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Year: 1988
Country:
Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Otomo Katsuhiro
Studio: TMS Entertainment
Adaptation from: 
Otomo Katsuhiro’s manga of the same title
Screenplay: Otomo Katsuhiro, Hashimoto Izō
Cinematography: Misawa Katsuji
Animation Direction: Sato Hiroaki, Nakamura Takashi, Takeuchi Yoshio
Soundscore: Yamashiro Shoji
Runtime: 125 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)

Seen at the BFI’s biennial weekend showcase for Anime. The film was shown on the BFI Southbank’s largest screen (3.8m x 9.2m in a theatre with superb sound acoustics). Watching Akira doesn’t get better than this!

Note: Although I have tried avoid spoilers in this (sort of) review, there are specific references to a number of scenes, so you might prefer to read this post only after having watched Akira.

There are certain films that I rarely watch – films that are heavy on violence, action scenes or horror. Every now and then, however, something comes along that falls into one of these categories but yet transcends its genre and comes crashing through any personal preferences I might have. Akira is one of those works.

Based on the director’s own seinen manga (serialised in 6 volumes from 1982-1990 by publisher Kodansha), Akira is a well-known anime classic and it is not uncommon to hear words like “landmark”, “legacy” or “must-see” mentioned in the same breath. Akira ushered in a new era in animated filmmaking, showing – with a complex story and compelling visuals – what animation could offer beyond the Disney film format, which had largely remained the same since the inaugural Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Akira also popularised Japanese anime outside its country of origin, marking what has been labelled the Second Wave of Anime Fandom by some and influencing manga artists and filmmakers (of animated and non-animated works) alike. Everything from The Dark Knight (2008) to Inception (2010) stands in its debt, but in particular The Matrix (1999), or, as one reviewer wrote, “[s]imply put, no Akira, no Matrix” (source).

Characters

The Capsule Gang: Kaneda Shotaro, Shima Tetsuo, Yamagata, Kaisuke, Kuwata Mitsuru, Watanabe Eiichi, Takeyama Yuji.

Far left: Tetsuo. Second left: Kaneda. Plus two other members of the Capsule gang.

The two most important members are its leader, Kaneda, our hero with the red bike, and Tetsuo, who is the driving force of the story.

The Three Espers: Takashi, Kioko, Masaru.

The espers are three now adult orphan children that became subjects in government experiments. The testing has awakened unusual, but highly unstable powers so that they must take medication continuously for them to be kept under control. The espers essentially live imprisoned in hospital and are always closely guarded by the government. Takashi, Kioko and Masaru were not the only test subjects, but seem to be the only surviving ones at this point.

Akira

Another test subject – the most powerful one. However, his power completely went out of control, causing the 1988 destruction of Tokyo.

The Rebels

The Rebels (with Kaneda, far left).

A group of activists that is opposed to the government’s experiments and tries to sabotage them, abducting, for example, one of the espers.

Colonel Shikishima

The colonel, who is the head of the Neo-Tokyo Army and a member of the Supreme Council, works for the government and is the person in charge of the Akira project.

Doctor Onishi

The lead scientist in the Akira project. He fits the bill of the raving mad scientist that is so mesmerised by his experiments that he has lost hold on reality. He is barely cognisant of the fact that what he is doing could have serious consequences – including the end of humanity – and has no ethical concerns whatsoever. He lives for science only.

For more characters, see here.

Plot

We write the year of 2019. The place is post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, a desolate urban landscape, a fractured city where bike gangs roam streets and engage in territorial battles, cults pray for the messiah to come and terrorists plot against the government. On a night as any other one of these gangs, led by a young man of the name Kaneda, congregates and races through the ghost town that is Neo-Tokyo, inadvertently coming across a man from a terrorist group abducting one of the espers that the government has been conducting scientific experiments on. Fates irreversibly intersect and Tetsuo, Kaneda’s fellow gang member and childhood friend, is severely injured and soon taken away by state security to make him – it turns out – another guinea pig in their attempts at playing god. Although Kaneda and the rest of the gang are powerless when they are left behind on the streets, they refuse to give up on their friend and try to uncover his whereabouts to rescue him – an undertaking that is more complicated than they can initially imagine.

Such is the basic storyline of Akira, but what else to say? There have been so many reviews written on Akira, and I do not simply want to add another one to the pile. Instead, I want to make the case for those people that, like me, would not normally watch such an animated film. So here it goes…

Why to Watch Akira Even if Violence-Filled Sci-Fi Action Animes with Cyberpunk Elements Are Not Your Thing:

1) Cinematography: Art and Animation

From the moment the first images hit the screen it is obvious that Akira has superb visuals. The ‘camera’ takes a bird’s eye view of a street (hinting that at the locale where some of the battles are to be fought and the ‘home turf’ of our hero Kaneda and the rest of the gang), then slowly rises up and sweeps over a glorious but seemingly humanless city. The Tokyo of July 16, 1988, a forlorn place, spreads out onto a distant horizon until an apocalyptic explosion turns everything into rubble before our eyes:

Apocalypse.

