Directed and based on the graphic novel Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
Produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha (TMS Entertainment)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
One of, if not the most important anime film in the industry’s history, Akira was a trailblazing introduction for many people into the world of Japanimation. 30 years after its original release in Japan, we take a look at the sci-fi epic from scratch.
Set in a parallel world recovering from the third World War, instigated after a ball of light destroyed much of Tokyo, Akira takes place in the unsettled city of Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda is the leader of a young biker gang who, one night, launch an attack on their local rivals. Their bike race coincides with mass protests in the city and a resistance attack against an undercover government military project, and when one of Kaneda’s friends, Tetsuo Shima, crashes into a young child in the abandoned part of the city he and Kaneda are unwillingly dragged into a world of unknown power.
Akira is certainly an epic in the categorical sense of the word, but what surprised me – going into it with absolutely no knowledge of the story – was how much the story seemed to morph over time. At first you are introduced to the city, with smart directing leading you down a slow discovery and towards a new world that was once ruins and, despite the glowing lights and the clamouring skyscrapers, is still struggling to rebuild from the ground. A flurry of different characters are introduced and a host of set pieces which left me wondering for a moment if the movie was going to be a Snatch-esque find the treasure story featuring different groups. The first half you spend really enjoying the sci-fi world Otomo has created, until the plot clearly defines itself.
Alluding to what I said just then, the story in Akira is easily lost in the sea of metal, concrete and blood that fills this film at every point. While that makes the story as it plays out in the film look simple at first glance, It is actually, somewhat unfortunately, hiding quite a deep story in the background. A revolting population lost by a government who can barely control their own shady projects, the city is almost crying out to be imploded, and boy does that happen.
I am a bit wary of talking too much about the animation because I watched the remastered blu-ray version whose sharp, vivid colours make this film a true delight to watch. That being said, the effect would have been the same on the late-80s audience simply through the scale of animation. By far the most expensive animation of its time, Akira is easily the most ambitious and eye-catching animated film I’ve ever seen – from beginning to end you see things seldom done in animation. The violence is particularly interesting, as the strangely measured use of blood seems way more noticeable here than in other animated films I’ve seen. It’s less ‘blood on the walls’ and more blood out of his head, and its that level of realism that makes it hit harder than it otherwise would.
However, the real visual experimentation kicks in during the film’s stretched conclusion, where Otomo takes you on a journey even more ugly and creative and mouth-dropping that he already had. It definitely doesn’t have to be as long as it is which means that it does get boring at points, and some of the ‘convulsions’ (trying not to spoil it as much as I can) are just plain grotesque, but as a whole it is the necessary conclusion to a film that you felt was waiting to explode.
There are few Japanese animated films that have had more of a mark in western pop culture than Akira, and even in this age – literally one year before the actual time setting in the movie – this is an anime that feels right at home. Its boundless creativity might be its only weakness as a watchable movie experience, but that must not take away from a movie that seems to do everything particularly well. Strong, individual characters play this epic through a believable dystopian future with a true sci-fi twist that releases a cacophony of visual wonders upon the viewer.
I hate re-watching movies, but I finished Akira and felt like I wanted to see it all over again, and in the hundreds of movies I’ve reviewed over the last few years, I can barely think of a handful of other times I’ve felt like that.