Back in the swirling mists of the 90’s, the burgeoning force known as Anime finally broke over into the UK and a teenage me started lapping up as much content as he could. However, due to rising costs and the sheer impracticality of viewing multiple series before the days of streaming or even DVD and Blu Ray’s – YOU try keeping up with an epic series when it’s drip fed to you one episode every couple of months on a bulky VHS cassette – meant I eventually stopped keeping up with the phenomenon as a whole; but if nothing else, my relatively short time with the genre gifted me Akira…
Directed in 1988 by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on his massively gargantuan Manga series (that wasn’t even finished at the time), Akira for me is not only the alpha and omega of virtually the entire Anime genre, but is a stone-cold science fiction classic that ranks as one of the greatest and influential ever made.
It’s the year 1999 and the city of Neo-Tokyo has managed to get itself back on it’s feet after a mysterious and destructive event devastated the city; however, while life goes on, gang activity is rife in the streets and political unrest bubbles over virtually everywhere you look. In the middle of this neon-drenched, cyberpunk boiling pot, best friends Kaneda and Tetsuo roar through the streets with their biker gang starting fights and being general asswipes; but after the reserved but bitter Tetsuo is seriously wounded in an accidental encounter with a wizened-faced child with telekinetic power, he is carted off by a shady government section and experimented on by the stoic and mysterious “Colonel”. It seems that the singularity that nearly wiped Tokyo off the face of the earth like a ketchup stain was a direct result of a secret government project that enhanced the evolutionary abilities of the human mind and the disaster was caused by a young subject named Akira. While the boorish Kaneda finds himself unwittingly aligned with the resistance that looks to crack this ESP conspiracy wide open when he makes advances on Kai, an idealistic freedom fighter; Tetsuo’s telekinetic powers grow to terrifying levels in seemingly no time at all and his buried resentments about a life spent living in Kaneda’s shadow cause him to become as unhinged as only a teenager with killer mind powers can be.
As the two former friends unravel the government’s dark secret from opposite ends and the Colonel seeks to enact a coup to save Neo-Tokyo from it’s own, ineffectual leaders; the entire city is poised to explode both politically and literally, but can the exceedingly deranged Tetsuo possibly hope contain his swelling powers before he sets off another “Akira Event” and reduces the city and everyone in it to atoms?
Watching Akira now for the first time must be something of a revelatory act as Otomo’s epic odyssey is quite simply one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made and with 1982’s Blade Runner (which I honestly feel Akira surpasses), pretty much sets in tone of every shitty, dystopian Metropolis that cinema has given us ever since. But on top of looking pretty (and it looks oh so pretty), the extra bite of political intrigue grounds everything to the point where a movie that features a teenager squishing people with murder-thoughts feels hugely relatable.
Even more impressive is the characterization of the two lead characters, which takes two legitimately violent, obnoxious street punks and makes you care for them despite their glaring personality flaws. Kaneda and Tetsuo (especially Kaneda) are both toxic little shits, swaggering, arrogant boys playing as men who bully and gaslight women and constantly think the world revolves entirely around them – and yet unbelievably Kaneda manages to mature by the end of it and all it takes is the virtual destruction of every recognisable form of status quo he knows… if only it were that easy for everyone…
The animation is, for lack of a better word, flawless. Literally every frame is perfect and the film constantly refuses to cut corners or play up to the usual anime trope of using near static shots to heighten reality during action scenes while deciding to keep things as realistic as it can. What’s even more impressive for an animated feature is that all the tech (including Kaneda’s absurdly iconic bike) actually looks like it works despite being nothing more than bits of paint being played at 24 frames a second – in terms of design ethic, it’s fairly close to peerless as it gets.
A gargantuan undertaking, it’s still worth noting that the source material was only halfway complete and any fans of the movie (who haven’t already done so) should really seek out the six weighty tomes in order to get a fascinating alternative view of the story (the film loosely adapts books 1,2 and 6) but that being said, one thing the Manga can’t give you is the wonderful atmosphere of the startlingly orginal score and the sheer thrill of the wonderfully paced action. The showdown between a typically cocky Kaneda and a super powered Tetsuo utterly immersed in his newly found God-complex, is one of my favourite face off’s of all time and plays perfectly into both their character arcs as the fight starts off almost jocular before morphing into a far more serious game of countering and counter-countering each others skills. Another thing the movie does well is flex it’s sizable biceps when it comes to the kind of spectacular destruction that would make Zak Snyder and Michael Bay collectively jizz their whole bodies dry, and yet it never loses that human touch as real estate is blown to atoms and the very notion of human evolution is remade overnight.
Arguably the greatest achievement in cinematic animation since Walt Disney started mulling over a collection of fairy tales (sorry, Ghibli), Akira is mature, brainy and cool as Hell while being vaguely baffling as all good Anime is required to do by Japanese law…
As fitting for a film about the speeding up of evolution, Akira changed everything – it was a vital doorway for Manga and Anime to catch on in the West and it’s influence on film simply cannot be ignored – and still is still mercifully undated to this day.
To quote the motto of Kaneda’s gang – it’s good for your health.