These images are as powerful as they are beautiful and are indicative of the cinematography to follow. Scenes of bike chases through Neo-Tokyo’s nocturnal streets are another early cinematographic highlight.

As a big-budget project (US$11 million), Akira had all the funds to create a gorgeous-looking movie but it is more than money that makes an artistic masterpiece. What we see in the animation is ten years of hard work, extreme care in the art but also a distinctly unique aesthetic vision. The drawing style itself is closely based Katsuhiro’s original manga, which was somewhat untypical as it was “heavily influenced by early western films” (quote – question 1.3.1) and drawn more realistically in terms of the characters’ anatomy. The animation was different as well:

No other film had ever looked like Akira, it’s [sic] stunningly fluid and detailed animation often requiring as many as nine separate cel layers. The 125 minute feature was comprised of over 160,000 cels and almost as many backgrounds, each one completely hand–drawn and hand-painted. Purists recognize Akira as the last completely hand-created animated feature, as cel animation quickly gave way to cheaper digital production and CGI technology. (quote)

To explain: cel animation is a traditional technique in hand-drawn animated films. It relies on separate aspects of an image being drawn on transparent sheets of celluloid (‘cel’) each, e.g. for a character that moves and another that stands still in a particular scene. The two (or more) cels are than jointly placed on an opaque background and photographed together. Cels can be reused (e.g. if the still character remains without any motion in the same scene, and a third character comes walking in), which saves animators time.

Cel animation (image source: automanga.)

To our 21st century, CGI-accustomed eyes Akira does, of course, look like an older film, but this does not make the animation dated, it merely dates it, which I think is perfectly fine – indeed, I think there is something incredibly powerful in watching something from another time, yet remaining as captivating as ever, both in image and content. This is, I think, a testament to the timelessness of Akira’s art, story and message that 99.9% of the flashiest animations of the current day cannot beat.

2) Soundscore

It is not just the visuals that impress, Akira‘s soundscore is also pitch-perfect. Again, you don’t need more than a minute to realise that the animation has been wonderfully scored and is richly diverse in sound: a desolate wind whistles past our ears, the apocalyptic explosion occurs in silence (which only reinforces its impact), Japanese drum beats pound humanity’s inevitable fate 31 years on after World War 3. Sound is not an afterthought in Akira, but an integral part of its experience. My favourite sound scene – if not favourite scene of the entire animation – is a wordless moment in which Tetsuo lies on his hospital bed, in convulsions from the pain in his head. He begins to hallucinate and sees three plush toys – a tiny bear, a rabbit and car – appear out of thin air. They slowly move towards him, accompanied only by a rhythmic beat in tune with their movements that skilfully increases in speed the closer they get to him, Tetsuo growing more terrified with every pulsation.

Plush toy terrorisations.

3) Unpredictability

The story of Akira is complex, which is no surprise, given that Otomo developed it over 2000 pages in the manga. The film-story has necessarily been simplified, but is still anything but straightforward. However, it is not so much the complexity of the storyline that I appreciate but its unpredictability: all the turns that it takes that we cannot really foresee. Unpredictability means elevating a film above and beyond the fray, it means introducing a sort of unprecedented originality that makes the viewing experience one thrilling ride in which you never dare to catch your breath for the fear that you might miss something. For me, unpredictability is a decisive factor in the enjoyment of films, something that the BFI’s Anime Weekend very much reminded me of and made me think about again – reflections I hope to put into writing one day sooner rather than later.

4) Multidimensionality of Characters

Before watching Akira I knew little about it except that a young lad with a rather striking red motorbike was at the heart of the story. That in itself turned out to be somewhat inaccurate (Tetsuo is as central to the story as Kaneda is), but additionally I had also falsely presumed that the leader of the Capsule gang was a gutsy protagonist to begin with. Although Kaneda is somewhat of a daredevil as he races through Neo-Tokyo’s nocturnal streets and picks fights with rival bike gangs, it’s more a matter of teenage swagger and testosterone running wild. Meanwhile, when a real threat comes up for the first time and the gang finds itself cornered, we see a completely different person, cowering on the ground and proclaiming innocence. He is thus not an instant hero, but has to gather strength and courage through his new experiences.

Colonel Shikishima, on the other hand, starts out as the villain – he is squarely placed on the ‘other’ side, opposite Kaneda and the Capsule gang. He works for and represents the government. Although films like Akira are perfectly suited for antagonists of the worst type, the conolel isn’t simply an evil adversary. He is righteous and dutiful, and does his job with admirable integrity, even if we might not necessarily agree with every aspect of his belief system. He thinks about what is good for the nation as a whole and doesn’t abandon his post and responsibilities even when the government has decided to get rid of him. All this makes the colonel a much more interesting character, but also signals something in terms of Akira’s larger message – it is not individuals that are the enemy of humanity per se, but when these, drunk on power (whether in the form of physical strength or scientific knowledge), no longer recognise the consequences of their actions. I am not sure if this argument is compelling, but the point I am trying to make here is that there are no outright villains in Akira – no one is intrinsically evil or immune to moral corruption. That it is Tetsuo, as the next governmental guinea pig, that becomes a lethally destructive force is coincidental – largely a matter of being in the wrong place in the wrong time. Of course, one might argue that as the weakest member of the Capsule gang he was perhaps more susceptible to abusing the power he always coveted, but Tetsuo’s character is more complex than this. He may have ‘gone bad’ and revel in his newfound super-human abilities, yet he also finds his changed reality terrifying and excruciatingly painful.

