the U.S.
One of the immediate points of fascination with Akira is its setting, Neo-Tokyo. The dystopian metropolis comes to life in the anime in a way that settings often don't.
At Dragon*Con 2011, Peacock screened the earliest English-language dub release of Akira, using pieces from his collection to help facilitate his commentary. It was the most interesting, and educational, event I attended at the convention. Frequently, Peacock would pause the film to show a corresponding piece of production art, highlighting the details that are easy to miss. Inside the window of every high-rise building in Neo-Tokyo, there are lights, furniture, artwork. The street scenes are similar, he says, complete with roads littered with cigarette butts, old cans and torn posters.
“There's never an instance in the background of Akira that doesn't show evidence of human involvement and life in that city,” says Peacock.
But, these instances aren't obvious to a first-time viewer. Perhaps even a fifth-time viewer wouldn't catch them.
“You miss it when you're watching the film because you're not supposed to see it,” says Peacock. “You're supposed to feel it.”
Neo-Tokyo is as much a character in the film as Kaneda, Tetsuo and Kei. And that's a huge piece of the story that may be missing in the new film.
“The problem is that when you go with a tremendous number of Caucasians in an Asian film, it doesn't bode well for the film being set in Neo-Tokyo,” says Peacock.
However, the talk right now is that the movie will be set in a similar version of New York. Peacock says, “that alone destroys” Akira.
Akira is more than just the brainchild of Otomo. It's more than a story about Neo-Tokyo. It's roots are in a history unique to Japan. Most importantly, there are the themes and images that point to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The genesis of the film… is rooted in the atomic issue,” says Peacock. “Otomo very purposely used the atomic motif in his stories around Neo-Tokyo.”
From what we know about the film so far, all signs point to it being a landmark in Japanese film transforming into a U.S.-centric story. There are a lot of reasons why this is irking fans. In fact, it's probably fodder for a grad school dissertation. Peacock, though, has the most succinct explanation as to why this is potentially a really horrible idea.
“If you take the culture out of the film and try to tell the story on its narrative merits alone, you've lost a tremendous amount of the base for the fiction,” he says. “Much like taking the flour out of the cake, it's not a very good cake.”