Friday, April 19, 2013

Akira (1988)

The first time I heard about Akira it was in a hushed tone. I was talking to a fellow employee at the video store. I told him how I’d seen some pretty edgy animation, like Bakshi’s Wizards and the infamous Heavy Metal. He smiled and said I hadn’t seen anything yet. He told me of a movie that had amazing detail in the animation, and contained scenes of people exploding and motorcycle chases in a futuristic city. If Heavy Metal was the edge, then Akira drove right over it. It took a few years, and I finally found Akira. And he was right.

World War III left Tokyo decimated, but humans have rebuilt a Neo-Tokyo, and now in the year 2019 things are reaching a boiling point. Students are demonstrating against a corrupt government, the military is performing experiments dealing with psychic powers and biker gangs roam the streets. The city is rotting from within and all that is needed is a gentle push to bring about another Armageddon.

With a set up like that, you know we are in for some kind of apocalypse. A biker gang lead by Kaneda (Johnny Yong Bosch) is mixing it up in the streets like normal. The runt of the gang, Tetsuo (Joshua Seth) is severely hurt in a bizarre crash. Before his friends can rescue him, Tetsuo is spirited away by black military helicopters and sent to a secret lab to become the latest guinea pig for the psychic experiments. Meanwhile Kaneda meets the spirited Kei (Wendee Lee) a member of the resistance movement in Neo-Tokyo The two find themselves pulled into a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the nation’s government. And when Kaneda finds Tetsuo again, the young man is not who he was before. He now wields tremendous psychic powers and is very, very angry. Behind it all is the mysterious Akira and his link to a mass of destruction. Will he bring about the end of everything or a new beginning?

Good Points:
  • The animation is simply astounding in scale and scope
  • A visceral film that bombards its viewers
  • Influenced many anime and films that came after it

Bad Points:
  • Contains seriously disturbing scenes of graphic violence and body mutation
  • The ending can be confusing
  • The older dub makes things even more confusing

Simply put Akira is a landmark of animation. The detail, scope and scale of the visuals are something to behold, and have rarely been met or bested during the years of hand drawn animation. The movie is about anger and change: both are violent. This violence and aggressiveness will drive some viewers away. But a new dub script has improved the overall film, and makes it well worth seeking out to experience at least once.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Tetsuo has had enough of Kaneda's interference.
Any anime fan worth his or her salt has seen Akira. You’ll even find plenty of non-fans who have at least heard of the film. Imagery and references pop up in geek culture all the time. And for many fans of animation it is a reference quality work that demands respect, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

That is the common complaint I see leveled at the film. Most of this comes from an inferior dub that was made in 1990. For many folks, this was the first introduction to the film (and to anime in general). The result was a lot of confusion and the idea that all anime was ultra-violent sci-fi that made no sense at all. I’ll admit, that early dub did require a few viewings before everything clicked into place, but the films core message was still there.

A new dub in 2001 pretty much changed the whole thing, turning a confusing mess into a story with an interesting mix of horror, humor, paranoia and seething anger. The cleaned up image on the DVD from Pioneer was also a revelation, showing a color palate that was much more vivid and showing the amazing detail of the backgrounds in this film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is Akira about? It tells the story of a catastrophic change for two individuals: Neo-Tokyo and Tetsuo. Throughout the film, the city and the teenager appear to be self-destructing. Many times Tetsuo is actively destroying the city, at the same time the military, government and society around Tetsuo is actively trying to control or destroy him. By the end of the film the city and the boy have been ravaged by the battle. The only clear way to escape the torment is to cease to exist in this world.

Kaneda takes aim at his one time friend.
That is where the film ends up losing viewers. Akira makes his appearance, but it is a part that is so small and ethereal that you wonder why the film was even named after him. But in many different ways, Akira is a catalyst. His name alone is enough to inspire dread and worship. His role is explained, but only in a round about way. It ends up taking a couple viewings to really understand who Akira is, and why his action (and inaction) is important to Neo Tokyo and Tetsuo. And as you know, I love a film that makes you think a little after it ends.

