Dec 2 2011 11:30am

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.

If they weren't going to do it right then they shouldn't have done it at all.
Mari Salinas
2. distortionrock
One of the most ridiculous things to me is that even though they're casting white actors left and right (except for Ken Watanabe... who's the bad guy!), they're still keeping the Japanese names.

So these white boys are going to be running around calling each other, "Tetsuo!" and "Kaneda!" If they're going to whitewash it as much as they are, they might as well rename the characters. At least then it'll make it easier to separate this remake from the original.

Hollywood's lack of racial diversity makes me angry. It's not even that I like the source material as much as other people. It's that Hollywood thinks the public doesn't give a shit about any other race except white.
aaron thompson
3. trench
I agree completely. The changes from the Manga to the anime movie were understandable. Even if we lost out on seeing some of the best moments (Tetsuo ravaging the moon, the fight on the aircraft carrier, Myako being a relevent character) but it kept the spirt of what the Manga was. This adaptation seems so poor, Kaneda and Tetsuo are brothers now, that is not only an unneeded change it completely changes the dynamic between the two. Akira being a force bent on destroying is not even a little bit like the Akira from either the movie or Manga. Akira was another poor child who was subjected to horrible experiments by adults. The dynamics of the espers and the biker gang are very similar in reality. Both groups were forced into the lives they have by others. This theme is always what I took away from Akira.

This new movie may end up making the Dragonball movie a couple of years ago seem like a faithful adaptation.
Cait Glasson
4. CaitieCat
Well, mostly this post and thread makes me want to watch the original (which I've not seen), and shun the pending remake like a Very Shunworthy Thing.

So thanks! :)
Seamus Cooper
5. Seamuscooper
it makes dizzying narrative leaps between plot points.

I think this is really key to why they're making all those changes. I saw this in a theater when it came out, and I had no freaking idea what was happening.

Say what you will about Hollywood, but they do know how to put a story arc together. Perhaps the changes are mostly about making a movie that won't leave audiences befuddled.

That mass befuddlement is part of what makes a cult hit. But they'll be putting too much money into this to be okay with it being a cult hit that thrills few and confuses many.
7. slider
a white guy name kaneda and tetsuo...... already sounds like a horrible film, they might as well cast teenie boppers, make it into another twilight stupid series
8. tevii
@distortionrock - now Im not happy about the changes being made either. But to say hollywood doesnt care about any race except white is absolutely ridiculous. How many characters have they changeds from white to black? Thats equally as racist as this nonsense. The Karate Kid, The Honeymooners, Heimdall (in Thor), I Am Legend, Wild Wild West, Kojak, Alicia Masters (in Fantastic Four films), Rising Sun, I could go on and on. If your going to bitch about racism know what your talking about. Your use of "white boys" speaks volumes of your own racism.
9. Nick Marino
Good piece, Madeline. This adaptation is gonna suck if it actually gets made!
Madeline Ashby
10. MadelineAshby
Wow, thanks, everyone! I'm really glad I took the time to write this.

@CaitieCat: Do take a look, and have a go at reading the manga. I envy you your first time watching AKIRA!

@SeamusCooper: It's true that the original was occasionally befuddling, but I think this adaptation (going by the summary) strips the boys of their nuances. They were once agents in their own lives who made bad choices on their own terms, and now they're just innocent victims.
11. EdGG
I remember trying to get my parents to go to a store at 2am so I could buy a copy of Akira, when I was... 12, I think. I have watched it many times throughout the years, and yes, it seemed far from perfect.

Perfection, however, was found in the manga. I read it for the first time last year, and the complexities of the characters, the extreme social background, and depth of the relationships was surprisingly relatable.

The fact that there's a movie coming out is good news. I just hope it isn't bad enough to discourage people from reading this beautiful, thrilling story. I'll keep my fingers crossed while every piece of news tries to wreck what I feel for Otomo's work.
Mari Salinas
12. distortionrock
@tevii My apologies, should I have used the words "Caucasians" instead? Perhaps "white men" instead of "white boys"? Either way, it's still a statement of fact. And the idea that changing white characters to black is racists is weird - If you want to look at it in that context, then how is it not an attempt to better represent the audience that's going to be watching said film? To compare characters created when racism was abounds to characters created/altered now doesn't work - the idea is that we should know better now. It's an attempt to update demographics representing the current American population, not racism. In 2011, we should know better than to not cast any non-white actors in a film created and set in Japan about Japanese characters.

