I wrote about my thoughts on Cyberpunk in a paper back in 2007! http://animediet.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/cyberpunk-anime.doc , and I must say, I’ve become much dumber and can’t carry on an intelligent conversation like that. In addition, the entire article or parts of it = tl;dr. But after years of yearning, I can’t believe (Hallelujah), they finally made another hard core Cyberpunk anime…
Alright, so after several prolonged discussions on both Facebook and Twitter regarding Deadline‘s news regarding the “whitewashed” casting being considered for The Hughes Bros. upcoming live-action adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic, AKIRA, it felt only right to go ahead and help clear the air. As Warner Bros. is going out of their way to make this long in development hell project become a reality, the very idea that not only has the story’s central location been moved to “New Manhattan”, but that the main cast is likely to be populated by stars as non-Japanese as can be imagined has suddenly helped spur on these discussions.
But the funny part of it is that this has been long in the talks to be for years now. It isn’t as if this is a terribly new wrinkle to this project.
But perhaps it was the list of names mentioned as possibilities to play the iconic roles of ill-fated friends Tetsuo(Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, or James McAvoy ) & Kaneda(Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake, or Joaquin Phoenix). And the funny part about this is that several years ago, there might have been a time when this fell clear through the “wrongness” cracks in my mind, and seemed natural for a moment.
But now, as the project gathers steam, it’s important to remember just what made the original manga, let alone the classic anime so potent in the minds of so many. At least to me, it was a combination of several striking factors that allowed the popularity to thrive, regardless of the Marvel Comics treatment, and ensuing TMNT-laden dub. It was a window into a Japan that westerners were largely unfamiliar with. Even as the western consciousness at the time was painted by the hues of a moneymaking powerhouse dream of Japan, there was also a spiritual detritus that permeated the seemingly unstoppable country that felt fresh and new. Not to mention the decade’s more fringe culture curiosity for cyberpunk, and a growing movement that questioned the very stability of the Reagan era. The stars seemed aligned for the at-times merciless spectacle of AKIRA to shine as a cult beacon for those looking for the next evolution of the superhuman comic book character/dystopian vision.
So when I see this news about RPatz being considered for a role that is not only Japanese, but should clearly be younger…all I can respond with is a drawn out..
Niche property adaptations have had their time in the spotlight as of late. And studios are in the process of doing all they can do to save these huge investments as nearly every risk that has been taken with cult comic properties have been met with either apathy, or disdain by the larger numbers of the moviegoing public. Ever since Speed Racer came onto screens in 2008, it has been clear that the then flourishing new era of adapting niche titles for big budget films was going to be a tough sell. (And as one of the few who actually still enjoys that film, it was a bitter pill to swallow.) But the reality is that the numbers who have been turning up to these films are nowhere what is needed to turn a profit of any kind. Just look at Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen, and just about every anime-turned live action film, and its all pretty self-explanatory.
So where I’m coming from is that this is not so much a matter of “race-bending” as it is a desperate attempt to do two things;
a) Get the movie made. –
The geeks aren’t in as much force as anticipated, and studios are now listening. There simply isn’t enough money to be made from an audience that can be a little too nitpicky for a “gotta please them all” type of business.
And of course..
b) Make that money back. –
Movies are now a terribly expensive idea for such properties. If one would have told me that Scott Pilgrim came with an almost 80 million dollar price tag a year ago, I would have deemed you fit to be locked away…but it is. Now imagine AKIRA for a second. That’s right. Let that sink in..
So what we’re looking at is a business tired of losing money/credibility, and are ready to forget the original target audience, and prepare for a film geared for a completely new one. A practice that has been done before many times, but has rarely to never worked. Even back in the days when the rights to AKIRA were in the hands of 90s powerhouses Guber-Peters, this was pretty much the same situation. And now that we’re in a time where no studio is willing to risk anything with a property that is all about risk-taking. It stands to question making it at all.
And I won’t even go into detail about why the original AKIRA project means so much to me, as it completely contradicts the very reason for this film to be made. The original in its visual gut punch says so much more than any live action interpretation ever could. So even if they changed their minds, and cast actual Japanese actors to play the parts, I’d still likely not be a fan of it. The simplicity of matters for me is this; AKIRA is not only specifically Japanese cosmetically, it is also incredibly Japanese at heart. It is a Showa Era primal scream, celebrating the lives of those unwilling to allow the Bubble to encase their existence. It is also an echo of the political turmoil of Japan in the late 60s-70s. Much like Sogo Ishii’s brilliant Bakuretsu Toshi, it is less a story so much as it is an examination of a society on the brink, and a culture eager for divine release. This is the very center of what makes the project beyond anything that can simply be ported over to our shores. It is Japan’s desperate heart crying for change, despite all the concrete and steel forming around them like a tomb.
And even as the real Japan struggles on to re-identify itself amidst calamity now, the wind called AKIRA is a spirit best expressed from the people this spirit emanates from.
Personally speaking, this is about as close to western as I’m willing to be with this..
Anime Diet Presents: Best Kept Secret of Anime Diet’s archive, part 1.
Looking for previously unread articles? Then our 10+ hours of work combing through 147 pages to find these little gems is definitely worth every second! Enjoy these as our year-end gift to you!
Originally published on September 16, 2003. A shorter version of this review was also published on Metaphilm.com. To date, it is my only “professional” review and was an attempt to review in detail all my anime DVDs.
Come, Sweet Destruction
Akira and the Japanese Apocalyptic Imagination
directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Rated R. 124 minutes.