The film is based on a graphic novel series by Katsuhiro Otomo. He started the series in 1982 and ended it in 1990. He also directed this film adaptation. So what you see in the film is a distilled modified version of his concepts from the manga. This does account for some of the elements that seem a bit rushed. But, like Ghost in the Shell, the adaptation manages to capture all the key plot and theme points in an abbreviated form.

Akira is really a visual masterpiece of the animated medium. There are sequences where so much is going on that it is hard to take it all in. While the detailed backgrounds aren’t quite as realistic as the ones for Ghost in the Shell, they fit the world created for Neo-Tokyo. The city itself feels enormous, overwhelming and rotting. Everything seems to be in some state of decay or upheaval. Garish neon lights and loud colors clash with the dank sewers and crumbling architecture. In many ways it fits the 1980s view of the post apocalyptic world.

Science marvels at it's advances as the military looks on.
What is even more impressive about this movie is the animated action and motion. Otomo keeps everything dynamic and explosive. He uses plenty of camera motion combined with action scenes that never skimp on capturing anything. The first rumble between Kaneda’s gang and their rivals the Clowns is impressive. The motorcycles move realistically, and when the brutality kicks in the blows to the head with pipes and the bodies hitting the pavement feel real.

The impact of the animation only escalates as the scope of the destruction grows. From simple violence between rival gangs it climaxes in the destruction of an entire city full of people. Very little is left untouched. There are psychokinetic battles that rip flesh apart, there’s heavy artillery used against a single fleeing man, there’s even an space based energy weapon that fires upon one of our protagonists with disturbing results. Akira is about violence and it never shies from this. It is one of the reasons the film is infamous and appreciated at the same time.

Tetsuo takes charge of his exploding city.
Another visual element that really comes through, especially on the remastered version of the film is the use of the color red. The cleaned up print reveals how vivid the colors are in the film. The reds now take on an almost electric quality. The obvious connection here is to violence and blood. The film has many scenes with blood, and the gore in the film is one of the things that made it popular with anime fans in the late 80s and early 90s. But red can also be linked to anger and aggression. Kaneda dresses in a red leather jacket and drives a brilliant red motorcycle. He’s aggressive, hot headed and rash. Tetsuo is seen in pale blues and greens in the early parts of the film. But once he goes on his rampage, he rips a red curtain down and fashions it into a cape. He is angry and more than willing to express that anger. Finally the reds, oranges and yellows in the film can be seen as links to fire and eruptions. The city itself seems to be awash in blood or fire on several occasions. The combination of yellow buildings, orange lighting and characters dressed in red continues to reinforce this image. It’s as if Neo-Tokyo is already burning and we are just watching it. In fact one of the taglines used for the film was “Neo-Tokyo is about to explode”.

Kaneda and Rei or is that Rei and Kaneda?
With all the technical animated brilliance on display there is one drawback to Akira. Otomo has a very distinct, simplistic character design. He keeps things very abbreviated when it comes to facial features. He also keeps the hair in the film to realistic tones for Japanese characters. The end result is that you have quite a few characters that end up looking the same. The supporting cast can get especially confusing. Two remembers of the resistance look like twins, except one wears a hat. For the longest time, I thought they were the same guy. There are even moments where Kei is wearing a jacket and hat, and ends up looking a lot like Kaneda. You end up waiting to hear people speak to figure out who is who in some scenes. This visual issue combined with the poor 1990 dub may have been responsible for a lot of the confusion the movie inspires.

The sound is also pretty impressive. The film provides plenty of instances of unique sound effects, crowd noise and massive destruction. Luckily the balance is handled well and never overwhelms the dialogue or the music.

