28 February 2012

ruminations: the "chronicle" of an anime "remake"

There have been a lot of heated words going around these past few years regarding an American remake of a classic Japanese animated film from the late 1980s. For those not following this debate, it centers around the hotly contested issue of whether or not a US studio has the right to re-create a film so beloved by fans of anime- potentially ruining a classic story of loss, regret and survival in a desolate metropolis plagued by inequality and strife. A lot of criticism had been thrown around: use of non-Asian actors in an Asian setting, visual effects over story and direction, comparisons to other abysmally received US remakes of classic anime. And this debate has been going around, news of the apparent demise of the movie met with cheers, then revulsion as yet another director or studio signed on to resume the project.

By now, it should be obvious that I’m referring to the remake of Akira. Which, I will go on record as saying, is a terrible idea. However, recently I viewed a movie that has gotten me thinking. The film in question is called “Chronicle,” and it contains a great deal of similarities to Akira. While it is not an outright copy, many of the themes and situations presented in the film lend it a solid claim to being a “spiritual successor” of sorts (thanks Indy), paying homage to the original while maintaining its own unique identity.

Let me say right now that everything that follows is pure speculation. I’m simply listing the similarities and differences between Chronicle and Akira. I’m not saying any of this is intentional (I don’t need to, the director already has). I’m just saying that while watching this movie, the following elements struck me...and at a few points had me quoting Akira to myself.

Akira takes place in the dystopian metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, a city rebuilt after a devastating nuclear attack wiped out the former home to millions. Neo Tokyo is a lot like modern Tokyo- technology runs rampant, there is an air of decadence swimming under the surface, and the salarymen go about their business by day, apparently ignorant of those living underneath them. At the same time, Neo Tokyo is a criticism of consumer culture- there is a blatant amount of class warfare going on, and stratification runs even more rampant than the technology. The wealthy live in absolute luxury, built on the backs of the poor and downtrodden. Those same workers who supply the luxury are forced to eek out a meager existence in the city below. Many turn to violence and crime. Many more band together out of a mutual necessity to survive in a world that has forgotten them. Many are orphans simply trying to live in a world that plainly has no need, nor care, for their existence.

When Akira was released this critique was levied on the supposed dilution of Japanese society, and a scathing retort against a perception of gluttony and overconsumption that was visible in the excesses found within the Japanese economic system. The subsequent destruction of the old city, and the building of the new, highlighted this subtle change in socioeconomic status in a stark real world visibility. Neo Tokyo, at least on some levels, was a representation of not only the future, but of the present- it shed light on things that normally would have been kept beneath the shadows. And it forced viewers to look at this world so blatantly on display.

Chronicle doesn’t have a Neo Tokyo. It has the city of Seattle, but the majority of the movie doesn’t take place there. There aren’t any roving biker gangs, or massive slums filled with the poor and downtrodden. What it does portray, is a city living in our time of recession and loss. The suburbs where the main characters live are not too different from the ones we might see in our daily lives. There are wealthy people and poor people. There are those who work hard, and those who have lost everything. It shows the weakness of some, and the blissful ignorance of others.

Unlike Akira, which sought to show a world in decline, Chronicle shows the world as it is. There’s a good deal of transparency when looking at this suburb, and a good deal of sympathy for the people living in it. From nightmarish copays on pills, to unemployment and alcoholism, the world feels very real. The viewer can see himself living in it, because they might be. Solidarity? Possibly. But it’s a very real kind of solidarity.

Both films build upon this reality when crafting their narratives. Both rely on the context of the times as well- Akira came at the tail end of a prosperous age, and was a portent of a time of strife to come; Chronicle lives in the middle of an economic downturn, where class lines become stark and the difference between have and have not are suddenly clear. Into these worlds are thrown a number of young adults, and colors how they see both themselves and the world around them. In a sense, both films are a window on the worlds they were released into, and are solidly tied into the contexts of those worlds. It could be said that modern Seattle and Neo Tokyo are both represented here as indicative of the time and place, and ultimately serve as the final representation of the world the characters live in.

Speaking of which...

