To begin with, the movie is set in Neo-Manhattan instead of Neo-Tokyo, which makes sense. What's cool is that our main characters' names are not changed - they are still Kaneda, gang leader with a heart of gold, and Tetsuo, neurotic and superpowered. In the American film, Kaneda and Tetsuo are brothers, whereas in the original story they are just childhood friends with an intense bond. This is a fairly significant change, because now the two are bound by blood — which raises the inevitable question about why Tetsuo has superpowers and Kaneda doesn't. If they are just close friends, that's not a plothole.
We read bits of two scenes: One from early in the film, when Kaneda first meets his love interest, the anti-government revolutionary Ky (Kei in the original), in jail; and one from the end, during Tetsuo's rampage and confrontation with Kaneda.
Ky and Kaneda meet in jail
He and Tetsuo have just encountered one of the psychic Espers kids - Takashi in the original, renamed Tobias here. This scene squashes together several different scenes from the original movie, as Ky clumsily infodumps about how Akira and Tobias were experimented on by the government and given psychic abilities. A lot is made of how nobody believes that Akira exists, with Kaneda scoffing:
Honey, we're both behind bars. And while you're a real treat to look at, I've got a 'no crazy girl' policy. So good luck with your quest. I'm sure you'll find Akira hiding out with the Easter Bunny and Santa someplace.
This is a far cry from what you see in the original flick, where Kei is introduced as a mysterious revolutionary who doesn't trust Kaneda, and Kaneda's attempts to flirt with her are limited to asking if she wants to get a drink.
In the original, Kanada is left in the dust when Kei disappears. In the American version, he leaves Ky behind, calling after him that the government "wants something" from his brother Tetsuo, and she needs to talk more to him about it. I got the distinct sense that this Ky was going to be kind of spineless and trembly-lipped - more of a conspiracy theorist than a pistol-packing revolutionary. And somebody is trying to beef up Kaneda's wisecrackery as well. Not a great plan.
Superpowered Tetsuo confronts Kaneda
One thing that's interesting about the other scene we read is that it appears the American version of the film will include a lot of stuff about drugs that got left out of the Japanese film. In fact, there's a long-running joke (or maybe wry observation) among Akira enthusiasts that one of the problems with the movie is we see that Kaneda's gang all have drug capsules on their jackets but we never know why. In the manga, however, we learn that the gang is actually called the Capsules, and the drug trade is a big part of their story. As Tetsuo grows more and more powerful, he starts snarfing a ton of illegal drugs to keep his headaches and pain in check.
And we got a glimpse of a scene of his rampant drug abuse from the American script - a scene that really doesn't exist in the Japanese film. Kaneda and Ky confront Tetsuo at a bowling alley of all places, where he's murdered a rival gang member gruesomely, and is chowing down on pills. The scene is a bad mashup of a bit in the original movie when Tetsuo confronts two members of his gang who once picked on him in a pool hall, and the intense final fight between Tetsuo and Kaneda after Tetsuo has discovered the jars that hold Akira's remains.
There's a long, awful argument between Tetsuo and Kaneda, where Tetsuo tells his brother that he doesn't need him and Kaneda whines that he's spent his whole life "cleaning up after" Tetsuo and basically being his mommy. In the original story, it's true that Tetsuo is angrily jealous of Kaneda for being so awesome - but their fight is more like rivalry to control the gang. He also genuinely loves Kaneda and trusts him completely. This scene, with its weird bowling alley setting, makes their relationship feel like something out of a sitcom rather than a gang epic. I mean, at one point Tetsuo levitates some bowling balls and shoots them at Kaneda. Really, people? So you turned the space laser fight with Akira's organs into a bowling ball brawl? Not good!
Drugs and Jesus
I did like that we got to see how drugs are a big part of Tetsuo's disintegration. That's something that's barely touched upon in the Japanese film, but is a big part of the manga. Given that Akira and the Espers kids were created with weird government drugs, and that Kaneda's gang is named for drugs, it's pretty obvious that drug abuse should be a big subtheme in the film. And the drugs are going to be weird, futuristic stuff - so I hope we get to see more of that in the American film, and basically have the whole drug aspect of the gangland rivalries played up.
Still, I could do without lines like this, from Tetsuo:
Akira. I hear his voice. I am his savior. His resurrector. His breath of life. I'm going to find him. Set him free. Help him break it all apart again.
Of course the original movie is mystical, but it's also very much science fiction. It's possible that Tetsuo sees Akira as a possible messiah, but mostly he just wants to figure out what the hell is happening to him. Tetsuo knows the weird transformations in his body are connected to what happened to Akira, and he wants answers. Plus, Akira isn't some futuristic Jesus to be resurrected. All we know is that he's channeling "ultimate energy" - the force in all living things and ideas. His powers, though godlike, are not from God, if you get what I mean. They come from the universe.