“Not just because of the backlash lately, but that story is so tied to post-war Japan and ideology,” he said in an interview with IndieWire. “I think it’d be a shame, it’d be a missed opportunity [to cast non-Asians].”
“Akira” began as manga in 1982 and was adapted into an anime film six years later. Taking place 37 years after a nuclear explosion starts World War III, the story centers on the new city called Neo-Tokyo, which is beset by anti-government terrorism and gang violence. Shotaro Kaneda leads a local biker gang who has to stop his friend Tetsuo Shima from using his newly awakened psionic powers. The fierce Kei is a member of the terrorist resistance who turns out to have psychic powers of her own.
Knowing the story, it’s easy to see what Murai means when it comes to the importance of the post-World War II mentality and how living in the aftermath of a nuclear event influenced the storytelling in “Akira.” The Tokyo-born filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles grew up watching anime and Japanese cinema and has a unique perspective on Japanese properties that come to America.
Murai is aware of the criticism levied at recent films like “Ghost in the Shell” or the upcoming “Death Note” for casting white actors in the roles originally written as Japanese, and for him, what it comes comes down to is a matter of representation.
“As an Asian guy, I would love to see a big blockbuster with Asian lead characters,” he said.
Murai is best known for directing music videos and FX’s comedy “Atlanta.” He also directed an episode of the FX’s Marvel series “Legion” and an upcoming episode of John Singleton’s 1980s crack epidemic drama “Snowfall.” Although Murai was one of the many directors, including Jordan Peele, Warner Bros. was said to have courted for the live-action “Akira” adaptation, he wouldn’t address the rumors, but is open to feature film directing in the future.
“My entire career has just been sort of falling into these situations and fighting myself out of it,” he said. “So I’d eventually love to do a film, but I’m just looking for the right one I think.”
When Warner Bros. secured the film rights to “Akira” in 2002, fans waited with bated breath for the day the live-action remake would be made. They waited. And they waited. Fifteen years later, the remake still isn’t even close to being made. The numerous problems that plunged “Akira” into development hell range from multiple exiting directors and changing the characters’ relationships to transplanting the action to Manhattan and targeting a PG-13 rating.
Probably the most troubling trend is that of all the names bandied about in casting, none of them are Asian. Names such as Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Justin Timberlake and Zac Efron were supposedly looked at for the role of Kaneda. As for Tetsuo, the studio had considered Ezra Miller, James McAvoy, Michale Pitt and Richard Madden, among others. Kei’s role was seen as possibly being played by Kristen Stewart, Keira Knightley or Mila Kunis.
“Akira” creator Katsuhiro Otomo, who had written the original manga and directed the anime, hasn’t really addressed casting, but seems open to any and all changes that may come from another version of the story. In a recent Forbes interview, he said, “I did give one major condition to a live-action version and that is that I had to check and approve the scenario… Personally, I think being entirely bound to the original manga of something like ‘Akira’ would not make any sense as a movie.”