By now, the names Tetsuo and Kaneda should be burned into the minds of anime fans everywhere. Their duality is the stuff of legends: both are orphans, members of the same biker gang. Both prowl the lower city, looking for parts and causing general mischief. Kaneda is the “popular” one, full of confidence and bravado, respected by his fellows and loathed by his rivals. He obviously looks out for Tetsuo, and protects him against people seeking to prey on the boy, and tries his best to coax him out of his shell. On the flip-side, Tetsuo is the introvert, the overemotional boy scared of the world, who clings to Kaneda as a means of finding both a purpose and a friend. And when Tetsuo manifests his powers in Act I, and he suddenly has the power to change things through his own force of will, those who hurt him were punished severely.

Andrew Detmer and his cousin Matt Garetty are about as close to Tetsuo and Kaneda as one could expect, given the context of the film. They share a similar dynamic to the animated duo- friends standing together against a seemingly scary world. Granted, they don’t need to deal with biker gangs (street toughs maybe), but the idea of an oppressive overclass is still there. They live in a normal world, full of normal things, but not one without conflict and harsh realities. But then again, Neo Tokyo is a strong fantastical world. Seattle is a real city in the here and now.

Andrew is a loner, picked on by his classmates and thoroughly unpopular, even “creepy,” as one cheerleader pointed out. Despite being a senior in high school, he never attends parties or socializes with his peers. Cliche definitely, but then again so was Tetsuo. His only friends at the beginning of the film are his cousin Matt, and his camera, which he uses to document his dysfunctional family, and the rest of his world. Along a similar vein to Akira, it could also be argued that Andrew is himself something of an orphan: his mother is dying of some wasting disease (likely lung cancer, given the pills and oxygen mask) and his father, a former firefighter on disability, is distant, abusive and an alcoholic. From what we see of the elder Detmer, he beats his son and blames him for his wife’s suffering, going so far as the attack the boy for buying a camera instead of spending the money on something “useful.” So, while Andrew has both his parents, neither is truly a part of his life, as he avoids his father and watches his mother slowly die.

A friend of mine also brought up a very interesting point: while both Tetsuo and Andrew are the product of loneliness and under-socialization, their motivations are slightly different. Tetsuo was “missing something and tries to fill it. Andrew, while in a way missing something, is also feeling something direct and dangerous, and is trying to avoid it or destroy it before it consumes him if he can. Tetsuo does not have positive influence. Andrew has a negative influence.” Yes, this is also very true. A person with a feeling of longing has a slightly different worldview than someone who has been beaten down, and their end motivations seem to follow suit- Tetsuo tries to become all the things he yearns to be- noticed, feared, respected and powerful. Andrew, on the other hand, becomes the predator (or Apex predator, as he suggests in the film), striking back on the same people who preyed on him. While the end results are the same, the reasoning behind them is not.

Matt is the opposite. While not the “Big Man on Campus” (that title goes to Steve Montgomery, the third of their merry band), he is clearly popular and well adjusted. He tries to force Andrew out of his shell, dragging him off to a party and replacing his camera with a newer one when it breaks. Like Kaneda, he protects his cousin when he can, and tries his hardest to instill a sense of change in him. And, like Kaneda, he is forced to assume the role of responsibility when things get out of line, becoming the voice of reason, within context. We never see Matt’s parents during the movie, but he appears to be very self-reliant and confident in his own skin, something Kaneda exhibited in droves. The main difference between the two: Matt has the same power as Andrew, which changes the outcome of the film slightly.

Like Tetsuo and Kaneda, Matt and Andrew are less than stellar examples of virtue: they play pranks on people, acting with a general sense of mischief and troublemaking throughout the film. Like the animated duo, they discover there is a lot more to the world than what they know. And like the duo, their final encounter comes to blows, as one tries to destroy the world, while the other tries to save it.

(Also, Matt screams out Andrew’s name so much during the climax scene, that I kept just screaming Tetsuo in my own head. It was appropriate, given the circumstances.)

One of the major differences lies in the character of Steve. There wasn’t a third party to the duo of Tetsuo and Kaneda (maybe those three creepy kids, but Steve isn’t really similar to them). But Steve does serve a very interesting role in the film: he is the opposite of Andrew. Everything Andrew lacks- from societal support and popularity, to material wealth and personal magnetism- is present in Steve. Now, this might initially indicate a rivalry between the two characters, but the opposite is true. Steve tries, at times even harder than Matt, to break Andrew out of his shell. He is the one who persuades the introverted teen to enter the talent show and show off what he can do. He is the one who compliments Andrew on his control over the power, and encourages him to exercise it. He is the one who facilitates Andrew’s rise, and ultimately his fall. And perhaps most tellingly, Steve is the “innocent” one in the tale. His motivations are ultimately “pure,” his friendship is genuine, as is his enthusiasm. Had he been there to the very end, things might have turned out differently.

