Hiro Murai Must Direct the Akira Adaptation
The Atlanta Auteur May Be the Last, Best Hope for the Beleaguered ProductionMovies Features Akira
Earlier this month, Indiewire spoke with Hiro Murai in a two-partinterview concerning the latter’s inspirations as a director and his nascent success in the world of television. The 33-year-old Tokyo-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker has been making waves for the better part of a decade, cutting his teeth as a music video director for such artists as Spoon, Queens of the Stone Age, Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, and Childish Gambino, the musical alias of actor-songwriter Donald Glover.
His collaboration with the latter would prove to be his most fruitful yet, as Glover would go on to enlist his talents again in directing his 2013 short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, which in turn would lead to him directing seven episodes of Donald Glover’s FX original series Atlanta, which this past January won the Golden Globe Award for Best TV series. Speaking at length on his admiration for directors such as David Lynch and Akira Kurosawa, Murai commented, albeit tersely, on the rumors surrounding his vetting as a possible choice to direct Warner Bros.’ Akira adaptation. Refusing to speak definitively on the rumor, Murai however did offer his take that the film should not attempt to whitewash the original’s origins or characters. “Not just because of the backlash lately, but that story is so tied to post-war Japan and ideology,” he told IndieWire. “I think it’d be a shame, it’d be a missed opportunity [to cast non-Asians].”
To an avowed admirer of the original Akira manga and anime, reading those words was like witnessing a dove returning from across a blighted earth with an olive branch between its beak, or a jigsaw piece plummeting from out of the stratosphere and landing gingerly into place. Suddenly, everything just… fit. Of the many forking paths this production has taken in its decade long odyssey, only one conclusion now seems to suffice success.
Hiro Murai must direct the Akira adaptation.
Based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s critically-acclaimed manga series and 1988 film of the same name, plans for a live-action Akira remake were first announced as far back as 2008, when the rights to the property were first purchased by Leonardo Dicaprio’s Appian Way Productions and Warner Bros., with Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves and Ruairí Robinson slated to write and direct, respectively. However, that production was canceled, resulting in the film’s status as a whole being stymied in the depths of development hell, subject to a revolving door of would-be directors and earnest screenwriters attempting to untangle the gordian knot of adapting a quintessentially Japanese story to appeal to the imagined, focus-tested palates of a western audience. George Miller, Christopher Nolan, Dante Harper—all names who have been previously tied to Akira’s production—only to peter out as time has marched on. It seems as though the single iteration that’s gained any sense of traction has been director Jaume Collet-Serra’s version which, as of 2015, has since stalled as well. However, speaking in a 2014 interview with Coming Soon, Collet-Serra expressed disinterest, if not open disdain, for not only the film’s production, but for the source material itself. “Nobody’s interesting,” said Collet-Serra. ”Tetsuo’s interesting because weird shit happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That’s part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters. They’re used as a way to move the other philosophy forward.” Collet-Sera further expressed that what he would like to introduce to the story is, quote, strong characters. “I hope that I can bring strong characters. In the original source material, I don’t think the main characters are the protagonists. What I’m hoping is to bring characters.”
With respect to Mr. Collet-Serra, the substance of those statements alone, aside from the actual quality of his production, should have been an enormous red flag that he should not be the one to helm an Akira adaptation. Oscillating from an egregiously reductionist reading of the text in question to a blatant generalization whose cultural myopia borders on outright… y’know what, fuck it. What he said was stupid and racist, plain and simple. Collet-Serra’s demeanor and flagrant disrespect for not only Akira, but for the story’s author and cultural origin, is abhorrent, and the simple fact that at that time when those statements were made he was not immediately disqualified and pilloried by his peers is indicative of not only a failure on part of entertainment journalism to afflict the complacent prejudices of studio filmmakers, but of Hollywood’s tacit complicity in the erasure of both actors and directors of color and stories of non-eurocentric origin.
The success of directors such as F. Gary Gray, Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele does not preclude the fact that PoC directors who happen to not be black are still partitioned off from otherwise viable opportunities to have their voices and stories heard. And, in the choice cases where major studios do somehow deign to offer minority directors a chance to tell their stories, it’s often an opportunity explicitly orchestrated as a shield by which to otherwise deflect allegations of white-washing. Case in point: Jordan Peele, another promising new director whose directorial debut Get Out earned over $150 million at the box office, eclipsing The Blair Witch Project’s $140 million record to become the highest grossing debut based on an original screenplay in history. Naturally, questions regarding Peele’s future projects as a filmmaker quickly became of public interest. Like clockwork, it didn’t take long for Jordan Peele’s name to pop up as a possible contender for the role of directing Warner Bros’ troubled Akira production. After nearly a week of speculation, Peele formally declined the offer, speaking at a special press event hosted by Blumhouse, “I think [I could do it] if the story justifies it. ‘Akira’ is one of my favorite movies, and I think obviously the story justifies as big a budget as you can possibly dream of. But the real question for me is: Do I want to do pre-existing material, or do I want to do original content? At the end of the day, I want to do original stuff.”
