Neo-Tokyo is about to explode…or not. A couple of weeks back, Warner Bros. announced that it would be moving forward with a live-action adaptation of Akira, helmed by Non-Stop and Run All Night director, Jean Collet-Serra, and Sons of Anarchy screenwriter, Marco Ramirez. The official logline from 2011 reads:
“Set in New Manhattan, the cyberpunk sci-fi epic follows the leader of a biker gang who must save his friend, discovered with potentially destructive psychokinetic abilities, from government medical experiments.”
The original 1988 Japanese cyberpunk film is considered a landmark work in animation, and has steadily built a strong American cult following in the decades since its initial release. In 2014, following the release of a casting shortlist, famed Star Trek actor, George Takei, petitioned against an impending decision to cast all white (or non-Asian) actors in the roles, pointing out the offensive nature of such whitewashing. And Takei is absolutely right. Akira, both the animated film and the manga upon which it’s based, are inextricably tied to Japanese culture, religion, philosophy, and the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite Takei’s righteous crusade, Warner Bros. plans to turn Neo-Tokyo into New Manhattan, replacing its Asian characters with white ones, their original plans remaining largely unchanged. They’ve obviously learned nothing from rival studios casting prejudices (displayed in both The Last Airbender and Exodus: Gods and Kings, in addition to the upcoming Ghost in the Shell adaptation). While Warner Bros. will surely try to convince the public that their decisions are based in marketability and star-power, the fact remains that when they cast non-Asian actors as the leads (which they undoubtedly will), the film will become inaccurate. The idea that Akira (an Asian property, made with Asian actors, and distributed in the fastest growing film market in the world) wouldn’t make money is absurd. Additionally, Akira is a property that doesn’t need to be a franchise, so if Warner Bros. put their efforts into making a strong, appropriately cast film, they also wouldn’t find themselves at a financial loss of any sort. So, in an effort to better the the narrow-minded prejudices that rule so much of Hollywood, we present our dream cast for Akira.
Tatsuya Fujiwara as Tetsuo
The most important role in the film (and also the most difficult to cast). Tetsuo is the youngest and most insecure member of his biker gang. When a motorcycle accident leaves him in the hands of government scientists, he is experimented upon and given psychic abilities. The experimentation causes Tetsuo’s mind to snap and, driven by a lifetime of feeling inferior, he begins a rampage on Neo-Tokyo, fancying himself a God (think apex-predator, or Andrew from Chronicle). While Tetsuo is ultimately the antagonist of the film, he must display a certain vulnerability and be able to illicit sympathy through his circumstances. Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara has a certain sensitivity to his looks, a diminutive stature, and longstanding experience in playing characters adapted from manga, proving the point that he is certainly up to the task of portraying Akira’s standout character.
Yuya Yagira as Kaneda
Kaneda plays the traditional hero role in the film. He’s a brash, flirtatious, and overly-confident show-off, and everything his best friend (Tetsuo) wishes he was. Despite his flaws, he’s extremely loyal, and does everything in his power to save Tetsuo. Kaneda should be played by someone who can ooze cool and confidence while being effortlessly funny. Yuya Yagira (who won best actor at Cannes in 2004, and recently starred In the Japanese remake of Unforgiven) looks like he has what it takes to wear Kaneda’s stylish red leather jacket, and be able to handle his own on Kaneda’s signature bike.
Tao Okamoto as Kei
A member of a rebel, anti-government organization, Kei’s path crosses with Kaneda’s early on, as she joins his effort to save Tetsuo and stop the government from unleashing a force they can’t possibly control. Kei is head-strong and completely committed to her cause, but despite rejecting Kaneda’s advances early on, she eventually develops a strong bond with him. Despite being relegated to the role of love interest in The Wolverine, Tao Okamoto has been steadily carving out a name for herself. Her prior role in NBC’s Hannibal and subsequent casting as Mercy Graves in Batman vs. Superman are proof that she’s got the skills necessary to make a convincing rebel and action hero.
Hayley Kiyoko as Kaori
Tetuso’s timid girlfriend plays a minor role in the film’s major events. She clings to Tetsuo (even after his transformation) which ultimately results in tragedy. My pick for the role is Hayley Kiyoko, who has a long list of TV roles, and most recently starred in Insidious: Chapter 3.
Tadanobu Asano as Ryu
Kei’s comrade and partner before she teams up with Kaneda, Ryu is a terrorist tasked with finding information on the government’s test subject (Tetsuo) by any means necessary. I’ve always thought Tadanobu Asano has gotten the short end of the stick in the Thor films, where he was given very little opportunity to display his talents. The acclaim he received as the young Genghis Kahn in the Oscar-nominated Mongul is proof of the fact that he’s capable of doing a lot more than what Hollywood has asked of him so far.
George Takei a Mr. Nezu
A parliament member who is secretly a member (and leader) of the resistance, and mentor to Kei and Ryu, Mr. Nezu hopes to tear down Neo-Tokyo in order to rebuild it. He hopes to obtain the power Tetsuo is given, and use it for his own political purposes. George Takei would do great in the role, imbuing it with his own personality traits, while being able to convey a certain worldly weariness. And given Takei’s investment in the property over the years (in addition to his longtime efforts towards easing Japanese-American relations), how could he not be given a role in the film?
Hiroyuki Sanada as Colonel Shikishima
The Colonel is the head of a government project that conducts experiments on children, including Tetsuo. While he is initially an antagonist, he later fights alongside Kaneda and Kei in order to protect Neo-Tokyo from Tetsuo’s rampage. The Last Samurai and Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada has the kind of grizzled badass looks and the ability to command on screen, and his history of playing men with shifty allegiances makes him the perfect choice for a live-action iteration of the character in question.
Ken Watanabe as Doctor Onishi
The Doctor is the head scientific advisor for the government’s psychic experiments, and it is his meddling with science that that unlocks Tetsuo’s destructive potential. Ken Watanabe is probably the most recognizable Japanese actor in America, and his presence is a welcome addition in any film. While he’s usually known for his steely calm, I’d like to see him take on a role where he can become a little unhinged, and The Doctor would provide a fantastic opportunity for him to do so.
Rinko Kickuchi as Lady Miyako
An enigmatic figure who has used her psychic powers to form a religious cult around herself and take on the role of messiah. Her efforts to expose the government and its experiments make her an ally of Kaneda and Kei. Despite the character’s aged looks, I think Rinko Kikuchi could bring an ethereal oddness to the character. Kikuchi is establishing herself as a major talent in Hollywood, and the heavy make-up and prosthetics required for the role could stand among her greatest transformations.
While changes to the source material are to be expected, Warner Bros. has a magnificent opportunity here to show a commitment to diversity, and to assemble one the greatest casts of Japanese actors ever put together on film in America. There’s really no point in making the film unless it honors the Japanese history at the heart of the story, and hopefully this is something Warner Bros. keeps in mind during the early stages of pre-production.