Akira, the legendary cyberpunk property, has been in the hands of Taika Waititi since 2017, but after five years, everyone has resigned the project to development hell. Akira is no small project, and it shouldn’t be made lightly. Hopefully, that respect is part of why it remains in limbo. But fans can acknowledge that Akira confronts filmmakers with particular challenges as well. Apart from the sheer scope of the film, there are concerns with honoring the unique Japanese history the film references. Waititi is a filmmaker who would be sensitive to these worries, but a large American production company taking the movie out of Japan may cause some concern.
Akira has faced difficulties being remade since the ’90s when Sony had the rights to the film. Warner Bros. has been trying to make a live-action version since 2002. Over the years, there have been worrisome plans to make the movie, such as setting Akira in New York, making Akira a creepy child, and whitewashing the cast. There were also talks about giving Justin Lin the project. To the relief of fans, all of these attempts at making the movie failed. For now, Akira waits, hidden deep in the center of a dark Warner Bros. production facility, to be awakened one day by some poor unsuspecting director with the hubris to try and make it.
Akira’s Source Material Must be Honored
Akira is a tough film to make, particularly in America. Much of the story is influenced by Japan’s history in WWII, with the destruction referencing the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And not only that but the experimental military facility that Tetsuo is taken to alludes to Japan’s own Unit 731, a WW II laboratory that performed horrifying experiments on live prisoners. To take the movie out of Japan is to remove it from that part of Japan’s history that no other country can claim. This is a big reason Warner Bros. has had difficulty making it in the past. Not only have there been worries of whitewashing the film, but any filmmaker who picks up the project will have to walk a very fine line in honoring both the source material and Japanese culture while trying to make it their own.
The creator of the Akira manga, Katsuhiro Otomo, has permitted filmmakers in the past to change things, noting that this would be better than a flat remake. Even though he still has the rights to review any new project from his Akira title, he seems open to a live-action filmmaker doing something creative with it. But, as many of us know, live-action anime has been notoriously difficult to produce. There is always a severe danger of aggravating fans. And history has shown that many of these titles, such as Detective Pikachu 2, are being produced as a cash-grab and are pushed ahead regardless of the quality of storytelling. So, fears surrounding the medium are completely warranted.
But it’s not impossible to make a good live-action anime. Rurouni Kenshin and the Bleach movies have fairly high ratings on both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. A director with the appropriate combination of creativity and cultural reverence could do very well with the project. Jordan Peele would have likely made a good film, but he turned the project down when it was offered. Now it rests with Taika Waititi, whose live-action production was immediately cut off by the pandemic and whose roster is now filled with other projects. Perhaps he’s more of a caretaker of the IP than anything at the moment, but the movie has to happen.
Taika Waititi and The Future of Akira
Taika Waititi has been a seriously busy filmmaker, with a big portion of the zeitgeist burning a hole in his pocket. Thor: Love and Thunder had been taking up much of his time, and Disney is not a boss you can ignore. But now that he’s finished with it and Disney’s Star Wars request waiting until 2025, Waititi can choose which boss he wants to work for.
He could work for the lovable ’80s culture fans and make Flash Gordon. He could honor Terry Gilliam and the Monty Python crew and do Time Bandits. He could take up the mantle of Alejandro Jodorowsky and make The Incal. Or he could go back to his animal roots and do We’re Wolves. But, again, Akira has to be made.
Akira is a creative seed that has hidden within it a huge explosion. Akira’s cultural significance makes it a mystical nuke that could be set off to change not just live-action animes but comic book adaptations as well. The 1988 film was a work of art that elevated all animated movies. Warner Bros. Discovery is still awaiting a return on its 7-figure investment on the IP, so they will try to make it no matter who wants to do it.
But the truth of Akira is power. Power put into the hands of someone dangerously unfit to wield it. All it needs is a willing vessel, and whether it’s horrifyingly bad or horrifyingly good, the movie will be made.