In the first of an ongoing series, OneMetal spotlights the very best in Japanese animation, starting with the biggest name in Anime: Akira.
When Neo-Tokyo motorcycle gang The Capsules stumble across a secret government experiment to use psychically powered children for military projects, junior member Tetsuo starts to display undiscovered, untapped and uncontrolled abilities. His ultimate evolution into an out of control monster and the resurrection of a superpowered child who wiped Tokyo off the map years before leads to a climactic battle that changes the face of Neo-Tokyo forever.
Why Is It So Good?
Before diving into this retrospective, OneMetal should probably apologise for the spoiler heavy nature of our piece and potentially ruining the end of one of the best anime movies of all time… but we’re not going to: after all, the film is 22 years old. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the following two steps. One: feel incredible shame. Two: go rent it or buy it, watch it and then come back. Now if you’re sitting comfortably, we can begin.
This 1988 movie, written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, is largely responsible for introducing Anime to Western audiences during the late 80s and early 90s. It was the first full length Anime release to reach mainstream European and US video stores, and set an incredibly high benchmark for the movies that followed, with its Hollywood-level production values, outstanding soundtrack and ridiculously impenetrable storyline. Closely followed by Fist of the North Star, Urotsukidōji and Dominion Tank Police, Akira stood head and shoulders above the rest of the early Anime crop.
Every cent of the record breaking budget for the movie is visible on screen – all 1.1 billion Yen or $8.5million of it, a bigger budget than that years Jodie Foster film The Accused, Roddy Piper’s They Live, or even Ricki Lake’s Hairspray. The movie, that is, not the haircare product. It held the title of most expensive Anime movie for almost 20 years and was only knocked off that position by another film from the Akira team, 2004’s Steamboy.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Akira did so well worldwide is how it borrowed many production tricks from Hollywood studios like Disney. Although the content is anything but child friendly (eye-watering breaking of bones, nudity and graphic deaths are all found in Akira) it was one of the first Anime films to pre-score the character’s voices before animation started – a much more expensive process, but one that produced far slicker, sync’ed animation as a result. Similarly, the dramatic reveal shots of Neo-Tokyo at night are incredibly cinematic, and make the world of Akira all the more alive, believable and engaging. There are scenes in the movie that will make you question just how such CG-looking imagery could be created using traditional cel animation, but that’s exactly how it was done.
Maybe it’s because by drawing upon the more than 2,000 page long manga series of the same name, the production team had more than enough reference material and storylines to translate to the big screen that contributed to its success. It probably didn’t hurt that the same man that pencilled out every one of those 2,000+ pages also directs the big-screen version of the story, too.
It’s just as likely that the cyberpunk fuelled storyline of teenage angst, rebellion, friendship, betrayal and ultimately hope resonate with the audience. There’s certainly a wide enough cast of characters for pretty much every audience member to identify with. There’s Kaneda, the brash, cocky leader of The Capsules motorcycle gang. Tetsuo, his childhood friend, fulfils the role of honorary little brother to Kaneda – teased but tolerated by the gang, he is desperate to move up the hierarchy of the dysfunctional street family. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Kaneda is destined to do more than step out of the shadow of The Capsules gang, as he starts to exhibit incredible and potentially limitless psychic powers that he struggles to control.
Government test subjects Takashi, Kiyoko and Masaru provide some of the creepiest and saddest moments in the entire movie, each of them permanently trapped in childhood bodies, but with aged faces, pale skin and armed with earth-shattering psychic abilities. There’s even a square jawed, walking, talking military stereotype in Colonel Shikishima, responsible for keeping the superpowered kids under control. Yet the star of the show, the eponymous Akira, hardly gets any screen time at all, but his presence and impact on the story is the most important element of this classic movie.
It’s the enigmatic Akira, a young boy used as a test subject for illicit government experiments, that triggered the destruction of old Tokyo. It’s his spirit that draws Tetsuo to uncover his remains underneath the rebuilt Olympic Stadium, still being experimented on after this death. Ultimately it’s Akira that is brought back to life to contain Tetsuo as he spirals out of control – just like Akira himself did years before. Director Otomo drip-feeds the audience with more and more information about this God-like child, how he was used, abused and ultimately destroyed, taking thousands of innocent people with him. The character of Akira develops from being some kind of faceless deity to an innocent and very human boy corrupted by agencies who were trying to make him conform, to contain and control him.
If you’re coming to the movie after reading the books, be aware that there are some key differences between the film and the manga that inspired it. In the books, Tetsuo isn’t the only person to develop overwhelming superpowers: new characters are introduced and fed drugs to trigger the same changes in them – and bear in mind how much damage just one did. As you might expect, the events in Neo-Tokyo don’t go unnoticed by the wider world either, with armies from the US, Russia and China arriving on the scene to try and bring things under control. Neo-Tokyo itself is reconstructed too, rather than being left as a water filled crater, yet the biggest difference is what happens to Akira himself. In the movie, his destruction and sacrifice is one of the most important climactic moments in the whole story, but in the manga, he’s literally born again, and helps in the rebuilding of the city. Yet these changes don’t harm the cinematic experience: if anything, the story would be even more convoluted than it already is, and run the risk of alienating even more viewers, leaving them scratching their heads and thinking “wait… what just happened?”
From a cinematic point of view, Akira isn’t just about wow-worthy visuals: it sounds amazing too, with a fantastic and atmospheric soundtrack that supports and enhances the imagery. In every way imaginable, it was ahead of its time and remains essential viewing 22 years on.
Akira, and many of the Anime movies that followed it, drew criticism for being obsessed with huge apocalyptic explosions, the destruction of cities, and the way that civilians are inevitably caught up in the fallout of these devastating events. It’s a theme that future Must Watch articles will touch on too – it’s inevitable when looking at anime. What critics tend to forget, though, is that more than any other country in the world, Japan is perfectly entitled to explore that theme because, let’s face it, they are a post-apocalyptic country. In the literal sense of the word apocalypse (a universal or widespread destruction or disaster), they’ve seen two cities eradicated in a blinding flash of light. I’d be more surprised if those issues weren’t explored by anime and manga, because cinema has always been a way of dealing with and healing the scars of a national psyche.
Akira remains a highpoint in the history of Anime, both artistically, creatively, and from a storytelling point of view. If you’re a veteran of anime’s innovative style, you owe it to yourself to revisit Akira again. It rewards return viewings, and will reveal things you inevitably missed first or second time around. If you’ve never experienced it before, you really couldn’t ask for a better place to start your journey into the world of Japanese animation.