Secondly, the original Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio wasn't white to begin with - he's Italian American. It almost sounds like the idea of turning any character black should be considered racism, regardless of their origin. Hey you know they're remaking Annie with Annie as a black little girl - does that make you mad?

Thirdly, I am Legend had some small racial overtones - Robert Neville was described as white, whereas the word "black" is used to describe the "evil" vampires quite frequently. If anything, it's fitting that a black man gets to play Neville in the admittedly not-as-awesome film adaptation.

Fourthly, if you're going to bitch at all, learn how to write English properly.
13. Gerry__Quinn
@12: "the idea that changing white characters to black is racists (sic) is weird". Perhaps, but no weirder than the idea that changing Japanese characters to white for an adaptation set in New York is racist.

As for the film, it sounds like it's mostly for the kiddies, but I wouldn't pay too much attention to derisive predictions of disaster from folks with an axe to grind. Best wait and see... and if it's bad, nobody is forced to go.
14. Ehullz
And it gets worse, they've changed Tetsuo's name to TRAVIS.
15. flowers
Setting this movie in new york, and then making the characters white.... that is double wierd and racist

too many white boys in hollywood and messing up this movie.
16. jason e
another movie I have to make sure not to watch. hey, $50 says most of the motorbike sceens get scraped for american muscle cars.
17. lolz
The movie was great but flawd on many levels with plot and how it progressed. The manga is what they should be adapting it from and not look at the anime. I believe that with the latest synopsis I do not think these script writers are even respecting any plot or story elements except the name. This will fail much like ever comic book movie that does not respect the original source material. The death if the project is when the studio decided there American views were to stupid to figure out a story can take palce out side of the USA. I think we all remember the last air bender and what happen when $ mean more then making the film for the love of the film.
18. Gerry__Quinn
@17: "The death if the project is when the studio decided there American views were to stupid to figure out a story can take palce out side of the USA."

Actually they decided that American viewers would on average be more interested in a version set in the US. There's a considerable difference.
19. Hoplite
Yeah, it's not a done deal yet, so it could get better.
20. BigBad
I agree with what your saying.
Seems to me Hollywood has finally ran out of ideas with all these remakes from remakes and unoriginal content being released.
My question to you is, why does the video for the bike battle on your blog have a completely different dub from the version I have?
It doesnt sound right.
21. Jexral
Honestly, most of the changes are basically aesthetic, and make perfect sense to me; Neo New York, the alleged Tetsuo to Travis up there, asian characters to white ones. However, changing the fundamental plot? The fundamental basis of the characters' relationships? Light, but I'm worried.
22. Carlos Garcia
I think they (producers, movie execs, etc.) failed to understand that AKIRA is already a movie.
23. Norm the Storm

There was the original translation done back in the 80s, I remember because I watched it many many times. He says "Haha! Don't make me laugh!" instead of "Steal one yourself". This is from a second dub done for the re-release in...2001? It's different, but actually more accurate in terms of translation, and it's subtler, there aren't as many grunts and "errrr!!" sounds common in many dubs.
24. Marina Bonomi
@ distortionrock :
'Secondly, the original Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio wasn't white to begin with - he's Italian American.'

Sorry? Did Italy move away from Europe when I wasn't looking? Since when we aren't Caucasians?

It may came as a surprise to you, but each and every Italian who doesn't happen to have recent extra-European ancestry defines him-/herself as Caucasian
25. aaron09
So they are cutting out the metaphysical aspect about mankind evolving in to light/energy beings? Aww thats too bad.
Would have been fun to see Michio Kaku talking about it.
Chin Bawambi
26. bawambi
I've beaten to death the hollywood historical whitewashing but I will bring up again my point about Neo Manhattan. My city is so opposite from the rest of the country that it could be another country. Tokyo is Japanese as London represents England so London would be a better choice as would LA. At least LA has gang related violence so the biker gangs could fit there. Also, the only time we have a large military footprint in NY is during Fleet Week so San Francisco's Presidio/Alcatraz would make a better setting if you wanted to focus on the military parts.