Equally, it is also difficult to label any of the other characters as plain evil. The other test subjects – the three espers – too manipulate their extraordinary faculties and in manners that threaten the world, but one cannot easily discern which side they are on exactly – if any at all – as motivations and purposes are uncertain.

The scientist and the colonel.

Even the crazed scientist, as terrible as the consequences of his actions are, is less evil than symbolic. He does not seek personal gain from the scientific experiments but merely wants to see how close he can get to the truth, demonstrating what happens when one loses sight of reality. There are still other ‘baddies’ in Akira – the members of the Supreme Council for example – but their roles are too minor to fairly pass judgment on them. Generally, however, Otomo deserves praise for offering interesting, multidimensional individuals rather than stock characters simply in the camp of either ‘hero’ or ‘antagonist’.

[Side note: Not all characters in Akira intrigue. Kay is initially a positive surprise as the bold female rebel who does not just trifle away her days on the streets but is a conscientious objector on a mission. She looks more boy than girl and is happy to disappear on Kaneda right after he facilitates her release from prison, all of which makes for a refreshing take on a female character. Disappointingly, however, Kay soon falls to sidelines and some later scenes seem contradicting to her persona (e.g. her reaction to someone being killed in front of her eyes).]

Kaneda – hero in the making.

5) Timeless Story and Message

Unlike many sci-fi action narratives, Akira has a plot that is meaningful and complex, even in its simplified-from-the-manga form. It does not merely consist of bike chases or gang fights, but contains issues that are weighty and more relevant than ever: the institutionalisation of children, forced experimentation on people, the act of playing God, the destructiveness of war, among others. At its heart is a message on loyalty and friendship, with an ending that it is (spoilers follow!) bleak more than it is hopeful – but in this, I think, lies a significant part of its power. As Tetsuo is subjected to the government’s testing, we can acutely sense his defenselessness and terror of what is happening to him (even if there are moments in which he relishes his superhumanness), things spiralling – irreversibly – out of control. Although we might initially believe that Tetsuo can be saved (that he will be rescued by his friends and his body and mind will return to their normal state), it becomes increasingly clear that this will not come to happen. Once certain lines are crossed, they cannot, ever, be uncrossed, even if life does go on – something we would do well to remember.

6) Place in History and Legacy

Akira’s legacy: The Matrix.

Certain cultural products are milestones – Akira is one of those. They are history, but they also create history. Akira thus holds an important place not just by itself, but within Japanese animation and animation more widely, as well as in film history more generally. I have already mentioned that it has been and will continue to be a source of inspiration for many films. But really Akira is a cultural phenomenon that acts as a point of reference outside its own medium – which is why you will find this film – and not the most successful/famous Disney animation – raised to the level of the Absolute Anime in the Absolut Vodka’s 2006 commercial. I find such cultural products that have an impact beyond what they originally set out to do highly fascinating and think Akira is worth watching for this: for discovering the many, many (re)interpretations that it inspired across the wide spectrum of human experiences.

Overall Verdict: With a pitch-perfect score and gorgeously hand-drawn visuals, Akira is a paragon of technical excellence. Although it is undeniably violent – more than I generally would care for – it outshines other animations, Japanese or otherwise, and even most films of other genres with a message that remains thought-provoking, relevant and as powerful as ever more than two decades after its original release. It has rightfully earned its place in the canon.

Rating: 9/10 – Why not 10? Due to some entirely personal preferences –  as I have said, Akira is more violent than I like films to be. I also could not but help compare it to 攻殻機動隊 (Gōsuto In Za Sheru – Kōkaku Kidōtai/Ghost in the Shell, 1995) and although I do not think that the latter is per se a better film, I would score it just a wee bit higher because of its highly intertextual nature. (I realise of course that, having been made after Akira, Oshii’s film is indebted Otomo’s.)

Bonus Bits:

  • An Akira fansite (manga and anime) – not complete, but a lot of information still.
  • Some awesome Blu-Ray Akira stills.
  • Akira, the manga. You can find the manga to read on the internet as well, but since it has been licensed, you should support the mangaka by purchasing it!
  • Article/review: The Impact of Akira. This sentence (quoted from a review in The Scotsman) “Otomo’s animation resembles Disney like Peter Greenaway reflects John Hughes” has me in stitches. What a fab line!
  • A rarely seen Japanese poster for Akira – and it’s just gorgeous.

Akira Reviews:

Image Gallery: