Why the Akira Adaptation is a Big Deal

I watched Akira (1988) for the first time at an LAN party at a friend’s house, sometime around the turn of the century. Then as now, I was a terrible shot and more concerned with cels than polygons, so I stretched out in front of the household’s last tube TV, and watched a copy of Katsuhiro Otomo’s film taped from cable. It ghosted across the screen like the Ring video, blurry and beige and riddled with tracking errors. A year or two later, my dad rented it on DVD. He wanted to see it, and I wanted to see a good print.

Akira is not a perfect animated film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s stunning to look at, and a landmark of animated entertainment, and the start of many an anime fan’s journey. It’s also the compressed adaptation of Otomo’s 6 volume, 2,182 page manga (the first to be translated to English in its entirety) and as such it makes dizzying narrative leaps between plot points. It condenses the story of World War III, the Japanese government’s cultivation of telepathic children, the anti-government resistance movement, the rise of youth gangs and apocalypse cults, the threat of American military interference, and the rise and fall of a messianic revolutionary into its densest constitutent elements: the story of two boys whose rivalry stands to overwhelm a city.

Akira was a case of Otomo adapting his own work for the screen, with the assistance of Izo Hashimoto. Wisely, they preserved the emotional core of the story while keeping the manga’s signature set pieces: Neo-Tokyo, the Espers’ illusions, the satellites, the bike chases, the battle at the stadium. The emotions on display are just as spectacular as the special effects. Tetsuo and Kaneda are justifiably angry. They grew up in an orphanage. Their city has been destroyed. Their school is a warehouse for the urban poor. Their principal punches them in the face. No wonder their relationship is strained: Tetsuo has always depended on Kaneda to protect him from the harsh world they inhabit, but has also always resented his need for protection. Kaneda simultaneously relishes his leadership of their gang, while finding Tetsuo’s clinginess annoying. That toxic dynamic is key to understanding the story, because upon tapping into a godlike amount of psionic power, Tetsuo spends the rest of the story demonstrating how little he needs Kaneda. Exhausted with having been bullied his whole life, Tetsuo finally gets to be the bully.

With a universal human story like that at its centre, it’s easy to see why American producers wanted to adapt Akira for English-language audiences. It also has everything that’s hot in YA right now: teens, dystopias, special powers. What it doesn’t have is that universal human story. Take a look at the (spoiled!) plot summary from the casting notes:

Kaneda is a bar owner in Neo-Manhattan who is stunned when his brother, Tetsuo, is abducted by government agents led by The Colonel.

Desperate to get his brother back, Kaneda agrees to join with Ky Reed and her underground movement who are intent on revealing to the world what truly happened to New York City thirty years ago when it was destroyed. Kaneda believes their theories to be ludicrous but after finding his brother again, is shocked when he displays telekinetic powers.

Ky believes Tetsuo is headed to release a young boy, Akira, who has taken control of Tetsuo’s mind. Kaneda clashes with The Colonel’s troops on his way to stop Tetsuo from releasing Akira but arrives too late. Akira soon emerges from his prison courtesy of Tetsuo as Kaneda races in to save his brother before Akira once again destroys Manhattan island, as he did thirty years ago.

Judging by this summary, the American Akira is less an adaptation of its Japanese ancestor than a re-boot targeted at people who have never heard the story before. This is not unheard of: you may recall a little Oscar winner called The Departed, Martin Scorcese’s 2006 adaptation of a 2002 Hong Kong cop drama called Infernal Affairs. And there are nods in the summary to the racebending offenses that plagued Shyamalan’s Airbender adaptation: the story takes place in Manhattan, not Tokyo, which somehow means that all the characters (except perhaps the villain) can be white. (Apparently when Manhattan Island was destroyed, all of New York City’s racial diversity went with it.)

The folks at Cracked think the changes to the story have to do with 9/11, because that’s the only disaster American producers believe their audiences can relate to. But I think it runs deeper than that. This isn’t just about history, it’s about culture. Specifically, the comfort a culture has with nuanced anti-heroes. Japan is comfortable with them. America isn’t. At least, not any more. Gone are the days of Travis Bickle or Michael Corleone or the other cinematic giants of the 1970’s who functioned as protagonists within their narratives while doing profoundly antagonistic things.

One of Akira‘s distinguishing characteristics is that none of its characters ever gets to be the hero for very long. Kaneda is careless. Tetsuo is weak. The story gives both of them moments of failure and success, without ever indicating that either character is “right.” In the film, Kaneda tries to rescue Tetsuo, only to discover that he no longer needs rescuing and doesn’t want it. From then on, Kaneda’s mission is to stop Tetsuo — not because Tetsuo is a villain, but because Tetsuo’s his responsibility. Similarly, Tetsuo is a victim of poverty, bullying, and torture, and when he gets the power to do something about it, he snaps. Audiences can identify with both characters, often at the same time. In fact, they find it engaging. That’s part of why Akira had a fifty million dollar box office.

The people adapting it for American audiences appear to have forgotten this. In the summary available, Tetsuo is overtaken by an external force, rather than succumbing to his own desire for power. And Kaneda owns property, rather than running a gang which steals it from others. Those alterations to the narrative conspire to create blameless characters without real dark sides. So not only do the producers think that Americans can’t handle stories about characters who aren’t white, they apparently think Americans can’t handle stories with any sort of ambiguity, even when it’s the same ambiguity that’s in stories like Stand By Me, Supernatural, The Fighter, or even Thor.

These characters haven’t just lost their race, their culture, their home, and their age to this adaptation. They’ve lost what made us love them to begin with. They’ve lost their souls.

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, and anime fan living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN will be available in the summer of 2012 from Angry Robot Books.


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