There are times when I simply want to grab the relevant people in Hollywood by the lapels, give them a damn good shake and say, very firmly, “No!” Every so often, someone in Hollywood will come up with a very bad or unwise idea – these projects bubble up out of nowhere, or they lurk around for ages, and I usually have to tell myself “Well, that’s never going to happen” – partly because I know from experience that if it does, the chances of it actually turning out well are infinitesimal.
Well, it’s happening again, as someone in Hollywood is putting some serious traction into making a live-action version of the 1988 Japanese animated movie Akira. It’s the film that essentially put Anime on the map for western audiences – a dense sci-fi tale of near-future Tokyo, where a biker gang stumbles upon a mysterious secret, and soon telekinetic teens are tearing the entire city apart in a conflict that revolves around the mysterious ‘Akira’. Packed full of spectacle, action, violence, body horror and visuals that are still impressive over twenty years later, Akira is one of the last movies to be fully animated by hand (aside from a couple of primitive CG shots) and it’s an incredible cinematic experience, even if it’s also pretty incoherent at times (the result of condensing almost a thousand pages of comics into two hours, and the fact that director (and creator of the original comic) Katsuhiro Otomo was only 2/3rds of the way through the manga version when he made the film). It’s also an utterly Japanese movie in its approach and style, steeped in the cultural aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and the full-tilt intensity of manga storytelling.
In short, it isn’t the kind of thing that lends itself to an easy reworking the way some foreign language movies do, but that hasn’t stopped rumours of a live-action version circulating for years, virtually from the moment that CG effects started getting close to replicating the astonishing levels of pyrokinetic devastation wreaked in the original hand-animated anime. There have been a few directors attached (including Steven Norrington, the man who managed to butcher the screen version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turning an amazing comic into a truly boring and lacklustre movie), but currently things are looking a little more active. There’s a new director attached, there’s a screenplay, and there are offers going out to actors – but little of this news is filling me with confidence.
First, there’s the director. Albert Hughes, one half of the Hughes Brothers (who made their debut with Menace II Society), has signed to make the film – and considering the Hughes Brothers were responsible for taking Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s dazzlingly intelligent graphic novel From Hell and turning it into yet another not-particularly-exciting ‘Who is Jack The Ripper?’ thrill ride (and also giving Heather Graham a ridiculous Oirish accent as the most cleavage-heavy yet least-employed prostitute in all of Victorian London). He’s certainly not the kind of filmmaker who screams ‘Visionary’, and I can’t help feeling that, after the over-moody nonsense of From Hell (complete with Jack the Ripper’s awesomely stupid scary-black-demon-eyes), I’ve got just about zero interest in seeing what he does with the film.
Now, we do know that the action is being shifted from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan – apparently the concept is that Japanese corporations moved in to rebuild the city after it was devastated in a Third World War, preserving some of the Japanese flavour while still keeping things in the good ‘ol USA. This doesn’t really strike me as a bad idea – I didn’t really think that a live action version would preserve the Japanese setting, although the fact that the character of Tetsuo is being renamed as ‘Travis’ doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement (especially since you can’t exactly yell ‘Traaaaaavis!’ in the same way that various characters yell ‘Tetsuooooooooo!’ in the original Anime).
There’s also the rating. The producers have already said that they’re going for a PG-13 – the American equivalent of the UK’s 12 certificate – and anyone who’s actually seen Akira will, at this point, be thinking “How?”, followed by “What the hell is the point?” Because Akira is violent – exquisitely violent, violent to a level that is still pretty impressive, and which back in 1988 was simply awe-inspiring. One of the reasons Akira made so much impact in the west is that we’d never seen the limits of the animation medium pushed in this way before, rendering action in ways that weren’t constrained by Eighties movie budgets and exploring exactly how far bizarre ultraviolence could be pushed. In an era before CGI, this was explosive action without limits, and body-horror transformations that went further than anything we’d seen before. Akira is graphic, ballistic and lurid in the extreme, and it’s the extremity of the content that’s part of what makes it such an amazing piece of cinema. Take out the shocking moments of violence, and you’re de-fanging the movie before you even start. I understand the principle of it – a live-action Akira will be a very expensive project, and they don’t want to limit the audience to a big budget SF action adventure, or end up with another R-rated underperformer like Watchmen. But, to be honest, if you have to turn Akira into a PG-13 rated story in order to make it in Live-action, that’s a brilliant reason for not doing it.
