While promoting what’s surely a startlingly insightful drama about richly textured character portraits trapped on a CGI plane with Liam Neeson and a bomb or something, director Jaume Collett-Serra stopped talking about Non-Stop long enough to remark that his next project might be the on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again live-action adaptation of AKIRA. The director hopes to expand a whitewashed version of the story into a trilogy despite the fact that he doesn’t actually like the characters at the heart of the most iconic Japanese comic book and animated film to ever be released in the United States, or believe that strong characters are even to be found in Japanese culture.
Created by Katsuhiro Otomo first as a brilliant manga and later as an industry-shaking anime, AKIRA is an indelibly Japanese story of super-science, politics and youth in revolt set against a post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo. Its main characters are Kaneda and Testuo, two motorcycle gang members and the best of friends — until the latter is cursed with uncontrollable powers that manifest as ultra-violent expressions of his crippling self-loathing and jealousy.
Otomo explores apocalyptic themes in the series a way that only a Japanese creator could, telling the story of a conflicted, corrupt and desperate city borne out of a catastrophic event that explicitly recalls the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everything about the story is informed by the Japanese people’s struggle to redefine their nation in the post-war era, including the frequently shocking nihilism and violence of its young protagonists.
The prospect of an American production of AKIRA has been a controversial one since it was first announced that Warner Bros. inked a seven-figure deal for the rights back in 2008, particularly because the studio wished to cast it with distinctly non-Japanese actors like Garret Hedlund, Gary Oldman, Kristen Stewart and Helena Bonham Carter. As George Takei pointed out very famously, such a production is not just an ill-conceived idea but potentially offensive one as well given the profound cultural impact of the original work and the continuing underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in Western film. Indeed, for many Otomo readers around the world, such a movie would constitute the greatest possible insult.
Except for maybe what Collett-Serra had to say this week when he was asked about the project’s status while promoting his latest film:
Coming Soon: ….if you were going to do it in live-action one would hope you would bring something new to the table. What is it you are bringing specifically that is going to make it yours?
Collet-Serra: I hope that I can bring strong characters. In the original source material, I don’t think the main characters are the protagonists. What I’m hoping is to bring characters.
The director added:
Collet-Serra: Nobody’s interesting. Tetsuo’s interesting because weird sh*t happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That’s part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters. They’re used as a way to move the other philosophy forward.
Well, I suppose the director of Liam Neeson’s Unknown would know something about two-dimensional characters.
It might seem like Collet-Serra’s remarks are confusing and unfairly harsh. After all, why would a filmmaker dedicate several years of his life to a project — ideally three projects! — based on a cultural literature he does not respect, featuring characters he doesn’t like?
No, really… why?
I never watched Akira and I don’t really plan to but hey, nice way to make sure your target audience won’t go to see your movie!