There are, I suppose, a few pieces of good news to be found in the recent announcement that yet another writer has been brought on board the long-flagging live-action AKIRA project. The first is that the writer in question is someone with a striking pedigree: Marco Ramirez, writer and now showrunner for Daredevil (about which I can scarcely say enough good things; go see it if you haven't). Second is that the production is in the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio via his Appian Way company, but that he is apparently electing to manage the project at a distance rather than try to shoehorn himself into a starring role with it.
Outside of that I find myself falling short of an upside, in big part because I keep asking myself the same question about this project and never quite coming up with an answer: Who is it really for? The biggest problem with AKIRA as a live-action Western production is that such a movie has no discernible audience.
Each time I've covered new developments on this project, I always find myself with the same objections to it. A brief recap of my problems:
- AKIRA is Japan's story, not the West's. Moving the story Westward cripples its deeper meanings in ways that make a retelling all but pointless. So far I haven't seen an outline of a single strategy that would avoid this problem. Some stories just don't transplant well, and in the face of any evidence to the contrary I have to stand my ground here.
- The film is another example of the fallacy that the best way to do honor to a truly creative and original piece of work is to copy it. Hollywood labors constantly under the delusion that a brand name of any significance is better than an original creation, because it's "marketable", without any thought as to who they are marketing to or why.
- AKIRA is entirely the wrong choice of material for a live-action adaptation of an anime. Far better, less alienating properties are out there; why not pick up one of those? (Again, I ask: why no live-action Black Lagoon? What's wrong with you people?)
But all of those recede in significance compared to this:
- What is the prospective audience for this film?
This is the one question about this project I don't think I'll ever get a satisfactory answer to, because I doubt such a thing exists.
A live-action AKIRA courtesy of a Western production company clearly isn't for fans of the AKIRA we all know, since for most of them, the original movie is more than enough. Very little, if anything, about the Western adaptations has caught their attention — certainly not the mere fact of it, since that has inspired more derision and eye-rolling than anything else.
Even if the film was for those fans, that strikes me as a terrible business decision. We're not not talking about a fanbase on the order of magnitude of a trendy young-adult fantasy, where $75 million dollars worth of tickets can be counted on; we're talking about a niche of a niche of a niche, one that could barely fill a revival theater if the movie in question were playing town. (This is not me saying that AKIRA is not deserving of a sizable fanbase, only that the one we do have is many orders of magnitude too small to be seen as the justification for a project like this.)
Barring that self-selecting few, who could such a movie be for? The ostensible answer is a paying audience wherever one can be found — meaning audiences that have no vested interested in AKIRA as a property. Meaning, again, an audience with no particular hunger to see this material adapted, an audience that is essentially indifferent to this particular movie's value proposition.
That makes the choice of material all the more bizarre. If AKIRA's legacy has no real bearing on whether or not it puts people in theaters, why choose it — especially when the (violent, cruel, cold-blooded, grotesque) story it tells is hardly likely to be a draw on its own merits? The original was not even a success in its own country, and become a figure of cultish veneration only after the fact, not always to its own benefit. (As @botoggle put it on Twitter, when people asked "What else out there is like AKIRA?", few have had the nerve to answer "Nothing.")
Making a live-action version of any anime property in the West is tricky business. Audiences need a reason to care about the original material above and beyond the mere fact that it has name value to someone, somewhere. If you're going to spend upwards of $100 million on something, it only makes sense to ensure some degree of return on the investment — hence Warner Brothers cutting the budget for AKIRA down to the point where it wasn't even worth making the film in the first place. (Irony: An animated film of remarkable vision that cost a $11 million in 1988 [$22 million today] being remade as live action for many times that much makes me wonder what Hollywood's idea of a good investment is.)
The only answer anyone has ever been able to provide to the question, "Why AKIRA?", is that it would ostensibly make money. Given that there's never been a sign an audience actually exists for this thing, it hardly seems like it could do even that.