However, things get really weird with some of the casting rumours. Now, there were vague murmurings last year that Hughes wanted Morgan Freeman as the Colonel – the ‘authority figure’ of the story, a military officer who’s in charge of the secret ‘Akira’ project. It’s one of those utterly obvious choices that is, at the least, fairly sensible, and certainly wasn’t getting me saying “Um… what?”
But then, there are the more recent rumours, that James Franco – the man who was Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man movies, and who’s currently chopping off his arm in the name of entertainment in 127 Hours – was up for the role of main character Kaneda (although heaven knows what he’ll be called in the remake). Now, Kaneda is the teenage leader of a gang of bikers – and Franco is currently 33 years old. He’d have been a damn good choice about five or ten years ago… but unless they’re going the Grease route and having lots of thirty-year-old teenagers, it sounds like they’re happily throwing the punky teenage rebellion subtext out of the window in the hope of getting a well-known actor in.
Franco has apparently turned down the project in favour of Sam Raimi’s currently gestating Wizard of Oz-related project (a story that focusses on the Wizard when he reaches Oz) – as has Black Swan star Mila Kunis, who was offered the female lead (which, unless they’re being really loose with the story, is Kei, the female revolutionary who Kaneda follows into serious levels of danger). This kind of thing happens a lot, of course – casting rumours filter out onto the Internet with worrying ease, and just because someone’s turned a project down doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. No, things get really weird when we get to the next rumour about who’s turned down the role of Kaneda – Brad Pitt.
Yes, Brad Pitt. The 47-year old Brad Pitt. Now, I don’t know how much credence to give this rumour, and this sounds like something that’s either a mistake or a miscommunication. Having a star like Pitt onboard would have undoubtedly meant Akira instantly getting a green-light for production, and I’m hoping that maybe they were thinking of offering him the role of the Colonel (which would be smaller, but still significant and – frankly – more sensible) but I never like to underestimate how stupid Hollywood is capable of being. After all, Albert Hughes took a From Hell character who was originally a dour forty-something police detective and turned him into a louche, dandy-ish, opium-smoking visionary fop played by Johnny Depp, so the idea of him saying “Yeah! Why can’t Kaneda be in his forties?” doesn’t seem completely impossible, sadly.
The one definite piece of confirmed news we have is that screenwriter Steve Kloves has been hired to rewrite the script. A veteran of the Harry Potter films (He wrote all the screenplays, save for number 5), he does at least have form when it comes to turning unwieldy source material into a comprehensible (if not necessarily awesome) movie, and it’s easy to see why he might have been hired. It’s always possible that they’re experimenting with shaving some money off the budget to make the project more alluring to one of the big studios – but as with so many of these projects, Akira is being pursued because it has brand potential. The name is known, and that’s the kind of thing you can build on – plus there’s two thousand pages worth of comics that are sitting there and say “Storyboard waiting to be filmed!” to people who don’t understand the real difference between comics and movies.
As always, all it’ll take is the right people to say yes, and whether or not it’s a good film, the live-action Akira will move forward. It’s the first time a live-action anime adaptation has gotten this close to being made (There’s a live-action Neon Genesis Evangelion that has long been in development but with no movement, while rights have been sold for a US version of cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell), and Akira is close to being the Lord of the Rings of anime – a genre-defining classic that you should either do right, or not at all. I can’t deny that even if they just set out to do an adaptation that played fast and loose with the story but kept perfectly to the visual style of the anime, I wouldn’t be rather excited – but certain stories are designed to be told a certain way (as proved by Watchmen, which still works best in its original form, and – to be honest – the original Akira anime). I can’t see many ways of making a live-action Akira that wouldn’t lose sight of everything that makes the original interesting in the first place, and I’ve been burned too many times before (including with the From Hell movie adaptation), so until I hear some extremely promising news, I’m going to be keeping my fingers crossed that this is one Hollywood project that never quite gets off the drawing board…