There's little that's more confounding than good intentions. Consider the case of Gary Whitta, the screenwriter (Book of Eli) originally tapped to write the script for the as-yet-still-unproduced Hollywood remake of AKIRA. Whitta has been the subject of a multi-part interview by Slashfilm, and in the most recent installment he talks in great detail about that project and how specifically it would have departed from the original. It's a frustrating read, in big part because Whitta goes to some length to portray himself as not being the enemy of AKIRA fandom, and I have little doubt he is sincere about that. But sincerity of purpose is, I'm learning, no defense against making other aesthetic mistakes.
First off, go read the entire article series if you haven't already, as Whitta has a great deal to talk about apart from AKIRA. Second, I didn't start reading the piece looking for an excuse to slam Whitta. His Book of Eli was one of the smarter, more intriguing projects I've seen to get a big-budget greenlight as of late, and knowing he was involved with AKIRA on some level did made me wonder if he would bring to it some insight that wasn't readily apparent.
But then I read this:
I was – and remain – such a fan of both the original manga and the anime. I would not have taken the job on if I didn’t think there was a way to handle the original material respectfully and to do it some kind of justice. 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. 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.
Whitta is, I think, conflating two distinct issues here: a) the fact that AKIRA is, as a story, tied to the locale of its origins (I have argued this before); and b) how that aspect of it has in turn influenced its reception elsewhere. The fact that AKIRA is true and resonant for people outside Japan isn't evidence that the story can be wrenched free of its original context. If anything, it's proof it's all the more indivisible from that context, because that context was what made it resonant to begin with. What's more, that context can't be swapped out arbitrarily for another one without making it into an entirely different story — one that can' t be called AKIRA any more than a movie that replaces the circumstances of the American War of Independence with another country's own rebellion could still be called 1776.
Cold as this may sound, I put no extra confidence in Whitta when he calls himself a fan of the material. Not because I don't think he has the right to say that; anyone can, and is free to, call themselves a fan of anything. But that's the problem. A person's status as a fan confers upon them no special understanding of something that protects them from making bad creative decisions about it. If anything, fans are more likely to make bad decisions of that ilk than non-fans, because it's easier for them to justify their lousy tastes out of love. Without knowing Whitta personally, I can't speculate on just how deeply his attachment to the material has affected his analysis of it (and I hate that kind of vest-pocket psychoanalysis anyway), but most anyone reading this can cite at least one example of a fan not knowing what's best for their particular fandom.
Whitta also supplies some notions of how his AKIRA of the Westies would have been, and this is where things really begin to fall to pieces:
I think we hit upon an idea that would have allowed the story to play to global audiences while staying faithful to its Japanese roots. The idea was basically that in the future Japan had been forced to deal with an economic and population boom by essentially purchasing an abandoned Manhattan island in a massive land deal from the American government, which itself had been driven close to economic ruin by the destruction of the city of Manhattan in the original Akira incident. So what had once been Manhattan became Japanese sovereign territory as New Tokyo, with ten million Japanese living there; it just happened to be located on the east coast of the United States. 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 “white-washing” the film, which is what I think a lot of people were anticipating.
Again, the problem is not that the idea isn't filmable. It's that the changes amount to, at heart, a different story with none of the same implications. In the original, Tokyo had been devastated in 1988 and rebuilt at great expense over the course of the next few decades, only to find itself subsequently crumbling into anarchy and decadence. It doesn't take more than a cursory reading of recent Japanese history to see it as an allegory for Japan's own destruction at the end of WWII, and its subsequent rebirth as an economic superpower, albeit at the cost of becoming that much more materialistic and cynical. (The unfinished Olympic stadium in AKIRA is yet another nod in that direction; having the 1964 Olympics hosted in Tokyo served as further evidence it had lived down its recent history.)
These things are not surface details or window dressing. They are the very substance of the story, the entire reason it has the weight it does. To Japanese audiences, they resonate by way of an analog of what had once happened; and Western audiences respond in their own way to the depiction of the analogy being that much more visceral, that much more rooted in Japan's genuine past. Whitta's version simply ditches all that. It offers nothing much of substance in its place — not even easy analogies to 9/11, something I worried would be the cheap and easy way to give a Western-set AKIRA a degree of gravitas for English-speaking (well, American) viewers.
I give Whitta credit for saying he didn't want to simply Anglicize the whole thing indiscriminately. But on reading the rest of the piece, I kept asking myself: if they allegedly cared that much, why not just set the whole thing in Tokyo and be done with it? It's not as if that by itself is a deal-killer: The Wolverine took a certain X-Man to Japan with good box-office results, and got the details right to boot. But then again, that was with an established franchise that most audiences would have followed to Antarctica if need be — which, again, only makes me wonder what logic there is in trying to film a tricky, cultish property that has minimal crossover potential in the first place.
Japan and Hollywood circle each other constantly, each borrowing from the other, sometimes in the form of homage and sometimes as outright imitation. Most everyone reading this knows about, say, The Seven Samurai remade (and very well, in fact) as The Magnificent Seven, or the endless J-horror remakes (Ring, The Grudge), some good and some not. But Japan has done the same thing any number of times in return, and across a wide spectrum of material -- from the mind-melting Star Wars clone Message From Space (actually a science-fantasy reworking of Legend of the Eight Samurai, directed by none other than Kinji [Battle Royale] Fukasaku), to straight-up remakes of Hollywood films: Sideways, Unforgiven. The latter in particular caught my attention as a potential example of how to map one culture's conceits to another properly; there's a lot about the last days of the Western frontier that analogizes well to Japan's late 19th-century, both in terms of specific details and subject matter. I have yet to see the film myself and determine how successfully it pulls all that off, but it's a sound proposition even on a conceptual level.
But AKIRA isn't that easy to transplant. It's not that it's "sacrilegious" (Whitta's word) to change the story up; it's that changing up this particular story leaves you with a different story, one that has no earthly reason to share a name with the original.
The reason I support the idea of making live-action versions of Claymore, or Black Lagoon, or any number of other anime titles is because those particular things can be moved to the West without altering what they are and what they mean. If anything, their meanings can be expanded all the more in such a context, not diminished or sabotaged. But not all anime is like that; not all stories are like that.
A Western AKIRA is an oxymoron, and it's all the more painful to see Gary Whitta defend such a project with the best and most sincere of intentions. Can't someone put this man on a movie that doesn't have its conceptual deck stacked against it? I vote for Fullmetal Alchemist. He, and we, would both have a blast.