Akira: The long and tortured history of the live-action remake

Ben Falk
UK Movies Contributor
Tetsuo Shima unleashes his new found powers in ‘Akira’ (Manga)

A live-action adaptation of the iconic manga comic (also filmed as a seminal 1988 anime) has been in Hollywood development hell for decades with many huge names including Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Evans, Keanu Reeves, and Christopher Nolan all linked with the project at various stages.

So what happened? And will this iconic Japanese property ever get a live action adaptation like ‘Ghost In The Shell’?

1982-1990 – Katsuhiro Otomo launches his original manga. Set in Neo-Tokyo, 2019 after the nuclear apocalypse, it tells the epic story of youngsters Kaneda, Tetsuo against the backdrop of gang violence, psychic kids and motorbike chases.


1988 – Otomo adapts his own work for the screen with a truncated two-hour anime cartoon. A box office smash, it becomes stylistically influential and helps broaden the popularity of the animation style outside of Japan.

1990s – Sony pick up the remake rights to the project, but the film lies dormant.

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2002 – Warner Bros. take over the rights and ‘Blade’ director Stephen Norrington joins the film, fresh from the debacle of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. Adapted by ‘Gentlemen’ writer James Robinson, this version is apparently set in Chicago and Tetsuo and Kaneda are written as brothers. “I’ve tried to retain as many iconic elements of the anime as possible,” Robinson told Variety at the time.

2004 – With Norrington having resigned from the project following his disillusion with the film business, ‘Catwoman’ director Pitof takes over. His involvement doesn’t last long, probably until the minute that his ridiculed superhero flick hit cinemas. The screen rights to ‘Akira’ revert back to Kodansha, the comic’s publisher.

Credit: ruairirobinson.com/James Clyne

2006 – The remake finally kicks into high gear with the hiring of unknown Irish director Ruairi Robinson. Robinson is approached by Warner Bros. and asked which film he wants to make. He pitches ‘Akira’ as “’City of God’ plus ‘Blade Runner’” and hopes to split the story into a pair of films.

The first would primarily draw from the anime but reset the location to the US, the idea being that the initial Akira incident wiped out Manhattan and the entire financial system of the US collapsed. In the wake of that, a bankrupt US government leased the vacant ruins of New York City to the Japanese to rebuild and they built New Tokyo on what was formerly US soil.

Mixing American and Japanese culture, Robinson’s idea is to make the political context of the story make sense in a near future world but to find a way to adapt the story without changing much of the characters and imagery. The second movie would deal with the events from books 4-6 of the manga. It’s R-rated.

Credit: ruairirobinson.com

A bidding war begins for the rights, ‘Rogue One’ scribe Gary Whitta is hired as screenwriter and Robinson creates concept art. Leonardo DiCaprio boards in a producer role.

November 2007 – Warners win the option, but two weeks later the writers’ strike shuts down pre-production.

Credit: ruairirobinson.com/James Clyne

February 2008 – The strike ends and Whitta is told he needs to produce a script in five weeks. Weta Workshop are hired to create visuals, alongside a production designer and art department. Ruairi Robinson meets with nearly every actor under 30 in Hollywood and settles on Chris Evans as Kaneda and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tetsuo, although his concept picture suggests he is now called Travis. However, notes from the studio necessitate various rewrites which lead Robinson to leave the project in March 2009.

2010 – Albert Hughes of the Hughes Brothers directorial partnership (‘The Book of Eli’) is hired as helmer. He tells the Kevin & Josh Movie Show that ‘Akira’ – still in two parts at this point – would be PG-13. He adds, “The trick for me is to simply everything for the audience, because you can’t come in with that complexity.”

2011 – Despite a rewrite by ‘Harry Potter’ screenplay author Steve Kloves, Hughes leaves the project.

July 2011 – Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (‘The Shallows’) is hired, but with a vastly reduced budget of £80million (down from a once-estimated £242m). “I hope that I can bring strong characters,” the director told Coming Soon. “In the original source material, I don’t think the main characters are the protagonists. What I’m hoping is to bring characters.”

Keanu Reeves, Zac Efron and Garrett Hedlund – Credit: PA

Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter are cast as baddies and a slew of leading men are considered, including Keanu Reeves, Zac Efron, Robert Pattinson, Justin Timberlake and more before Garrett Hedlund (‘Tron: Legacy’) is cast as Kaneda. Kristen Stewart is thought to be lock for the lead female role of Kei.

Brit actor Toby Kebbell (‘Kong: Skull Island’) is a frontrunner to play Tetsuo, but subsequently revealed he wasn’t afraid to tell the filmmakers the mistake they were committing by making the two male protagonists brothers.

“I was like, ‘The point is that Tetsuo can’t comprehend how someone who isn’t his brother could love him so much and that’s where his wrath and his rage come from,” he explained to IFC. “Do you not see that? Why have you made them brothers? What the f*ck are you doing?’”

(MANGA/Giphy)

Former ‘Star Trek’ star George Takei also chimes in, writing in The Advocate about the decision to seemingly whitewash the cast.

“It’s the multi-ethnic Americans who are fans of ‘Akira’ and manga,” he said. “The idea of buying the rights to do that and in fact change it seems rather pointless. If they’re going to do that, why don’t they do something original, because what they do is offend Asians, number 1; number 2, they offend the fans.”

January 2012 – The film is put on hold again by Warner Bros. due to budget and script concerns, despite sets being built in Vancouver.

Credit: ruairirobinson.com

2015 – Following the success of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, George Miller is asked to direct. “There was talk of it,” he later told Den of Geek. “But I’ve got so many things on my dance card, I don’t have the time to do everything.”

June 2015 – Marco J. Ramirez is announced as writing a new script. Ramirez was showrunner for the second season of ‘Daredevil’ on Netflix and will oversee their superhero match-up ‘The Defenders’.

September 2015 – News breaks that Christopher Nolan is involved with the project – most likely as a producer – and that he’s planning a trilogy. Nolan doesn’t acknowledge the report.

Justin Lin – Credit: Flynet

June 2016 – Rumours abound that Warners are encouraging ‘Star Trek Beyond’ director Justin Lin to come on board, although he never confirms signing up.

Now – Silence. But Warner Bros. will no doubt be watching what happens to the PG-13 film adaptation of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ starring Scarlett Johansson.

Also based on an iconic manga and anime combo and suffering from its own whitewashing controversy leading up to its release, the movie’s fate could well determine whether a live-action ‘Akira’ finally moves forward after almost 20 years of false starts.


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