Is Taika Waititi's Live-Action Akira Still Happening? Here's What We Know

Hollywood has a pretty rough track record when it comes to turning anime titles into live-action films so far. "Speed Racer" and "Dragonball Evolution" were both critical and box office failures when they released in the late 2000s, although the former has gained wider appreciation over the years from those who feel the world simply wasn't ready for the Wachowskis' sensory-overloading, anti-capitalist tentpole when it first came out. The 2017 live-action "Ghost in the Shell" movie, on the other hand, is remembered as little more than the poster child for U.S. film studios white-washing Asian anime properties, while the Netflix-backed live-action "Death Note" (which debuted the same year as "Ghost") is rarely talked about as being anything other than a disappointment these days.

With "Alita: Battle Angel" doing well enough at the box office in 2019 to keep hopes of a sequel alive (though the odds of it actually coming to pass are looking slimmer and slimmer by the day), it seems there's a thin chance that Warner Bros. may yet reap the fruits of its laboring to get a live-action "Akira" movie off the ground. The project has passed through the hands of many, many directors and writers since the studio acquired the rights in 2002, culminating with Taika Waititi coming aboard to call the shots in September 2017. Warner Bros. even scheduled the film for a theatrical release on May 21, 2021, at one point, only to abandon those plans after Waititi went off to make "Thor: Love and Thunder" first. Still, as of August 2021, the New Zealand multi-hyphenate told Wired, "I'm still trying [to make 'Akira']. I don't wanna give up on that."

Why Warner Bros. wants to make Akira

Director Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 animated "Akira" film, which was based on the manga series of the same name created by Otomo, is one of the most celebrated and influential anime movies of all time, least of all when it comes to its impact on U.S. pop culture. Much like the Wachowskis drew heavy inspiration from the sci-fi iconography and themes of Japan's "Ghost in the Shell" multi-media franchise while creating "The Matrix," the imagery from Otomo's cyberpunk classic has made itself felt in everything from "South Park" (which famously paid homage to the film in the season 4 episode "Trapper Keeper") to directors Josh Trank and Rian Johnson's respective 2012 sci-fi thrillers, "Chronicle" and "Looper."

Otomo's classic anime film takes place in an alternate version of Tokyo, 2019, 31 years after World War III began with the city being incinerated. This new version of Japan's capital, known as Neo-Tokyo, has been overrun with corrupt police forces, protestors, terrorists, and more, including Shōtarō Kaneda, his childhood friend Tetsuo Shima, and the other members of their biker gang. After a chance encounter inadvertently activates Tetsuo's latent telekinetic abilities, he's captured by Japan's Self-Defense Forces — leaving it to Kaneda to rescue him before Tetsuo suffers the same terrible fate as Akira, the individual with psychic powers similar to Tetsuo's who was responsible for destroying Tokyo all those years ago.

The live-action Akira we almost got

After going through a handful of different iterations in the 2000s, the live-action "Akira" movie came very close to getting a green-light in the early 2010s. This version of the film had Jaume Collet-Serra ("Orphan," "The Shallows," "Jungle Cruise") directing from a script rewritten by "Harry Potter" movie scribe Steve Kloves. The film was budgeted at $90 million — an almost modest sum for a tentpole by today's standards — and had Garrett Hedlund signed on to play a character inspired by Kaneda, with Kristen Stewart, Ken Watanabe, and Helena Bonham Carter also lined up for key roles.

As you no doubt picked up based on the lack of Japanese cast members (save for Watanabe), Collet-Serra's "Akira" was a U.S. or "American-ized" remake that swapped out Neo-Tokyo for New Manhattan, a similarly dystopian metropolis. That change in setting and absence of Asian and/or Asian-American lead actors also made the film a lightning rod for controversy, with many fans pointing to the original "Akira" anime movie and manga series' roots in Japan's culture and history, post-WWII, as being integral to their story and themes.

Warner Bros. eventually put Collet-Serra's "Akira" on hold in January 2012 before quietly abandoning that version of the project. While it's possible the movie's white-washing criticisms were a factor in its decision, it was reported the studio was more concerned about the financial risks posed by the film and wanted to reduce its budget to $60-70 million. Various directors were then courted to helm a revamped take on the movie in the years that came after (including Justin Lin and Jordan Peele), prior to Waititi's involvement.

Will Waititi's Akira ever happen?

In October 2017, shortly after joining the project, Waititi assured that he wouldn't repeat the mistake of white-washing the cast for his live-action "Akira" movie the way Collet-Serra's version had. He also indicated his film would be more faithful to Otomo's anime movie and manga series than what Collet-Serra had planned, stating he would "probably want to take it a bit back more towards the [comic] books."

For a time in 2019, it seemed like "Akira" would be Waititi's next film as a director after "Jojo Rabbit." Instead, he opted to squeeze in the sports dramedy "Next Goal Wins" before shifting his attention to "Thor: Love and Thunder," with the intent of then going back to "Akira" after that. Along the way, however, he became attached to direct a new "Star Wars" movie and helmed a pair of episodes for the HBO Max comedy series "Our Flag Means Death" (in which he also co-stars as the pirate Blackbeard). More recently, Waititi revealed that he's gearing up to direct a film based on Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius' sci-fi graphic novel, "The Incal," on top of the many other non-"Akira" projects he's got baking in the oven right now (like a live-action "Flash Gordon" movie).

Does that mean all hope is lost when it comes to Waititi's "Akira?" Not necessarily. If the actor-filmmaker's career moves since he made "Thor: Ragnarok" has proven anything, it's that he likes to keep busy and has a lot of ambition. With both "Love and Thunder" and "Next Goals Wins" well into post-production, it seems Waititi is taking a moment to catch his breath and preparing to promote those films before firmly locking down his next movie as a director. That being said, "Akira" has a lot of competition from the many other items on Waititi's docket, so best to not start holding your breath for that one.