Peele’s candor and humility are reassuring, but the reason for why his name even came up in the first place leaves one scratching their head. One has to wonder, what exactly was it about Jordan Peele’s work on Get Out, let alone his work on his and Keegan-Michael Key’s sketch-comedy series Key & Peele, that would move Warner Bros.’ to consider his name for directing Akira in the first place? One suspects that the decision to bring Peele into talks had less to do with his strengths as a writer and director and more as a preemptive feint against public and critical outcry in response to the debacle that plagued Rupert Sander’s Ghost in Shell, which saw a significant outpouring of criticism directed at the production’s choice of not only casting a caucasian actress, Scarlett Johansson, in the lead role of ‘Major’ but at the film’s reported, wrongheaded attempts to mitigate controversy by using CGI to ‘asianify’ the film’s cast, effectively perpetrating a 21st century equivalent of yellowface. Admittedly, It feels presumptuous to assume the producers’ motivations in this regard, though the convenient coincidence of courting a director of color whose directorial debut in no uncertain way functions as a stringent assault on the implicit biases of liberal tokenism and the commodification of black personhood cannot be overlooked. In the words of Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
Which brings us to the present, with Hiro Murai’s name now the latest to be cast into the speculative sieve of rumored contenders. Of the murderer’s row of names that have been attached to produce a live-action, American Akira remake, Murai’s is the only one to inspire faith and outright anticipation, in this author’s humble opinion. The reason, which I will explain at length, is prefaced by this: Murai’s aforementioned comment that Akira’s story is, “tied to post-war Japan and ideology” which is not only astute and correct. It is, at the time of this writing, the sole instance that any prospective director attached to the project has said anything remotely to this effect. To put it bluntly: Murai actually understands what the hell Akira is about. Contrary to Collet-Serra’s comments, which reduce the 1988 film to little more than a superficial blur of violent chases, weird science, and cyberpunk affectation; Akira is, at its core, a brilliant encapsulation of over half a century’s worth of Japanese history.
Akira was first published in 1982, at the height of Japan’s then-burgeoning bubble economy. Nearly fifteen years prior, Japan was enthralled in a storm of protests led by disgruntled university students from 1967 to 1969. Coinciding with a global uptick in organized public disobedience that would later come to be known as the ‘Global Revolutions of 1968,’ this stretch of time would form the crucible for Japan’s own cultural revolution. While the rest of the world’s revolutions were more aimed at dismantling despotic governments and enfranchising marginalized populations, Japan’s demonstrations were unique in that they were more aimed at dismantling the spirit of an age than they were of any explicit regime. In short, Japan’s student uprisings arose in response to economic growth itself, towards mass industrialization and an accompanying mass consumption driven society which displaced the lives and livelihoods of millions of youths and workers, while lining the pockets of politicians and foreign industrialists. Among the many Japanese citizens who participated in these demonstrations, anime aficionados may recognize two names and faces among the crowd: Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. The student rebellion was sparked by rapid economic growth and the seemingly un-breachable gulf of wealth inequality that sprang up alongside it. (Sound familiar?) At the same time, the ‘Bosozuku’ biker subculture reached its popular apex, attracting swaths of low-income youths who, disenfranchised by the callousness of elder generations, rode recklessly through the streets with total disregard for law or personal safety.
To anyone who has already read or seen Akira, the parallels are unmistakable. Akira persists as a classic to this day not solely on the strength of its aesthetic, but for the way it functions as a footnote that speaks not only to its time, offering context to the past while extending camaraderie to the present. It was as though, while writing his magnum opus, Katsuhiro Otomo was speaking directly to his audience saying, “Remember: we were just like you. Young, angry, and ready to change the world. You are not alone.” Any future adaptation, American or otherwise, that neglects this crucial understanding of how Japan’s revolutionary past informs the aesthetic and thematic trajectory of Otomo’s Akira is fated to be dead on arrival.
