While this assignment is not supposed to be about the fact that “the book is so much better than the movie!” I think it’s nevertheless important to examine why certain adaptations work and are considered “good” while others crash and burn, especially in the case of an adaptation that seems to be failing while it’s in pre-production because its faults are already so obvious.
I’m referring to Warner Bros. attempt to adapt the Japanese animated classic Akira into a distinctly American live-action film. The news struck many fans of the original as dubious at best. Apparently even those who were trying to produce the film were having difficulty getting the concept to catch on: between Warner Bros. first intimations of the film in 2002 and 2011, the writers, directors and producers heading the project were changed no less than seven times. The disbelief and dread from fans only grew when it was revealed that actors being considered for lead roles included Robert Pattinson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Zac Efron. By 2012 the project had been cancelled, resurrected and cancelled again a grand total of four times, and has finally been greenlit for a 2013 release with a significantly downsized budget.
I believe that the reason the American adaptation will likely fail is directly related to how essential Japanese identity is to the original story. It’s important to keep in mind that one of the reasons Akira is so potent is that it deals explicitly with the national trauma Japan suffered after World War II. The film’s stark opening scene clearly evokes the image of a nuclear attack:
Japan is the only nation in history that’s been attacked by nuclear weapons, and it would not be hyperbole to describe Hiroshima and Nagasaki as apocalyptic in nature. In an essay exploring the cycles of trauma in Akira, Thomas Lamarre writes:
Japan has developed a special and very complex relationship to nuclear weapons… The workings of psychic powers in Akira follow logically from nuclear radiation: invisible yet exceedingly powerful forces that act at a distance, inducing deformations of the human body. Tetsuo’s psychic mutation, made manifest in his radiation-like deformations, evokes the hibakusha, the Japanese victims of atomic weapons.
Akira, then, is not intended to be a universal story. Writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo was attempting to capture, both in his original manga and its even more popular film adaptation, the tension between destruction and creation unique to post-WWII Japanese life. The narrative arc of Akira also “highlights and extends some of the most obvious problems of contemporary Japan: the aimlessness of youth, especially outsiders such as motor bikers; the repression of resistance in both schools and the workplace; and the increasing power of the new religions” (Napier 338), all of which cement the context of Akira within the scope of a distinctly Japanese experience. While some of those descriptors may seem applicable to various cultures, and indeed quite emblematic of American life as well, it’s problematic to assume they are synonymous. For example, the Japanese bōsōzoku, or motorcycle gangs, are similar only visually and not ideologically to their American counterparts. Compare the two videos below, the first from Akira, the second a compilation of clips from a documentary called “Hell’s Angels Forever.”
The difference is striking. While the Hell’s Angels were not passive, law-abiding citizens by any means, they, along with many American biker gangs, were motivated by a sense of loyalty to their nation and to preserving its values in their own way. Contemporary biker gangs are known to participate in large national charity events and are rarely on the wrong side of the law. The bōsōzoku, depicted rather severely in Akira, expressed their dissatisfaction with mainstream society through violence, and remain illegal in Japan to this day.
It’s evident that Akira is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and consciousness. That doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted into another medium, or that a cross-cultural adaptation isn’t possible; however, a successful adaptation would likely involve paying subtle homage to a part of the work without attempting to usurp the whole, or respecting the original work enough to adapt it more or less wholesale, context included.
The Warner Bros. adaptation does neither of these things. In March of 2011, Cracked.com writer Robert Brockway posted an article in which he broke down the five biggest problems that could sink the proposed Akira remake. A little over a week later, someone sent him parts of a draft for the American Akira script, of which he says, “I have every reason to believe this script is authentic, but I do not have confirmation from the studios.” It’s likely that the script has changed drastically since it was sent to him, especially considering how many times the creative heads of the project have changed, but his article nevertheless addresses the most likely problematic elements of any American recreation. The cast has been whitewashed (Tetsuo is now “Travis”), Kay is hypersexualized, Neo-Tokyo is now replaced by “New Manhattan,” and is Akira reduced to the “creepy little kid” trope; literally every time he shows up the script calls for “Frere Jaques” to be played. The biggest issue the movie could have is one Brockway addressed first in his original article, and receives confirmation of thanks to the leaked script:
I speculated last week that making a movie all about 9/11 would be the cheapest way to steal meaning from another culture and make it relatable to ours. And sure enough, they’re doing just that: Akira is now housed beneath the “memorial bunker” commemorating the initial destruction of the city. It’s described as a blank expanse of concrete with two “massive blue spot lights beam[ing] into the heavens. Millions of names etched along the walls.”
Just as Japan was irrevocably changed by WWII, so was America altered by the events of September 11th and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem here is that the historic, cultural and social issues surrounding each of these events are so fundamentally different that to try and retrofit one to describe the other is ineffective at best. As with any adaptation, it’s important to examine what the adaptation is trying to accomplish, what new perspective it’s revealing or reviving. In this case, a truly interesting adaptation of Otomo’s masterpiece might examine the colonialist background of American relations in Japan. It might explore the tensions between Japan’s WWII war crimes and America’s nuclear retaliation. It might even play with the vigorous modern-day cultural exchange between the two societies. Such an adaptation would have to be extremely aware of the context-dependent nature of its source material; in doing so, I imagine it could only claim to be “inspired by” said source. At the end of the day, that shortsighted lack of awareness is where the American Akira appears to fail most spectacularly, and what will probably doom it to parody in the end.
Brockway, Robert. “5 Urgent Questions About the Live Action ‘Akira’ Remake.” Cracked.com. Demand Media, Inc., 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-urgent-questions-about-live-action-akira-remake/>.
Brockway, Robert. “The Actual Live-Action Akira Script: Worse Than You Think.” Cracked.com. Demand Media, Inc., 07 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-actual-live-action-akira-script-worse-than-you-think/>.
Napier, Susan J. “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira.” Journal of Japanese Studies 19.2 (1993): 327-51. JSTOR. Web. 14 Feb 2012.
Thomas Lamarre. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 16.1 (2008): 131-156. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.
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