Akira is the story of the lowest becoming the greatest: a poor boy inheriting the power to change the world through his own force of will. This force of will allows him to fly, blow up tanks, protect his body, collapse bridges and eventually become a self-replicating flesh monster that threatens to consume everything. It goes beyond “simple” telekinesis, Tetsuo literally becomes God (if you interpret the final scene as such) by the film’s end. And, if you look at a particular scene involving a tank, dress shop and a lot of fire, it can be argued that Tetsuo welcomes, and embraces, this newfound divinity. He definitely takes great pleasure in wiping out those people who hurt him, and revels in knowing he is more powerful than any other being on Earth.

Andrew’s story is a bit more subtle. There’s no government bureau charged with collecting people like him. There aren’t any mind-altering drugs or insane cultists. There are definitely no creepy children, or milk bears running around. Andrew, Matt and Steve obtain their powers through an unknown artifact, and experiment by themselves, training their brains to handle the surge of power, and gaining subtle control over the willpower necessary to handle such large amounts of raw potential. Andrew appears to have the best control, and also the weakest will, so it’s fairly obvious where the story is going.

But there is one eerie similarity I need to mention: I often argue that the exact moment of Tetsuo’s apotheosis is when he crushes the tank with his mind. While not of the same scale, there is a scene (shown in the trailer, if you want to avoid more spoilers) where he crushes a junk car while speaking into the camera. The intention is the same- “I am beyond the reach of human technology. Machines and steel break under my force of will. Witness my power, and fear it.”- but the execution is different.

There are a few more instances I took note of while watching the film that I wish to recount here. Mostly symbolic.

-Matt is the East, Andrew the West: when we first meet Matt, he reads and spouts a good deal of philosophy pertaining to willpower and human potential. There is a subtext here that relates to humanism and a sense of enlightenment. This persists when Matt is the first to declare rules to using their powers, and agrees to travel to Tibet to meet with some of the monks living there. Andrew, meanwhile, embraces the idea of the apex predator, a Darwinist idea that “a lion doesn’t feel guilt when it kills a zebra, a human doesn’t feel guilt when he squashes a fly.” He begins to see himself as above the rest of the world, and because of this he should feel no guilt using his powers to abuse and exact retribution on those that displease him.

Now, all similarities to Yagami aside, their relationship by film’s end is strikingly similar to Tetsuo and Kaneda’s. Kaneda, for all his faults, realizes that his friend is going mad with power, and will not stop until he destroys everything that angers him (which ends up being pretty much everything). And Kaneda, albeit reluctantly, tries his best to kill his friend. Rather than have Tetsuo die at the hands of an impersonal military force, Kaneda would rather end it himself, thereby fulfilling his promise to protect Tetsuo, even if that means saving him from himself. Matt appears to be motivated by the exact same principle of saving Andrew from an anonymous death, drunk on power and lost in his rage. The main difference is that in this case, Matt succeeds.

-A God Reborn: okay, this one is reaching, but it still sounds kind of cool. One of the hallmark scenes contributing to Tetsuo’s apotheosis occurs when the cultists begin to embrace him as the rebirth of “Lord Akira.” With followers in tow, he marches towards the resting place of their old god, seeking closure in the form of the “messiah” who came before.

This does not happen in Chronicle. Like I said before, no insane cultists. However, Aleks pointed out to me after the film that Andrew does have an instance where he sheds his former anonymity and becomes something of a celebrity. At the midpoint of the film, Steve convinces Andrew to show off his powers in the talent show (after all, he does have a talent). Andrew does, and becomes an instant star. Suddenly, those same people who ignored or reviled him want to be his friend. Matt even comments on how, for the first time, he is the one in the shadows while the rest of the school seemingly “worships” Andrew for his abilities. Of course, this ties into Andrew’s downfall later in the film, but for those few moments in time, Andrew was on top of his world, right before his fall.

Of course, there also is no instance where Andrew assumes a mantle, or publicly marks himself as better than the rest of us. In fact, Andrew goes in the opposite direction at one point, hiding behind his father’s fireman’s gear as he embarks on a descent into robbery, once more attempting to become anonymous. But then again, that sequence is motivated by his love for his mother, and not out of a desire for vengeance.
Another friend, when I sent him this musing for review, made a very interesting point: It could be seen that Andrew donning the fireman’s gear is actually giving his father more power. “He is, in a way, beginning to become his father for the sake of his mother. A chaotic destroyer for the sake of one being destroyed. But, while his father could only express his destruction in limited ways, Andrew can express it in greater ways.” You could also point out that by “becoming” his father, Andrew is also serving as the provider, but providing in the only way he can.

