Akira is one of the most popular anime films, but Hollywood has been having an exhausting experience trying to adapt it. Warner Bros. purchased the rights to Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga back in 2002. Since then, the studio has made numerous attempts to adapt it into a live-action Hollywood film, with all of them being abandoned – or in the case of the most recent attempt on hold – before going into full production.
There are a plethora of reasons why these proposed live-action Akira films have had such a bad track record. In a nutshell, it’s because the source material is not intended to be realized for live-action, and Hollywood has consistently failed at adapting anime and manga, especially when the source material features Japanese culture and characters heavily. These hurdles have ultimately foiled previous directors attached to the project, including Stephen Norrington (Blade, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Ruairí Robinson (The Last Days on Mars), and the Hughes Brothers (From Hell, The Book of Eli).
Akira has international appeal due to its compelling, adrenaline-filled, and universal story while also being set firmly in Japan. For Neo Tokyo, a cyberpunk version of Tokyo, the artists painstakingly recreated the distinct geography and architecture of the real city. While the anime’s characters, locations, and technology are all undoubtedly Japanese, several proposed live-action scripts have ignored this.
These projects tried to relocate the film to a futuristic American city, similar to how Netflix’s Death Note moved the Japanese story to Seattle, Washington. Not only would this be another case of Hollywood westernizing a Japanese story, but it would also undo the world-building of the source material. Akira’s dystopian content is inspired by the devastating effects that World War II had on Japan, namely the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American writers have tried to substitute this with allusions to 9/11 instead, which can come off as lazy and insensitive.
When it comes to Hollywood adaptations of popular anime, whitewashing, and cultural erasure has been a recurring problem. The poorly received Dragonball Evolution cast white actors Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum as Goku and Bulma respectively, which disappointed fans and continued Hollywood’s problem of casting white people in Asian roles.
More recently, the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, which was considered vastly inferior to the original, also perpetuated this problem by casting Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, once again looking over Asian actors who are painfully underrepresented in American media. The live-action film also failed to capture the contemplative edge of the original anime’s animation, which is unfortunately common in these adaptations.
Akira’s high-quality animation is some of the best out there and is the paramount for the anime’s ethos. Akira’s vision of a cyberpunk world is something that cinema has never seen before, even with Blade Runner. While a Hollywood budget would help re-capture the scope of the anime, it stands to reason that the artistry of the animation would be lost in translation.
Furthermore, some of the original film’s most memorable aspects, like the streaming motorcycle lights, eerie hallucinations, and Tetsuo’s grotesque transformation juxtaposed succinctly with the art style, which also benefits the characters. As is common in anime, the narrative and thematic weight is often carried by the exaggerated facial expressions of the cast, which is hard to communicate through the performances of live-action actors.
All this said, an Akira live-action film came the closest it ever has last year. Director Taika Waititi is attached to direct the project, and he is willing to correct previous missteps with adapting the anime.
He’s confirmed the film will feature up and coming Japanese actors and follow the events of the manga instead of the anime; however, the synopsis of the film does mention the setting is Neo Manhattan instead of Neo Tokyo. Given his experience with working with younger actors, like in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and staging complex action scenes, like in Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has more potential to realize an Akira film that some other directors.
While this adaptation looked bright and was set to film in May 2019, Waititi has put a hold on the film to work on Thor: Love and Thunder. He is still interested in being a part of Akira even though he won’t be able to jump on board again for a few years.
Seeing that this iteration of the long-awaited adaptation almost happened, perhaps the momentum behind it may have reached its climax. If the studio decides to move forward without Waititi given the complications, perhaps another filmmaker will follow Waititi’s model and give rise to the project again.
While it may be years until a live-action Akira happens, original creator, Katsuhiro Ōtomo, has revealed that he’s working with anime studio Sunrise (Cowboy Bebop, Witch Hunter Robin) to create a series that acts as a continuation of Akira’s anime film. While details are scarce, it seems plausible that this project will be far less problematic than Hollywood’s many failed attempts to make a live-action Akira.
A live-action film based off of Akira has been in the works for an eternity, and there are numerous reasons why it hasn't taken off yet.