Kaneda witnesses the ravages of Neo Tokyo.
I blogged a bit about the musical score by Geinoh Yamashirogumi. It is truly a unique mix that fits the film and actually gives Akira it’s own identity. The score’s most impressive moments are during the opening and end credits, where you only have images and music creating a mood. The extensive use of various percussion, from huge drums to tiny chimes, creates a rhythm to the film. It is constantly moving forward toward a climax. Add to this the use of a choir chanting with or counter to the rhythm and it adds a while new layer. Truly nothing else quite sounds like this score, and when you hear a track from the score you are immediately reminded of the film. There are cases where the score distracts a little from the film due to its unique nature.

I’ve mentioned a couple times that that 1990 dub is pretty inferior. For some anime fans, the multiple mispronunciations of the Japanese names will be enough to detour you. Most of the time the emphasis is put on the wrong syllable, and was obviously directed by someone who hadn’t listened to the Japanese pronunciation. Beyond that, the character of Kaneda is off, coming across very heroic in the 1990 dub. The dialogue at the end of the film is an example of a dub script at it’s most muddled. The visuals become abstract, and the dialogue philosophical. The 1990 dub just doesn’t know what to make of it all, and as the movie ends you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.

Three experiments who wear the pain on their faces.
2001 gave Akira a much better dub. The voice actors had all worked on anime before and were well versed in Japanese pronunciations. The character of Kaneda is much less heroic and more like the juvenile delinquent with the heart of gold. He’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed, more street-smart than anything else. This comes through a lot clearer in the new dub. Finally the dialogue in the ending (while still philosophical and obtuse) makes more sense and links closer with the imagery on the screen. While part of me nostalgically enjoys the older dub, Pioneer’s new dub is easily the superior version.

Much like Ghost in the Shell the basic story of Akira is fairly straightforward. It’s got a lot of the tensions of 1980s cold war angst in it. It’s often considered an example of cyberpunk. It slams the power hungry political elite, represented by a group of bitter old men. It warns of scientific exploration without a thought for consequences. And while the character of the Colonel seems to be an antagonist, in many ways he’s the only realist in the film. He takes responsibility for his actions and tries his best to save the city, even if it flies in the face of science and social authority.

Finally the film touches on human potential to change. Some of this seems to be benevolent, like the three children who appear wizened and yet live in a playroom. Other times this change is violent and angry, exemplified by Tetsuo and his rages. But as angry and dangerous as Tetsuo becomes, he is not painted as the villain. He shares the role of protagonist with Kaneda (and you can even look at Kaneda as an antagonist if you want). Tetsuo has his powers thrust upon him. Yes he abuses them. But he pays for it, physically, mentally and socially. He is literally presented with little choice but to remove himself from existence in our world. It is never phrased as death, and the images recall the star gate sequence form 2001: A Space Odyssey. The final transformation of Tetsuo remains a mystery that no one can grasp (literally and figuratively).

Tetsuo loses control of his powers and of his own flesh.
All of this is rolled into one two-hour movie and in all honestly is handed very well. Otomo keeps things moving forward, uses the plot and images to bombard the viewer. In many ways Akira is not a pleasant movie to watch. It’s aggressive, violent and in your face. It’s one of the reasons I don’t find myself reaching for it too often. It is the opposite of Ghost in the Shell and it’s cool aesthetic. While the two films have a lot of common ground, they are very different viewing experiences.

It’s that aggressive nature of the film that keeps me from putting it in the top tier of my favorite Japanese animation. I appreciate it. Each time I watch it, I get a little more out of it. But each viewing is like being hit in the face with angry ball of punk anger. I prefer to have my angst a little more tempered. Still, I can’t deny that Akira packs a punch. Nearly anyone who’s seen it will not forget it or some of the imagery in the film. It has earned its place as a classic example of animated story telling.


  1. Feature length anime forms a fairly large hole in my movie-viewing experience. This and Ghost in the Shell might be two with which to get grounded.

    1. I agree. They are both considered classics of the medium. Both are solid cyberpunk sci-fi stories. There are a couple more films I'm going to cover this year, that you may find interesting. But these two make great starting points.