Warner Bros. first bought the rights to a live-action Akira film back in 2002. Every year, the studio releases a new announcement concerning a new director for the project. It's so reliable a metric you can set your clocks to it. The newest big name director who made that big movie, whatever that movie was, will be announced to direct Akira. Films based on anime that started production after Akira's initial announcement (Alita: Battle Angel, Ghost in the Shell) have ended production before a single frame of footage has been shot for Akira.
It's clear to see why. Akira, arguably one of the greatest science fiction films ever, showed the world that animation could tell mature stories. Of course studios would want to remake it.
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So, why haven't they?
Peters and Norrington
Jon Peters acquired Akira for Warner Bros. back in 2002. If the name "Jon Peters" sounds familiar, that's because you might've watched Kevin Smith talk about Superman Lives and how an eccentric Hollywood producer insisted Superman had to fight a giant spider in the film. Yeah. That guy.
The first creative team to tackle Akira was Stephen Norrington, who worked on Blade. Norrington claimed his film "preserves the tone, the visual and the epic scope of the original whilst telling a somewhat more accessible story (to Western audiences)."
And, indeed, when details emerged that Norrington planned on turning Kaneda and Testsuo (childhood friends) into brothers, it was clear that, while Norrington might've wanted to preserve the tone, he sure didn't care about the story.
Norrington planned to start filming Akira once his next film came out: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It flopped. Norrington then left the project for undisclosed reasons.
Enthusiasm for the project died. Jon Peters was unceremoniously dropped from the project, leaving a new producer to enter.
Akira looked dead when Leonardi DiCaprio came on the scene.
DiCaprio, at the time, was acquiring new projects for his production company, Appian Way. Akira was a film DiCaprio latched onto, and, ever since, has been aggressively trying to get made.
DiCaprio's first director was Ruairi Robinson. Robinson was known primarily for short films, such as Fifty Percent Gray (nominated for an Academy Award). His pitch for Akira involved turning the film into a two-parter based on the manga, with each film covering roughly 50% of the manga.
Gary Whitta was hired to draft the script, which he eventually described after both he and Robinson left the project.
"Manhattan became Japanese sovereign territory as New Tokyo, with 10 million Japanese living there; it just happened to be located on the east coast of the United States. I thought it was an interesting way to fuse eastern and western cultures in the movie, and allow a mix of actors from both, rather than just ‘whitewashing’ the film, which is what I think a lot of people were anticipating."
Notice a pattern yet?
Both Whitta and Norrington, when describing their projects, said they wanted to make the film accessible to Western audiences by stripping the film of Japanese qualities. While it might seem ludicrous trying to remove diverse elements from a film in today's era, just remember that Hollywood had a long string of successful remakes of Asian films without any Asian actors, like The Ring, The Grudge and The Departed.
Robinson posted a heaping of production art, which you can see here. And, while Robinson didn't finish the film, he did direct The Last Days on Mars. He fared better than most.