Debate Club: Can Akira successfully and respectfully be remade by Hollywood?

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Apr 17, 2017

Shortly before the live-action American version of Ghost in the Shell was released to theaters, a rumor surfaced that Jordan Peele, writer/director for Get Out, was being tapped to direct a live-action adaptation of Akira.

Since then, Ghost in the Shell has gone on to bomb pretty dramatically at the American box office. It was beat by a CGI baby, for Neo Tokyo's sake! So many people have come to suspect that a new Akira movie might not happen after all. And it probably won't.

For now.

But folks, a western live-action Akira has been talked about since going back to 2002. So while Tetsuo may not turn into a new universe (spoilers) right here, right now, it's gonna happen eventually.

And that's the subject of this week's Debate Club -- is it possible for a westernized live-action Akira to be a good and successful film. Your master debaters are Dany Roth and Lucas Siegel. One of them will brilliantly take on why an American-made Akira can work, and the other is Lucas, who did not write this intro. Take it away, me!

DANY'S TAKE -- YES, IT IS (TECHNICALLY) POSSIBLE

Have you ever heard a dog say "I love you?" Wild, isn't it? I bet the first time you heard that, you thought to yourself that anything is possible. And, so, from my perspective, much like a talking dog, a live-action Akira made for the west could possibly be well-made and even profitable.

It probably won't happen. But is it possible? Sure!

Before we talk about how Akira can work, even if it's very Americanized, let's get one thing out of the way first -- Jordan Peele ain't the guy to do it right now. I love Jordan Peele's work. Get Out is still my favorite movie of 2017 so far, and it may be one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but Jordan Peele is not ready to make Akira.

And if you or Mr. Peele has any doubts about that piping-hot take, I think you need only look to Josh Trank, whose Fantastic Four movie is a testament to what happens when an indie director gets tricked into believing a major studio will actually trust them to do anything.

Don't do it, Jordan Peele! You might think you have the sheer force of will to overcome the power of Hollywood executives, but much like when Tetsuo tried to rebuild a new arm after his was blown off, your Akira will probably grow out of control into a horrifically undulating beast that nearly kills us all.

Or it'll just be a bad movie that ruins your career. Either way, I think you all get my point.

But the reality is that some day a live-action Akira will happen, so let's talk about why it doesn't have to be awful and what it will take to even be great.

Step the First is to treat a new American Akira less like a remake and more like a sibling or a companion piece to the original. So much of Akira's story is about the anxiety that the people of Japan felt about the horrific power mankind wields with the explosive strength of the atom behind them. And of course Japan's cultural anxiety about the atom bomb is because America dropped two of those god-killers on them.

There needs to be a cultural sensitivity to Akira's origins. And I think the best way to do that is to let the events that led to Akira's initial birth remain rooted in Japan. There must be an active acknowledgment of history for a new Akira to succeed with due deference and respect towards what came before.

And the second thing an American Akira needs is to acknowledge the semi-symmetry between Japan's fears and some of America's fears today. Because many Americans are currently in the grip of terror over the possible return of the atom bomb. Those who live in major metropolises, especially, are very aware, with a president talking regularly about atomic power, that the next atom bomb might be landing soon; not on foreign soil, but on our own.

The original Akira begins with an atomic weapon destroying most of Tokyo. A western Akira should begin with an atomic weapon destroying most of New York City. From there, a western Akira movie can succeed based on the creative team's ability to correctly portray how New York would respond and regrow after it is utterly destroyed by an atomic weapon.

The biggest concern people have about western adaptations of Japanese stories is white-washing. If you make a movie set in New York City and most of the cast is white people? Well, then you've failed utterly, because NYC is one of the most diversely populated cities in the world.

And that's the beauty of that setting. Because New York City naturally lends itself towards a cast and metropolitan culture rich with every walk of life, every religious background, every race, all the complexity of gender and sex -- everything and everyone make up the very DNA of New York.

And if a new Akira movie keeps the idea that the titular Akira comes from Japan's own experience with atomic disaster, then I think you're on to something that could be great. Because something critical would be lost if a new Akira was divorced from the significant historical origins of the original story.

