MovieBob - Intermission
Advice From a Fanboy: Akira

Bob Chipman | 4 Nov 2011 12:00
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I'm not 100% convinced that the anime film Akira deserves to be as sacrosanct as it's often treated (note: Yes, I'm aware that the manga is different. No, I have not read it yet. No, you will not be the first person ever to tell me that I simply haaaaaaaaaaaaave to.) It's good, don't get me wrong, but looking back it feels more and more like its Western fame comes more from being a lot of people's first "real" anime experience ("Holy crap! The cartoons are killin' each other!") than from its actual merits as a perfectly serviceable cyberpunk action flick.

Nevertheless, it's popular and well-known enough to be a brand, so the perpetual threat of a live-action American remake has again reared its head, yielding the predictable result of anime fans crying "Sacrilege!" and everyone else crying "What the hell is Akira?"

I'm not terribly keen on the idea myself, for reasons I'll outline momentarily, but I'm also a staunch proponent of the idea that you can make a good movie out of anything and that "anything" includes other movies. Thinking on the matter, I can imagine a few scenarios whereby this could be a good (even great) idea, although none of them are scenarios that I see as particularly likely to actually occur (particularly since this is happening under Warner Bros., where genre movies not featuring Batman or Harry Potter go to die).

But on the way, way off chance that someone with the means to change that happens to be reading; here's some ideas that might make an Akira remake worth watching.

Don't Call It Akira

A lot more classic movies than people realize are remakes/adaptations of previous material - including other films - but with different titles. At one point, "remake" (along with "sequel") was kind of a dirty word. The poster child for this, in the West, is the classic western The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese classic, The Seven Samurai. Calling a remake of Akira something else ("based on Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo") would probably defuse a certain amount of fandom grumbling right off the bat, and it'd also be the proper thing to do thematically.

See, while the name "Akira" sounds kind of unusual and exotic to American ears, it's really a very common Japanese name. This is one of the nuances that's somewhat lost on Western audiences - the banality of the name versus the deified tones with which it's spoken. All these characters talking about "some guy" as though he were Christ, Mohammed, The Buddha, etc. is meant to be jarring. Since the remake is not looking to be set in Japan nor feature a primarily Japanese cast, it would only make sense to give "this" Akira an equally common Western name, such as "Adam".

Also, let's be real about this. As well-known as Akira might be among anime fans and genre screenwriters, in general, most of the audience has never heard of it and those that have don't want to see a remake with Hollywood actors awkwardly calling eachother "Tetsuo" and "Kaneda" and are probably plugged in enough to know what the film is based on without the title having to tell them. The major themes and story of Akira are universal - might as well let that be an asset.

And speaking of universal themes ...

Whitewash? No. "Brownwash"? Hmmm ...

Let's not mince words. A huge part of the reason that "Americanized remake" carries such a negative connotation is the fact that American culture has been a dominant force in the world for a long time and thus said remakes carry the unwitting stigma of homogenization or, at worst, colonialism. This is made all the more extreme and uncomfortable in terms of symbolism when the characters are changed from their native ethnicity to caucasian Americans.

So maybe don't do that?

A moment ago I called Akira's story universal, and I didn't just mean in the sense that urban cyberpunk is a global genre. The specifics of the story - government experiments, telekinetic children, urban neo-religious cults - are ultimately decorations laid over a much more broad-reaching narrative of inner-city children victimized by The System that drives many of them into criminality-as-survivalism via the "family" of gang life (Kaneda) or drags them deeper into the belly of the beast (Tetsuo and the other "special" children). That's not just Akira's story, or even just a story of Japan's urban-poor - it's also a story playing out hundreds of thousands of times every single day in inner cities all over the world, including America.

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