Controversy over Akira remake

Avid fans are concerned that changes to Hollywood's live action remake of the classic Japanese anime film will be a disaster.

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Warner Brothers' live-action remake of the seminal 1988 Japanese animated film Akira probably won't be arriving in cinemas for another two years and not a single frame has been shot yet. But those involved in the project, greenlit last month, are in the unusual position of knowing that thousands of people already hate their movie. After several years in development hell, recent revelations have led to planned boycotts of the film, provoked a tidal wave of furious responses from bloggers and even enraged racial equality campaigners.

But why, in this age of remakes, reboots and sequels, has the prospect of tinkering with Katsuhiro Ohtomo's 23-year-old anime caused such acrimony?

Set in the grim dystopian Neo-Tokyo of 2019 – a place run by corrupt politicians and power-hungry militarists – the epic story follows the teenage members of a motorcycle gang. After one of their number, Tetsuo, is exposed to a secret government project known as Akira, the biker begins to exhibit supernatural abilities and is captured by the authorities. As the group's leader, Kaneda, races to save his friend, Tetsuo's untapped power begins to threaten the entire city. Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice called it a "fever-dream masterpiece, easily the most breathtaking and kinetic anime ever made and one of the most eloquent", while The Daily Telegraph's Robbie Collin wrote that "The Matrix, The Dark Knight, Minority Report, Dark City and Inception, are all in its debt".

So it was with a heavy heart last month that fans discovered the filmmaking "talent" attached to the live-action Akira was none other than the Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who brought us the woeful horror remake House of Wax and the by-the-numbers Liam Neeson thriller Unknown. Collet-Serra's appointment followed the departure of Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli) in May, and Stephen Norrington (Blade) before that – amid rumours of heavy studio interference in the project.

Even more worrying than the prospect of handing such a rich and vibrant property to a director who is considered workmanlike at the very best, were the revelations about casting. In line to play the hero Kaneda is Garrett Hedlund, whose limp lead performance in last year's TRON: Legacy turned what would have been a merely average blockbuster into a bad one. The role of the tormented Tetsuo has been linked to the likes of Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield and James McAvoy.

All in their late 20s and early 30s, the actors may be significantly older than the 15-year-old bikers of the original, but at least it is some improvement on the incredible revelation that Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves (both 47) had previously been approached. The casting controversy has not only focused on the plan to change the ages of the central characters, however, but also their races. Although anime is ethnically ambiguous by design, it is fair to assume that Neo-Tokyo residents Kaneda and Tetsuo were not supposed to be corn-fed American boys.

"Given the current lack of lead roles for actors of colour in the science fiction genre, the complex characters of Akira would be a great opportunity for Asian-American actors," the racial equality campaigners Racebending said in a statement. The group, which includes the Star Trek actor George Takei (Sulu) among its supporters, was set up in 2009 to protest against a similar casting discrepancy in M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. They claim that in 241 Warner Brothers films, from 2000 to 2009, only two per cent had an Asian first-billed lead.

It is believed that producers plan to overcome the race issue by shifting the story's setting away from Japan, to a dystopian "Neo-Manhattan" - something that is likely to anger fans even more. Amid what may be the most negative sentiment for any proposed film in recent history came a revelation last week which was surprisingly well received, that the British actors Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham-Carter had been offered roles in the movie. If they sign, the parts are likely to be those of The Colonel, responsible for a government team that runs tests on people with psychic abilities, and Lady Miyako, one of those former test subjects who now helps the resistance.

Such developments are unlikely to offer much hope to Akira devotees, however, particularly amid reports that Warner Brothers could be planning to give the uncompromising story a PG rating or that the budget had been slashed to a slim US$90 million (Dh330.5m) – down from an enormous, but probably warranted, $200m.

While final judgement on the film should be reserved until its eventual release, the signs suggest that Hollywood's Akira could be a calamity on a level comparable to the one faced by Neo-Tokyo. Those who have yet to witness Otomo's spellbinding sci-fi; do it now, before its name is forever tainted.