Thanks Madeline for sourcing the plot summary - it confirms my worst fears about this pile of poo. I thought there might be an outside chance that this wouldn't be terrible but not now.
27. Gerry__Quinn
It's Neo-Manhattan, which is bursting with biker gangs and military. New York was destroyed thirty years ago. Don't complain about plot summaries you don't read!
Chin Bawambi
28. bawambi
I get it Gerry - I tried but obviously failed to shorten my cultural critiques of what we've been shown so far and have beaten entirely to death on other forums here and elsewhere. In brief, more than a decent portion of Akira was rooted in a Japanese/Tokyo culture. If they wanted to make an American/Anglo tale they could have chosen a more American/Anglo setting. There is no way you can convince me in any way shape or form that a post-Apocalyptic NY would be a biker and military culture. Cars maybe bikes no way. :)
James Kehr
29. Jammrock
I'm going to show my age here, but the first time I saw Akira was at a comic book convention in 1989. One of the vendors had a production bootleg on VHS complete with timestamp rolling on the bottom. I was absolutely enthralled by it and spent a large portion of the con in from of that tiny 12" screen.

I have also read the manga and owned (until a sibling wrecked it) the special edition on DVD with the cool tin pillbox case. I am obviously a fan.

And that plot summary makes we want to vomit.

Not only that, but they are breaking up the film into two parts. From IMDB:
Part one of a two-part live action adaptation of the 1988 anime film, "Akira", in which the leader of a biker gang tries to save his kidnapped friend from a powerful supernatural experiment.
Hello, Hollywood, I would like double sized order of suck while you ruin one of my favorite movies of all time, thank you. There are so many ways you could make a good Akira take place in a city like New York, but this is not one of them.
30. mjark
well that hollywood for you, if you cant think of stuff steal stuff
31. luy
This is going to be as succesful as Dragonball Z adaptation (sarcasm hint. ; )
32. James Davis Nicoll
24: (On Italians being counted as something other than white)

Sorry? Did Italy move away from Europe when I wasn't looking? Since when we aren't Caucasians?

I mention this purely for historical context purposes but in fact "white" started off as a very small subset of Caucasian and has been slowly growing more inclusive with time. For example, when my grandmother was in university, people would lecture her on her duty to have white children but only after making sure she wasn't a Jew (For a family that is supposedly mostly Scots on that time, some of us come well tinted). In the 1920s, Jews, even lineages that had been in Europe for centuries, didn't count as white.

Italians (you might want to stop reading at this point) often were also treated as Others. From a 1939 Life article on Joe DiMaggio:

"Although he learned Italian first, Joe now speaks English without an accent. ... Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slicked with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti."

DiMaggio was born in Martinez, California.

To get a rough idea of where things stood in Colonial America, here's part of a 1751 essay from good old Ben Franklin, who is pretty unlikely to ever win the retro-Inclusiveness Award:

24. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.
33. ophel1a
@James Davis Nicoll

ahh, feels good to be a 'swarthy' french american over here! hahah, oh franklin.
34. Marina Bonomi
@ James Davis Nicoll : thanks for the quotes, (seriously), I keep forgetting that the issue of 'race' is way different on the other side of the Atlantic.
Over here one is considered to be what one's looks like (unless the person in question makes clear that s/he identifies with a different group) and 'Mediterranean' skintones definitely qualify as white (with just about everyone old Ben Franklin mentions, plus a few others).

It is interesting, though, to find people nowadays who still, in all innocence, seem to share Ben's view that 'white' equals Anglo-Saxon.

By the way, that was the view of the Age of Reason (where race-based slave trade became an economical force and had to be 'justified'), if you read travel journals of travelers from the Middle-Ages you'll find, for instance, various Central Asian peoples (and even the Chinese), described as 'of beautiful proportions and white complexion'.
One wonders which one was, in truth the more enlightened age.

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