Aside from even this, Hiro Murai’s past work confidently asserts his talents as a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner in the contest of who should take on the reins of Akira’s reimagining. Murai’s commercial and television work is defined by a characteristic flair for unreality, documenting the penumbral twilight space between the artifice of suburbia and the insatiable darkness which stems from the human subconsciousness. One can see it in his 2013 music video for Childish Gambino’s 3005, wherein Donald Glover waxes poetic atop a ferris wheel overlooking a sea of fire peeking out on the fringes of the camera’s periphery, or his work on Earl Sweatshirt’s Chum, a video defined by a dolly-mounted perspective shot rotating on its axis as it combs across a desolate parking lot like an all-seeing eye, picking over the detritus of an uncaring world. Murai’s proclivity for telling visually driven stories dovetails beautifully into his work directing multi-dimensional characters, as evidenced through his aforementioned work on Atlanta and his brief stint in the director’s chair of Noah Hawley’s Legion series. One can yet only imagine how Murai’s vision would interpret the unreality and scope of Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo, the synesthetic frenzy of Tetsuo’s psychotic break, or the blinding singularity of Akira’s ascension.
In a lot of ways, It would be easy to compare Murai’s career trajectory with that of the likes of Spike Jonze, David Fincher, or Michel Gondry; three inimitable directors whose respective styles were first honed from within the space of commercial advertising and music video production. But compliment by way of comparison in this respect feels inadequate with regards to the particularities of this situation. Here are two salient facts: Hiro Murai’s star is rising, and an Akira film will be made, if not this year, then soon. The latter, whether through earnest consideration or an undaunted resolve to save face, will happen. And before you scoff at this scenario, just remember that the same allegations were lobbied at adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibson’s Watchmen (adapted in 2009) as well as Patrick Suskind’s 1985 classic Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (adapted in 2006), a novel that no less than Stanley Kubrick himself once stated was, ‘unfilmable.’ I repeat: an Akira film will happen, but whether that film will become one worth seeing is up to the decisions those involved now make at this critical juncture.
For all the reasons why Hiro Murai should direct the Akira remake, one would be remiss to not mention the possible pitfalls that lay beyond such a decision. The first is obvious. Despite boasting an impressive repertoire of high-profile music videos, short films, and award-winning television credits, Murai is still untested as a feature film director. Just as Jonze, Fincher, Gondry, and yes Jordan Peele before him, Murai is now faced with the decision with whether to direct the Akira adaptation and possibly be typecast into the echelons of big-budget spectacle features, or coasts below the radar until he’s ready to pursue his own original projects.
“My entire career has just been sort of falling into these situations and fighting myself out of it,” he told Indiewire. “So I’d eventually love to do a film, but I’m just looking for the right one I think.” Murai is right to be prudent. Adapting a beloved property, whether it be Ghost in the Shell or Akira, is no simple task. Such decisions shape not only the moment that we live in, but the future as we move beyond them. But there is one note of reassurance on the topic— that of the opinion of Katsuhiro Otomo himself. In a recent interview with Forbes, Otomo expressed the distance he has established between himself and the story that made him a household name:
“…[W]hen it comes to Akira, I have already finished the original manga and my own anime version too. So in that sense, I am basically done with Akira. If someone wants to do something new with Akira then I am mostly okay with that. As I accepted the offer for a live-action Akira to be made, so I am generally okay with whatever they want to do with it. However, I did give one major condition to a live-action version and that is that I had to check and approve the scenario. I think being entirely bound to the original manga of something like Akira would not make any sense as a movie. As for what I would do in terms of adapting Akira into my own live-action movie, I really don’t want to do that. I would much rather do something entirely new and separate.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Otomo understands that Akira functions as a story of youths and of the future that they must forge for themselves out of their predecessor’s shortcomings. As such, while Otomo is ready to step aside and let future generation’s make sense of what Akira means to them in their time, he won’t allow the property to be squandered through mishandling. Only someone capable, someone with a scenario worthy of impressing Otomo himself, should be handed the opportunity for Akira’s first live-action incarnation. That person, dear reader, is Hiro Murai.
On the slimmest of chances he might be reading this: Mr. Murai, please, consider directing the live-action Akira film. It’s understandable if you’d want your first project to be something of your own. No reasonable person would fault you for that. In that case, by all means: make Akira your own. Deliver a film that no one else could make. Learn from the mistakes of Rupert Sanders and company. Don’t set out to ape the 1988 Akira. Give us the Akira of 2019. Create a film which, after the initial predictable flush of think-pieces, explainers, and box office gross talk, stands to not only do justice by Katsuhiro Otomo’s legacy, but by your own.
Or failing that, at the very least give us a damn film already. You’ve got greatness in you, man.