With the recent release of Ghost in the Shell not faring very well at the box office, we’re curious what the future will hold for other live-action projects based on manga and anime source material that are currently in development. The most notorious of the bunch is the long in the works attempt at adapting Katsuhiro Otomo’s beloved Akira, the manga turned 1988 anime set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo (Neo-Tokyo!) which centers on a motorcycle gang of rebellious youth who must stop one of their members from running amok after he acquires dangerous telekinetic powers.
A live-action Akira movie has been in development for 15 years at Warner Bros. as many different filmmakers have attempted to get it made — we’re talking five directors and potentially 10 different writers that we know of. As recently as last month, in fact, Get Out’s Jordan Peele was reported as being courted by Warners for the film (other recent names rumored for Akira have included Lights Out’s David Sandberg and Life’s Daniel Espinosa). Let’s break down the history of this film and its seemingly unending development hell.
Akira’s development started much earlier than you might expect, as infamous producer Jon Peters and Warner Bros. secured the film rights to Akira in 2002. They would announce that Blade’s Stephen Norrington was set to direct the film. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen screenwriter James Robinson would be reuniting with Norrington (also expected to serve as a co-writer) on the film and producer Dan Lin was in the mix as well.
Norrington’s quote in the original announcement from The Hollywood Reporter was possibly the first hint at Americanizing Akira for western audiences. “It preserves the tone, the visual and the epic scope of the original whilst telling a somewhat more accessible story [to western audiences],” he said at the time.
It was revealed Norrington’s Akira planned to depict main characters Kaneda and Tetsuo as brothers, changing the source material right off the bat. Norrington’s Akira was expected to shoot sometime after League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released, but that film was a massive flop and led to Stephen’s (possibly forced) exit. Akira would go into hibernation for a couple of years until a brand new team was brought on to bring it back to life.
In 2008, Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson was announced with screenwriter Gary Whitta tackling a new script based on the original manga novels and with the goal of turning the project into a two-part film. Legendary Pictures would be brought in to co-finance with Greg Silverman and Appian Way’s Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson producing. The plan was to fast-track the first installment for a release in 2009, which of course never happened.
It was the first time we learned of the studio’s intention to move the setting from Tokyo, Japan, to Manhattan, New York, a fact which fans of the property were none too thrilled about. Whitta talked to Slash Film in 2015 and explained their vision for the film.
“Manhattan became Japanese sovereign territory as New Tokyo, with 10 million Japanese living there; it just happened to be located on the east coast of the United States,” he said. “I thought it was an interesting way to fuse eastern and western cultures in the movie, and allow a mix of actors from both, rather than just ‘whitewashing’ the film, which is what I think a lot of people were anticipating.”
He added, “The one thing that had been communicated to us from Katsuhiro Otomo [we never spoke with him directly] was basically to not be afraid to change things, that he wanted to see an original and different interpretation, not just a straight-up remake.”
Ruairi left Akira in 2009 and would eventually make his science-fiction horror film The Last Days on Mars. Here is the original pitch video Ruairi created back in 2007 for Akira:
Robinson posted a heap of Akira concept artwork on his official website from artists James Clyne, Aaron Beck, Charlie Wen, Daniel Simon, and others. You can check that art out and more below.
In early 2010, Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes were announced as Robinson’s replacements. Albert eventually went solo on the project and it was revealed it would be aiming for a PG-13 rating. Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man) were next to come onboard to rewrite Whitta’s script. Albert Torres was later hired to work his screenwriting magic as well.
A leaked version of the Akira script made its way online eventually. It’s assumed this was either Whitta’s earlier script or drafts from Fergus/Ostby and Torres. This version made many changes to the original story, including the basic characteristics and dynamics of the two main characters, the villains/threats, major plot-points invoking heavy-handed references to 9/11, Akira portrayed as a psychotic murderous creepy child straight out of a horror film (remember this was going to be PG-13), and misogynistic undertones involving the new version of Kei as compared to her tough-as-nails Japanese counterpart. It didn’t even sound like Akira after seeing the multiple changes made.
About a month later after the script leak, Albert Hughes exited the film over “amicable creative differences.” This also happened to be around the same time that a casting call became a big controversy due to accusations of whitewashing.
Book of Eli artist Tommy Lee Edwards developed some concept art and British illustrator Chris Weston was asked to create storyboards. Check out some of those images below:
The last director to sign on was Run All Night’s Jaume Collet-Serra, announced during the summer of 2011. Christopher Nolan’s screenwriting brother Jonathan Nolan of Westworld and The Dark Knight fame had been pursued along with Logan and Alien: Covenant’s Michael Green to do rewrites on Collet-Serra’s script, which at this point had come from Harry Potter franchise screenwriter Steve Kloves. It’s unknown if Nolan or Green did any real writing work on the project, however.
Collet-Serra had some choice words about his version not sticking to the source material either.
“Nobody’s interesting [in the anime],” he told Coming Soon. “Tetsuo’s interesting because weird sh*t happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That’s part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters. They’re used as a way to move the other philosophy forward.”
The Akira curse got to the director too and he eventually bounced as well over multiple disputes with the studio. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Collet-Serra had hoped for a budget of $90 million, but Warner Bros. felt it could be made for more in the $60-$70 million range. The script and casting also became an issue. He got pretty close to making the film, though, before the plug was pulled and the Vancouver facilities where prep work was happening were closed.
Here is some concept art from Collet-Serra’s version of the film from artists Howard Lau (Godzilla, Warcraft) and Ray Lai (Suicide Squad, Elysium, Watchmen):
One issue the production has constantly dealt with is reports of potential whitewashing of the lead characters. For the role of biker gang leader Kaneda, the studio has reportedly looked at Garrett Hedlund, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Keanu Reeves, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Evans, Chris Pine, James Franco, Justin Timberlake, and Zac Efron. The gentlemen eyed for the role of overpowered telepath Trevor/Travis (aka Tetsuo) have included Ezra Miller, Toby Kebbell, Alden Ehrenreich, Rami Malek, James McAvoy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Pitt, Paul Dano, and Richard Madden.
A smaller group of generic have been linked for the role of Kei, including Keira Knightley, Kristen Stewart, and Mila Kunis. The Colonel went out to Ken Watanabe, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman, while Helena Bonham Carter was said to be a lock for a supporting role.
Another headache for the studio, reinforced by Gary Whitta, supposes that Akira is a universal story and not specific to Japan.
“I personally reject the argument that Akira is necessarily a Japanese story and that it’s somehow sacrilegious to set a new adaptation of it anywhere else,” said the writer to Slash Film. “I think many of the themes in that story are ones that speak to the human condition and are therefore relevant anywhere in the world — if that weren’t true the original versions would never have been a hit outside of Japan.”
But Akira has deep cultural roots connected to WWII era Japan. Its heavily militarized environment in the manga/anime harkens back to that, and is an experience not shared by modern day Americans. Japan is also the only nation that has had nuclear weapons unleashed upon them (a major plot point in the story), making the imagery of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo particularly striking. Also, the cruel medical and bio-weapon/chemical-weapon experiments conducted by Japan’s Unit 731 presumably inspired the Akira experiments in the story. Akira is science fiction, but there are elements that are clearly based on actual Japanese history.
Currently, the film is without a director but names have continued to pop in association with it, including George Miller, Justin Lin, and Christopher Nolan. Miller confirmed talks with the studio last year but alluded to turning it down. Obviously Jordan Peele, David Sandberg and Daniel Espinosa are keeping good company.
The potential for a worthwhile Akira film franchise is there but it remains to be seen if the project will ever get off the ground. Stay tuned to IGN for all the latest on Akira.