Akira, perhaps the most impressive anime movie to come out in the 1980s, was many Americans’ first exposure to anime. Its bad original English dubbing, starring Ninja Turtle voice actors, has become a kitsch item for many old timer anime fans–there were many complaints when Pioneer redubbed the movie for its 2001 DVD restoration. What captivated those select audiences in the late 1980s to join the then tiny, unhip, and perhaps freakish anime fan community and launch a phenonemon that has now gone mainstream? In this age where even wildly left-field shows like FLCL can get shown on the Cartoon Network, it’s good to go back to one of the touchstones of modern anime and see what made it tick for so many people.
It’s become a cliche for Tokyo to get destroyed in various animes, though few have done so as artfully as this film. The shadow and influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs over the ending sequences, however, and in that film perhaps we can begin to see where some of the appeal of Akira comes from. Both are, for one, partly cautionary tales about the dangers of science run amok: artificial intelligence in one, the irresponsible channeling of psionic powers in the other. Both offer violent catharsis leading to cosmic rebirth, though the bloody messes in Akira are far more graphic than apes beating each other with bones or an astronaut shutting down a computer. And both films express the anxiety in modern soceity that something great and terrible is going to happen soon, something beautiful, perhaps, but also awful: in short, an apocalypse.
For the Japanese, having seen nuclear holocaust firsthand, any apocalypse is most likely going to involve mushroom clouds or similar shaped explosions. Anime from Evangelion to Escaflowne have used thinly veiled references to nuclear disasters. True to form, Akira also begins with an apparent nuclear explosion (though we discover later that it is not), and explains that the film takes place after “World War III.” (With the sheen of high-tech skyscrapers and synthesized tribal music beating in the background, one wonders though if anyone remembered Einstein’s quip about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones. Perhaps this is a backhanded optimism at work in the filmmakers?) The nuclear age put the dangers of science, which literature had been excoriating since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into sharp relief: here, at last, was a way that humankind’s folly could actually destroy the whole world. It’s no surprise then that, like many other technology-run-amok science fiction stories, Akira is largely about what happens when great power corrupts and is misused–mainly in the character of Tetsuo and his psychic abilities, but also in the civilian Tokyo government, the colonel’s military, and of course the conniving scientist, who marvels at the data printouts spewing from the plotters (“we’ll finally have a Grand Unified Theory!” he exults) while the city crumbles.
Naturally, there have been all too many low-class sci-fi books and movies about the dangers of science: Godzilla, for instance. Akira however is not quite as simple: the filmmakers clearly delight in the immense urban techno-glow of Neo-Tokyo, giving us hyperkinetic shots of racing motorcycles, cascading streetlights, little desks inside thousands of tiny office windows. The viewer’s impression of Tetsuo falling from the hospital into the field of man-made lights, into the valley of skyscrapers, is awe–the kind of awe that one has at thousands of Towers of Babel, perhaps, but awe all the same. I gleefully confess to wishing that this neon purgatory, whose streets are as dirty as New York City’s on a sanitation strike and where students and brutal riot police battle between the lanes, were real. It’s just so cool. The gamelan music accompanying the chase scenes and the gothic elegance of all the twisted pipes, wires, and towering heights makes it even cooler. This is The Future . . .
. . . and it is going to explode. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael controversially described 2001 as a film longing for the destruction of the human race, for nothingness and existence beyond the body. The impulse seems to be embedded in human nature. Watch a little kid build a towering Lego construction, only to knock it down gleefully with one swipe. We see the beautiful city of Neo-Tokyo crumble before our eyes in Akira, swallowed up by Tetsuo’s literal self-absorption. There is an awe-filled beauty in that kind of destruction, too, which culminates in that Kubrickian “star-gate” sequence in which Tetsuo literally becomes another universe, a universe where he is the great I AM–“I AM TETSUO,” the new god announces at the film’s end.
But Testsuo is a lonely god, a god without followers–only fond memorializers at the end with his biker friends. If one wants to psychoanlayze the character, one could say that at this point Tetsuo has reached the logical end of his depressed, downtrodden, and vengeful existence: complete self-absorption. That was where he was headed when he became a giant, gelatinous baby in the Olympic stadium, swallowing everyone and literally hugging his girlfriend to death. In the end, for him to exist, he has to be the only thing that exists in his universe. This seems like a terribly lonely fate to me–it’s more or less what CS Lewis conceived Hell to be like–but it is fitting for the increasingly dangerous Tetsuo, whose powers grew out of control because his desires for respect, for vengeance, and for domination grew out of control. Unable to live with others, he must separate himself from everyone else.
(Interestingly enough, a very similar thing happens at the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but the moral and the conclusion of the story is very different. More will be said on that issue when I get to Eva.)
Moreover, what happens to Tetsuo is a microcosm at what happens when human beings let their desire for power or knowledge grow out of control as well. The end result it the death of anything beautiful or worthwhile that man creates. This fear that we will knock ourselves down is at the heart of the apocalyptic anxiety, one that constantly pulses through popular Japanese imagination. We Americans are less prone to the fear of total annihilation, since the Cold War has ended. But after September 11th, which was a terrible day in which we saw high-tech towers falling apocalyptically through the blue skies, some of that fear resonates again. We can’t look at the gratuitous destruction of buildings the same way anymore. They have passed from action spectacles to the fearful, awe-full things that they really are. The perpetrators may be religious ideologues, but the means were technological: the fruits of our science and wisdom turned against us, out of its intentions and out of our control.
Out of our fears and anxieties come dreams, and then visions: the visions, in this case, of many artists come together to create an exciting, sometimes troubling work. The violence is often gratuitous and the characters merely screaming cutouts (and they all look the same in this movie, honestly), but all the wonder and the horror of modernity is on display in the city. Modern Tower-of-Babel stories never looked this good.
Michael is on hiatus for the remainder of August. The Vault series resurrects entries from his personal blog about anime, written from 2002-2006. Entries will appear in the series every other day.