Nothing seems to get the blood of fans boiling faster nowadays than the mentioning of Warner Bros.’ live-action Americanized adaptation of Akira. However, while some of the film’s important roles could possibly be filled by less-popular young stars like Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart, respectable stars like Gary Oldman and numerous well-regarded young actors have been approached to tackle other pivotal parts in the film.
Reports are now in that a deal has failed to materialize between Warner Bros. and Oldman, meaning the latter will not play “The Colonel” in Akira. However, another acclaimed actor – one who is also (gasp!) Japanese – has been offered the role.
In Akira, “The Colonel” at first appears to be an antagonistic figure, a stern and powerful man who is involved with the secret government operation that exploits the untapped psychokinetic abilities of “gifted” individuals, including a newly-captured biker gang punk. However, when that young patient develops god-like powers of destruction and threatens to slaughter countless civilians, “The Colonel” proves himself to be an honorable man who is determined to protect the people, no matter the cost to himself.
While Oldman could have easily been good (or great) in the role, the part is also one that Watanabe would be pretty much perfect for. He’s especially well-renowned for portraying complex, yet ultimately decent, “disciplined” men in most of his Hollywood productions, including The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Letters from Iowa Jima, and Inception. Watanabe can also be quite fierce, as fans will recall when he briefly played a (fake) Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.
Many people have argued that Akira should still feature cast members of Japanese heritage (regardless of the film’s new U.S. setting), which works in Watanabe’s favor. More importantly, though: the guy is just a really good actor.
One thing that should have become clear to hardcore Akira fans a long time ago: the new live-action adaptation changed cultural settings, partly to justify the casting of more bankable Caucasian actors and actresses in the film (that’s just business as usual in Hollywood…). At this point, the bigger concern is whether the project can still work as a multi-layered allegorical tale which reflects the history and current state of U.S. society (like the original Akira did for Japan), or if it will simply be yet another mindless, effects-driven, sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. That’s a dicy proposition, especially since the masses are only going to turn out for Akira it if looks first and foremost to be a stylish cyberpunk thriller.
Neither Hedlund nor Stewart are the horrible thespians a lot of people make them out to be; both are ultimately decent fits for the Akira roles they’ve been offered. The “meatier” dramatic parts are those that (more talented) people like Watanabe or Paul Dano are being sought for, which is actually a good sign. While that won’t be enough to change the minds of many Akira fans who have already written off this live-action adaptation as blasphemy, it should offer some comfort to those who have decided to hold off on making their final judgement just yet.
We will continue to keep you posted on the status of Akira as more information is released.