If that sounds like an unlikely execution for a westernized Akira, that's because it probably is. For now, anyway. But could it happen? Could Hollywood learn their lesson and execute a thoughtful Akira film with respect to the source material? I think so.

Now I'll leave it to Lucas to crush my dreams. Take it away!

LUCAS' TAKE - NO, HOLLYWOOD CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT EVER DO A LIVE-ACTION AKIRA

Here’s the thing about adaptations: no, they don't need to follow, as a rule, the original beat for beat. That's especially true in comics to film or TV, where the story often has to change; you're talking about very different mediums in that conversion. While that certainly works to varying degrees, and staying closer to the source material (Deadpool, The Avengers) seems to turn out much better than not (Fant4stic, several X-Men films), you can definitely tell a story in multiple mediums and have it be successful.

But then, you have to have something very important in order for it to work: something new to say.

Here's where Akira remade as a Hollywood live-action film is dead on arrival. The original is an absolute masterpiece of fiction and storytelling. Director Katsuhiro Otomo revolutionized the medium of anime with Akira, and it's hard to imagine someone has something new enough to say about it to make it worth the remake effort, or worth seeing for fans.

While Dany clearly sees this point in the idea of it being a "sibling or companion piece," if you're going that far from the source material, why make it "Akira" at all? There are plenty of stories to be told that are inspired by Akira, for sure. There are new ways to look at the fervor and fear that inspired it in the first place. There are similar fears today, and new ones associated with weapons of mass destruction and how they affect the basic life of humans. There are issues of rage and pain and the helplessness that the populace is feeling in the face of both political and nuclear might; but none of those things are restricted to Akira, and none of them need the Akira name to be haphazardly slapped onto them to make them worth talking about or exploring in a film.

Let's face it, anime to live-action remakes in Hollywood have an abysmal track record. Dragonball Evolution was a disaster from top to bottom. Ghost in the Shell, as Dany noted above, has crashed and burned. When your gold standard is the mixed bag of Speed Racer, you have an issue that needs addressing. White-washing is a major part of that problem, and unfortunately Hollywood productions are hard to trust in that regard. If they were, as Dany suggested, to take the location of an Akira film from Tokyo to NYC, is there any doubt that would be used an excuse for some 'creative' casting decisions, based on the evidence of the above films?

What Akira did in 1988 was played on very specific emotions and very specific fears for a very specific generation of a very specific group of people. The intimate look directly into that small subset of population (in relation to the entire world) is what makes it strangely relatable. You're seeing a real, human story, even if it's one that's wholly different to your own experience and issues. You can see and feel the experiences of Kaneda, Tetsuo and the rest, because it is so specific and localized. As soon as you start to try to translate that to the issues of today, or to the issues of Americans, while trying to hamfist in things to make it still be "Akira," you have already lost the battle. If you do a direct remake that just happens to be live-action but doesn't say anything new, you've lost the battle, too.

What's the easiest away to avoid losing, then? To not play this particular game.

As Dany said, a lot would have to be done carefully and right to even make this entertainable, and that's "an unlikely execution." Hollywood’s 'lesson' from Ghost in the Shell probably won't be so much "white-washing is bad" and will be more "anime/manga movies don't work in the US," which is of course a ridiculous notion.

It's amusing, reading Dany's take, and how much of it actually agrees with me in saying you just can't do this movie as a live-action Hollywood adaptation. Indeed, he seems to argue more for doing a movie "inspired by" than "adapted from," and that's not a terrible idea at all. But then don't throw an Akira label on it – just make a new movie that shows the influence and uses some similar themes. But any way you do it, for the love of Kei, if you use a Japanese-named character, cast a Japanese or Japanese American actor, okay? Are you listening, Hollywood? Hollywood, come back here! This is important!

YOUR TURN

That's our take on live-action Akira -- what's yours? Can it be done? What would it take to make you even consider a western live-action adaptation for what is kind of one of the most important Japanese works of fiction ever? And at what point are you just making a movie that shouldn't even be called Akira at all? What's the line on being influenced and, ultimately, telling the same story?

Let us know what you think.