So why call it Akira?

Have you heard about the live-action Akira movie that Hollywood is putting together? It’s true.

And it’s taking some strange liberties with the material. It’s not even taking place in a dystopian Tokyo. It’s taking place in “New Manhattan” and the ‘net is already up in arms about the non-presence of Asian actors for the lead roles. The short list of those that have been sent the rewritten script by Steve Kloves (screenwriter for the Harry Potter films series) is (according to Deadline):

For psychic power god Tetsuo:

  • Robert Pattinson (Twilight)
  • Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
  • James McAvoy (Wanted)

For bosozoku Kaneda:

  • Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy)
  • Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds)
  • Chris Pine (Star Trek)
  • Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator)

I’ve no problem with the actors themselves. I’ve seen most of them put up some good work on the silver screen. Though for very Japanese material, the casting just seems about as off as when I saw John Wayne star as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror”. But come on, that was made decades ago. Since then, I’m sure Asiatic actors haven’t been as hard to find without resorting to prosthetics, right?

"TETSUO!!!"

Well, the answer is a little murky there as I found out. There are a lot more actors who could probably fit into the typical “asiatic role” nowadays than there were in the 50’s. This is also likely going to be a big budget production so, unless you happen to be a J.J. Abrams who could get away with relative unknowns in Star Trek, they’re probably looking to stick to a few names that might bring in crowds unfamiliar with Akira – like Pattinson, for that Twilight demographic. Despite its legendary reputation in anime fandom, stop someone in the street and ask if they know what “Akira” is and you’re likely to get a blank stare. That or directions to someone that is named Akira.

Hollywood also hasn’t had as much success when it came to “westernizing” Japanese properties. Look at what happened with Dragonball Evolution. You can bet that there won’t be another Dragonball live action film made for years after that debacle. Then there’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. When I couldn’t buy any of the characters as who they were supposed to be, it just makes it harder to watch the rest of that trainwreck. even though I’d seen McDonough in other stuff knowing he has the chops for a good role, I can’t believe he’d take on this turkey as M. Bison.

So with those reasons, it’s easy to see a little method to their madness.

"KANEDA!!!"

But the hardcore fans, the ones that know exactly what Akira is (both the film and the manga series), are going to see the differences right away. Just look at the response for M. Night Shyamalan’s take on “The Last Airbender”, a film whose casting upset enough fans to term the word “racebending” and create a site based on building up a grassroots awareness of underrepresented groups in Hollywood. Even the series’ creators had distanced themselves from the film. When kids can pick up on things that are wrong, not simply because of how the characters look but also for how they act, you know you have a problem.

A post out there talking about this had also suggested that Akira might be another Godzilla, the one starring Matthew Broderick and which featured a new “Godzilla” tearing up New York City. It’ll have the basic trappings of Akira, but be distinctly Western. One scenario could be a mix between what we’d seen with Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the dystopian future of Scott’s Blade Runner.

Perhaps something happened in the far future to make “New Manhattan” a foreign borough of Japan Inc. and after so many generations, Japanese names and nomenclature assimilated themselves into its landscape. It would make a lot more sense than stripping out Tokyo and substituting a very Japanese cast for a Western one for as petty a reason as box office receipts. It could also be very interesting just to see how it might take the film beyond the cast.

But does every film have to have a racially correct casting order? No, but at the same time, Hollywood has often made it clear that they’ll strip material down far enough to work in famous names and locations. For a film like Akira that has the potential to show off what other young Asiatic actors could do, it’s an opportunity that isn’t being offered to any of them.

John Cho from Star Trek put in a commendable act as a young Sulu in Abrams’ Star Trek, but he’s only one name out of a handful that could have been seen in a film like this – and weren’t approached. What happened to the casts of Ninja Assassin or Tokyo Drift? It’s not like Rick Yune or Rain have vanished into thin air. Sure, they might be older, but that’s why Hollywood has makeup artists. I’m willing to bet that most of Glee’s cast haven’t been in high school for years.

So at this point, Akira’s turning out to be a pot filled with missed opportunities, furious rants, and disappointed fans. I’m still not sold on the film, especially after hearing the casting, but I’ll keep an eye on things to see how it turns out. After all, I could be surprised. It’s one thing that Hollywood still knows how to do.

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