By Justin Graham / June 26th, 2013
Akira, the 1988 film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on his manga, is one of the few animated features — Japanese or otherwise — that could truly be considered a cinematic landmark. Challenging, action-packed and grown up, its tale is a complex mix of youth, science run amok, and political intrigue with a strong attention to detail. For many in the west, Akira has served as a gateway anime; the work that introduced them to the medium of Japanese animation. But as time has worn on, now nearly two and a half decades since its original release, it’s also worth revisiting as an anime of the past.
The film is set in the city of Neo Tokyo in the year 2019, thirty-one years after a cataclysm annihilated the former city of Tokyo and reduced it to a crater in the earth. And though rebuilding efforts have seen the city grow into what appears to be a thriving metropolis on the surface — complete with Blade Runner-style billboard advertising and the promise of hosting the Olympics — it’s also a city suffering from serious problems. Political unrest has led to public demonstrations and threats of revolution, and thuggish biker gangs run rampant on the streets.
It is in one of these biker gangs that the film’s protagonists belong. On the one hand, there’s Kaneda, the cool leader with the smart mouth and high-tech bike. On the other, there’s Tetsuo, the runt of the gang that struggles with always being told what to do. But their relationship gets thrown for a loop when, during a fight with a rival gang, Tetsuo encounters a strange child with shriveled skin that causes his bike to wreck. And when the military arrives to retrieve the child, they take Tetsuo along and elect to use him as their latest test subject.
These tests grant Tetsuo phenomenal mental powers. But the more powerful he grows, the less stable and more dangerous he becomes. At heart, he’s a bullied kid that’s suddenly given the tools to do whatever he wants, and years of suffering from torment and an inferiority complex lead him on a destructive journey across Neo Tokyo as he goes in search of Akira; a subject not unlike himself and the cause of old Tokyo’s destruction. Seemingly invincible, he begins to see himself as a vengeful god among men.
Kaneda, meanwhile, becomes infatuated with a young woman named Kei, who unknown to him is actually a member of the anti-government resistance. He bumbles his way into their ranks and joins them on a mission to infiltrate the facility where Tetsuo is being held, intent on coming to his friend’s rescue. Only, as implied above, Tetsuo doesn’t want to be rescued anymore.
As the film nears its conclusion, the two cross paths again and, initially, fight it out. But after Tetsuo is injured and takes refuge in the Olympic stadium, his powers begin to spin out of his control. Tetsuo’s body warps and mutates, unable to withstand the power he wields, and threatening the same widespread destruction that had leveled Tokyo decades earlier.
While the above synopsis touches on moments in Akira at the highest level, there’s far greater going on than can be easily summarized and many more characters with conflicting ideals and aspirations. There’s the head researcher of the experiment; a scientist so caught up in the thirst for knowledge that the threat of history repeating itself fails to deter his actions. There’s the pragmatic colonel; a military man through and through, he supports the experiments insofar that they could benefit mankind, but wouldn’t hesitate to pull the plug (and end Tetsuo’s life) if destruction were threatened once again. But the colonel’s efforts are sabotaged, not only by the overzealous scientists involved in the research, but by the bickering of government officials so caught up in petty squabbles that they don’t recognize or even acknowledge the potential danger. And linking the web of relationships in a circle, one of the officials on the council, Nezu, is secretly helping the resistance. However, Nezu is quick to discard any and all allegiances when the situation sours out of his favor.
Finally, there are the wild cards; three “children” of from the era of the original experiments of the 1980s with a great level of psychic and psychokinetic ability, but who are kept under constant supervision. Their medicated bodies have become discolored, shriveled, and weak, but only they have powers that can even begin match Tetsuo. They’re also the colonel’s closest allies and are the quickest to recognize the threat that Tetsuo poses.
In this chain of relationships, Tetsuo and Kaneda are mostly caught in the middle. Tetsuo is a victim of circumstance; he was only drafted into the research program because his injured body was easy to recover and it was determined through early tests that he had the potential. The change in his personality comes as a natural result of receiving too much power than a human can be trusted to handle. And as stated before, Kaneda largely becomes involved in the resistance because of his desire toward Kei; ignorant toward the political climate and the scope of the group’s larger ideology, his wish to aid the group stems from his discovery that the resistance intends to break Tetsuo out of captivity.
But with as much work having gone into conceiving the characters and their various conflicts, great effort was also put into the look and feel of the film. The artwork in Akira is vivid and full of detail, great and small, from the reaction of the young boy in a car that sees a man gun down an attack dog to the nature of the grotesque monstrosity Tetsuo becomes as his body spirals out of control; gelatinous, morbid, yet at times recognizably human even at its most distorted. And then there are those touches in both scripting and art direction that show the smaller ironies are also not lost on the filmmakers; a cult leader worshiping the advent of Akira and praying that the city be cleansed of its sin is only moments later begging for his life as Tetsuo’s actions inadvertently lead to his death.
The soundtrack of Akira is just as potent. A unique assortment of percussion and vocals, it helps set the tone from start to finish. The voice acting as well is fantastic, with each actor, at least in the original Japanese production, perfectly cast. As for its English releases, it’s notable for the existence of two different dubs. One produced by Streamline Pictures for its initial English release, and a second dub produced by Animaze over a decade later.
Among animated features, Akira is one of the all-time greats. It fully realizes a turbulent society inhabited by a pair of punk teenagers in well over their heads, forcing them to contend with personal issues and animosities. The search for the mysterious Akira is a key motivation for Tetsuo late in the film; but despite the production bearing his name, Akira himself is but a minor figure only seen in a few brief scenes and has no lines. What makes Akira so potent a story isn’t the title character, but the journeys of discovery and maturation that Tetsuo and Kaneda each travel until all of the destruction, carnage, and sorrow that they experience gives way to understanding.
Akira was most recently released on DVD in North America by Bandai Entertainment and on Blu-ray by Bandai under the Honneamise label. The release contains both the original Japanese audio with English subtitles as well as the English dub produced by Pinoneer Entertainment and Animaze for the original western DVD release. The film is rated R by the MPAA for graphic violence and brief nudity.
Akiraanime of the pastBandai EntertainmentKatsuhiro OtomoPioneerStreamline Pictures