-Apocalypse: Visually speaking, the manifestation of Andrew’s powers look a whole lot like the exhibition of Tetsuo’s. Be it the explosion of power that shatters surrounding glass, tossing helicopters around like toys, blowing holes in the sides of buildings- when Andrew eventually blows his top, everyone sees it. The main difference between him and Tetsuo in this situation is the way they handle it. Tetsuo is lucid, fully in control of his faculties and exhibiting his will in a hostile way. Andrew may or may not be doing this. Prior to the explosion of power, he was in an apparent coma, arrested for the crimes he had committed, and receiving a brutal tongue lashing from his father. Andrew speaks few words, and mostly roars out his will as he violently attacks Seattle, the police, and his cousin. The apex predator he has desired has finally become visible, and he acts little better than an animal.

In many ways, his final moments aren’t too different from Tetsuo’s, when you think about it- at the end, Tetsuo was lost to his rage and his power, as it slowly consumed him. His cells were dividing faster than he could staunch them, and his was totally in fear of what was happening to him. He looked to Kaneda at that point, crying out for someone to save him from his fate. Andrew, during those final moments, was fully lost to his rage, as his power exploded around him. He lashed out at everyone and brought the city to a halt. The who of Andrew is lost to what he has become. While he doesn’t look to Matt to save him from himself, Matt knows that the only way to save both his cousin and the city itself is to put Andrew down.

Chronicle isn’t Akira. Which believe me, is a very good thing. Rather, Chronicle takes cues from Akira, and in many ways is both an update and a re-envisioning of the older work. It definitely copies the flavor of it: the societal subtext, the relationship dynamic, the nature of the powers and their eventual resolution. Rather than remake, it creates something new that lies within the same vein as the older work. It is, quite possibly, the sincerest and most genuine imitation of the classic anime, in the fact that it is not even an true imitation.

So to whoever owns the film rights to Akira: don’t bother going forward. Someone already did. And delivered.

Credit goes to Aleks and Brendan “DJ Indy” Foley for their thoughtful commentary. You can read Aleks’ in the comments section.


  1. "Fuck the cross." The cross adorning the wall above Andrew's dying mother was not there by accident, but it didn't have much to do with the story at hand, even though the metaphor that she is the one pure character within the scope of the story is a nice, fluffy thing to say. But what of Andrew's stylistic death? Being lanced by his cousin brings to mind two famous movie deaths: the death of the Priest in "The Omen," who is lanced during an electrical storm, and the death of Asuka in The End of Evangelion, speared by the Lance of Longinus. Longinus himself converted to Christianity after the crucifixion, and then ascended into sainthood. Matt, the lancer, made it to Tibet, something that had been mentioned earlier in the film with regards to the Monks and their enlightenment.
    "How else can I milk this death scene?" Looking back, the statue (not of St. Longinus) was that of a hunter, mid-throw. Andrew threw about the Darwinian term "apex predator." "The self-proclaimed Apex Predator killed by a hunter statue's spear. Is that irony?"
    The name Andrew means "strong." Steven means "crown". Matthew means "Gift of God."
    "Ah, shit," Aleks swore. "There goes that metaphor." However, a quick trip to Wikipedia showed that St. Matthew, one of the the apostles, stuck by Jesus, witnessing his resurrection and ultimate ascension. That's a reach.
    Less of a reach, however, are the connotations that could be put to the gang of three. Freud's mental trio. Andrew is the Id--impulsive, instinctive. Steven is the Ego--the median between the id and reality. Matt is the Superego--the conscience.
    "I think I'm done," Aleks confessed, realizing the time. "I'm just being a troll now."

  2. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/moviebob/9204-Advice-From-a-Fanboy-Akira

    Check this out. I think he's got a lot of good ideas about remaking Akira. The one I like the best would be casting it with mostly black or Latino performers.

  3. Yeah, that's a very good article. But I'm still against the idea of a remake in any way. Akira was linked to the time/place it was set, and spoke strongly because of that. I think Chronicle captures that same emotion and energy, while not devolving to an outright copy.