Warner Bros' live-action US adaptation of Akira, the highly-lauded cult manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, has already been declared dead and subsequently resurrected at least once, and has changed hands so many times that it's difficult to tell whose fingerprints are currently on it. Ruairi Robinson, the Hughes Brothers, and Jaume Collet-Serra have all been tapped to direct by turns, each hanging around for a while before finally leaving, and that's to speak nothing of the many rewrites that the script has undergone.
Now, Akira seems to be just another unproduced script languishing in the bottomless depths of development hell. But that doesn't mean we can't discuss what might've been.
One thing that remained consistent through every iteration of the new Akira was the fact that the story of psychic bikers would be taken out of its original setting of New Tokyo and retold in New Manhattan, with American actors in the roles of formerly Japanese characters. The revolving door of casting has seen the likes of James Franco, Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Dano, Garrett Hedlund, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard Madden, Kristen Stewart and Zac Efron all attached to the project in various roles (there was even talk at one point of casting Ken Watanabe - an actual Japanese person - as The Colonel).
One of the toughest things about writing the script for Akira was taming the mature content of the story into something that would get away with a PG-13 rating. That was just one of the challenges mentioned by Gary Whitta (the screenwriter behind M. Night Shyamalan's new film, After Earth), who worked on the script for a long time in one of its early incarnations when Ruairi Robinson was attached to direct. As stated in an interview with Collider, Whitta's main focus when adapting Akira was to convince Warner Bros to keep its Japanese origins more or less intact:
“We always dealt with the problem of, [and] I think what a lot of the fans felt was problematic, was the westernization of it; [it’s like] 'they’re never going to make the $100 million movie with an all-Japanese cast. You need to westernize it.' And that almost became kind of a joke—like, the idea of Shia LaBeouf as Tetsuo or whatever. People are going to have a hard time with that, and certainly the fans.
“We came up with an idea that I actually thought was really cool; I don’t know if it survived into future versions. It’s not New Manhattan—because that was the [initial] idea, right? They moved it in to New Manhattan. I said, ‘it’s not New Manhattan, it’s still New Tokyo but—this is going to sound weird—it’s actually in Manhattan.’ What we did was, the idea is that there’d been a massive economic crash in the United States and in our desperation, we sold Manhattan Island to the Japanese, who were becoming a very powerful economic force, and they were having an overpopulation problem, because Japan is a series of islands, it can only accommodate so many people. So they just bought Manhattan Island, and it became the fifth island of Japan, and they populated it. It became New Tokyo, and it was just off the coast of the United States.
"So it was Japanese territory, it wasn’t New Tokyo, but there were Americans who kind of lived in little Americanized quarters of it. I felt it was a way to do a kind of cool Western-Eastern fusion of the two ideas; not fully Japanese, not fully westernized. Whether or not you’ll ever see that version, I don’t know, but I thought that was kind of a cool solution to that problem of westernization of a Japanese concept.”
At this point, there's no evidence that Whitta's script, or any version of Akira, is heading into theaters any time soon. The project has gone completely dark ever since Warner Bros shut down development last year, on the basis that the required budget was too big for such a gamble. For some fans of the comic book, this might actually be more of a blessing than a curse, since there was a lot of disquiet over such a well-loved manga being yanked out of its original setting and repackaged to appeal to a broader audience.
Having said that, using a Japanese-owned Manhattan as the setting is actually quite a clever and subversive way of bridging the gap between the Japanese source material and the westernization that would occur in a US adaptation. There are still a number of drawbacks to it - for example, it sounds like Tetsuo Shima and the other central characters would mostly have been recast as Americans living in the smaller quarters of Manhattan island, in order for Warner Bros to have some recognizable faces for the posters - but it would at least have allowed for a Japanese supporting cast and a retainment of the original cultural background.
Given how long the project was in development for, and how many times it looked like it was definitely going to happen before being cancelled, at this point we won't believe Akira is actually going to happen unless they start showing trailers for it in theaters. It's almost a shame that the material is considered to be so unpalatable without well-known Hollywood actors attached - after all, who doesn't want to see a movie about bikers with superpowers?
We'll let you know if Akira ever gets put back into development, but you probably shouldn't hold your breath in anticipation.