Back in 2012, the director was within a month or two of a Vancouver shoot, with Garrett Hedlund set to star alongside Kristen Stewart, Ken Watanabe, and Helena Bonham Carter. But the studio got cold feet over the $90 million budget, shutting down pre-production in order to bring down cost by $20 million to $30 million. Though there was some talk of reviving Akira with Hedlund in late 2013, when Collet-Serra was hoping it would be next movie, that was as close as the project has come to actually going before the camera.
When the studio pushed the eject button in 2012, that was actually the second time in two years that Warner put a stop to the project during pre-production over budgetary concerns. The first time, in 2011, Albert Hughes was directing the then-more-expensive scifi adventure. The studio was bullish on Hughes' Akira, especially after an overhaul of the script by Steve Kloves, a proven asset as the writer of all but one entry in the Harry Potter series, WB's biggest franchise ever. The problems with this earlier, even-bigger version arose when Legendary Pictures backed out as co-financier.
Looking at footing that entire bill, reportedly pegged at a cool $200 million, Warner Bros. sought ought internationally bankable leading men to attract a new partner of ensure worldwide grosses. Brad Pitt Keanu Reeves were offered the role of Kanada, who in the source material is a.) a teenager and b.) Japanese. When Reeves opted against the role (eventually but only hypothetically played by Hedlund), The Book of Eli helmer Hughes amicably resigned as director.
That's when Collet-Serra's first cheaper iteration came in, but as we've established, it's now dormant at best, even in the even cheaper form discussed in 2013.
The major, seemingly insurmountable challenges in making an expensive, four-quadrant blockbuster out of Akira are countless. While the title is immediately familiar to all manner of geek and cinephile, it's not an immediately recognizable property to the average moviegoer, certainly not on the level of a comic book with a decades-deep resonance and iconography.
The challenges go even deeper than commercial concerns, though, down to the most basic conceptual level. Between the slick motorcycle chases and opportunities for superpowered visual effects setpieces, it's obvious why a U.S. studio would be interested, but narratively and thematically, Akira is a risky tentpole.
For one thing, the 1988 original, adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from his own massive six volume, two-thousand-plus page manga, only covers about half the printed story. And while it's a gorgeous film, rich in stunning animation and evocative cyberpunk design, it's also sort of impenetrable: Akira abounds in general weirdness Japanese post-WWII cultural psychology.
Set in the futuristic megalopolis of Neo-Tokyo, a cyberpunk dream of a place rebuilt after Tokyo's obliteration in a late 20th century nuclear war, Otomo's tale is so quintessentially Japanese that it defies Americanization. Shifting the setting from Tokyo to New York isn't just a location change; it undermines the whole thematic foundation of Akira.
Gary Whitta, who recently wrote the first draft of Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, worked on the screenplay in the pre-Hughes and pre-Collet-Serra days when Ruari Robinson (director of the great, grim little short Fifty Percent Grey) was helming. He said he believed he found "a cool solution to that problem of westernization of a Japanese concept.”
"The idea is that there’d been a massive economic crash in the United States and in our desperation, we sold Manhattan Island to the Japanese, who were becoming a very powerful economic force, and they were having an overpopulation problem, because Japan is a series of islands, it can only accommodate so many people, " Whitta later told Collider.
"So they just bought Manhattan Island, and it became the fifth island of Japan, and they populated it," he explained. "It became New Tokyo, and it was just off the coast of the United States. So it was Japanese territory, it wasn’t New Tokyo, but there were Americans who kind of lived in little Americanized quarters of it. I felt it was a way to do a kind of cool Western-Eastern fusion of the two ideas; not fully Japanese, not fully westernized."
It's unknown whether Whitta's conceptual trick survived all the rewriting that followed under scribes including Kloves. Even if it did, it sounds as though the workaround still only really addressed the primary issue superficially. In all the time Warner Bros. has been cooking up Akira, nobody has cracked the Americanization problem, a seemingly intractable one epitomized by casting.
In Otomo's film, the heroes are, obviously, Japanese. The teenaged lead characters of Kanada – delinquent leader of a futuristic biker gang – and Tetsuo – a little brother-type figure who ends up a massively destructive psychic organ blob – are not Caucasian men in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Yet the actors on the shortlist for these parts always consisted of whiter-than-Wonder-Bread types like Robert Pattinson, Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling, James Franco, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Hedlund, and, of course, Pitt and Reeves.
The whitewashing was a big discussion point whenever it looked like Akira might happen for realsies. According to Whitta, "that almost became kind of a joke—like, the idea of Shia LaBeouf as Tetsuo or whatever. People are going to have a hard time with that, and certainly the fans.”
With Akira having for so long resisted studio blockbusterization, a lot of fans of the original manga and anime are doubtless relieved that they haven't had to see a thirty-year-old Kanada riding his future-hog on the streets of New Manhattan. In that context, Collet-Serra's recent "nothing" report is a comforting one.
But the threat of a whitewashed Akira hasn't died completely.
No, over at DreamWorks, Scarlett Johansson is set to star in a live-action Ghost in the Shell remake directed by Snow White & the Huntsman helmer/brief tabloid fixture Rupert Sanders. If that rejiggering of a seminal anime property proves profitable, it will kickstart a trend, and Warners' cold feet over Akira will get a whole lot warmer.