Akira starts today.
Released on July 16, 1988, the movie begins with what looks like a nuclear explosion in Tokyo on July 16, 1988. It quickly jumps to the rebuilt Neo-Tokyo of 2019. 31 years after the third World War, the city looks pretty good, if you ignore the corruption, crime and motorcycle gangs. Okay, it looks rat-infested, but it’s extremely cool-looking. That should count for something.
Neo-Tokyo is a high-rise city built built for speed, commerce, and mayhem, entirely from scratch. While the film wears its ’80s aesthetic on its sleeve (literally at times), it really looks like nothing else. Akira has no interest in fitting in or slowing down, just like its protagonist Kaneda.
Back in high school, I used to attend an open studio class with a local art teacher, Mrs. D. She would encourage us, provide technical advice, and just generally host a kind and encouraging space for art. I was usually the only one under thirty there, with the exception of two young men who sometimes came from our rival high school. (Mrs. D. lived in one town and had taught art at the other.) They were both cute, and I crushed on them in the way that desperately uncool girls of my generation tended to do. The one I liked best loved Akira.
Not Akira the movie, mind you, the original manga, which ran for eight years in Japan and was still unfinished when the movie came out. I think we were all aware that the movie existed at that point, but I’m not sure if any of us had seen it. I certainly hadn’t.
Akira was one of the first manga I’d seen, and it was beyond stunning. I had seen the NOW Comics version of the Astro Boy and Speed Racer comics, but that certainly didn’t prepare me for Katsuhiro Otomo’s mind-blowing art. Akira is violent but never incoherent, even when you’re squinting at out-of-context panels over a teenage boy’s shoulder.*
The 1988 Akira adaptation is also visually stunning, so memorable that whole sequences are quoted and referenced in live-action and animated works to this day (here’s a sampling of Western references to just one famous shot**), but the plot is a little…let’s be gentle and call it “messy.” 120 chapters just don’t fit well into 124 minutes, no matter how carefully the creative team (led by mangaka Katsuhiro Otomo himself) worked to pare down the plot or how stylish those minutes might be. But it’s still a thrill ride, that looks and sounds like nothing else of its era.
Akira has in fact lived dozens of lives since its animated debut, getting referenced, parodied and directly quoted. Janet and Michael Jackson’s Scream music video became the most expensive of all time not just for its unusual set or special effects, but for the clips of Akira that run on giant video screens on the Jackson siblings’ spaceship.
But one life it hasn’t taken on is that of a live-action adaptation, which has proven challenging. “These attempts have their own WIkipedia page”-level challenging. The live-action rights were first purchased in the ‘90s — back when I was crushing on those handsome young artists — but the budget, director and project have never lined up. Knowing what most live-action anime and manga adaptations look like, it’s probably the best possible outcome (there’s almost no way Neo-Tokyo would have stayed “Neo-Tokyo” in an adaptation in the 1990s, and the odds were better than not that the leads would have been played by white actors with character names like “Scott” or “John”; even ten years ago, Garrett Hedlund was in talks to play “Kaneda.” Ouch.)
I’m one of those annoying types who claim that just about anything can be adapted if you put some careful thought into it, but Akira brings out my skepticism. Like Death Note, Akira has a narrative and theme that are pretty easily graspable if you’re a Westerner but which pull pretty deeply from Japanese cultural fears and concerns. Adaptations run the risk of taking only the shiny surface of the story and creating a story that lacks depth and whose character motivations seem to come out of nowhere (looking at you, Peter Wingard’s Death Note). Too many Western adaptations of Japanese source material end up feeling like a copy of a copy, losing depth and detail with every iteration. And Akira’s vision of the future is pretty brutal. Children are used as pawns, with their body parts stored in jars after they’ve outlived their usefulness. Reporters are shot out of the sky by an army desperate to contain bad news. Japan gets destroyed twice thanks to human arrogance. It’s the kind of darkness associated with apocalyptic horror films, not big-budget spectacles starring the likes of Keanu Reeves or Paul Dano.
(Live-action manga adaptations also usually face an uphill battle no matter where they’re adapted; like any comic book adaptation, effects are a challenge, costuming can easily look fake, and long, complex plots don’t easily condense to feature film or even live-action series length.)
The rights for Akira are currently with Warner Brothers, and Taika Waititi’s name was most recently attached as a potential director. But Waititi has plenty of other projects in the hopper, and with Warner Brothers currently undergoing reorganization, layoffs, and a general lack of coherent direction — and with an apparent white supremacist at the helm — the odds of an Akira adaptation actually happening, much less one helmed by an indigenous director, much less one that keeps an Asian cast and setting, seem pretty low. Neo-Tokyo probably won’t be exploding again any time soon.
And for me at least, that’s okay. While Waititi is less likely to fail the way adaptations like the Netflix Fullmetal Alchemist or Cowboy Bebop shows did — containing too many stylistic similarities and not enough of a fresh voice — he might well fall into the myriad other traps found by adaptations like Death Note (as I’ve already mentioned, a case study in missing the point) or incoherent messes like Dragonball Evolution. As Akira itself tells us, sometimes it’s best to just let sleeping psychics rest.
Recommended further reading: This lovely personal essay on how Akira got one reader through seventh grade.
* The other manga I managed to get my hands on in high school was the equally groundbreaking, decade-older Lone Wolf and Cub, which would also influence dozens of followers, including a successful series of live-action films and that show with Baby Yoda everyone likes to talk about. See, it’s not impossible to do live-action adaptations of manga successfully!
** That doesn’t even include Nope, directed and written by Jordan Peele, yet another director who had been attached to a live-action Akira adaptation.