Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Nostalgia Nugget: The Akira Legacy

An animated film that made a huge impact
Katsuhiro Otomo’s film Akira cast a long shadow over Japanese animation and anime fandom in North America. Some of this I experienced first hand, and other elements I discovered with the help of recent viewing and some discussion with a fellow fan.

As I mentioned in my review, for many in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Akira was the film that converted them into fans. Yes, even with its poor dub and muddy visual transfer, plenty of people were blown away by the sheer scope, audacity and power of the film. Seeing that movie and then comparing it to other “adult” animation made in North America was like comparing apples and oranges. While this seems like a slam on the folks who worked on Ralph Bakshi’s movies, films like Heavy Metal or even Transformers the Movie, it really isn’t. Akira remains fairly unique in it’s approach and execution. Lots of anime that came after tried to imitate its success and usually failed.

For most non-Japanese viewers Akira opened the door to what they thought was possible in animation. They wanted to see more. Non-Japanese distribution companies picked up on this and attempted to meet the need. Fans liked Akira’s brutal edge, and so ultra-violent, and often nearly pornographic movies and original animated video (OAV) series were picked up and released. This all fed into the perception that all Japanese animation was nothing but naked women being raped by tentacles while exploding into gory pieces.

One of the most infamous
anime series of the 1990s.
I don’t want to blame the North American distributors too much, because they did bring over other shows and series too. But the most popular stuff during those years was the really disturbing properties like La Blue Girl, Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, Wicked City and Angel Cop. Keep in mind, the animation companies were making this stuff too, so equal blame to everyone. But the perception of anime being material to fuel twisted sick fantasies really stuck for a long time. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that things started to get away from that. More shows like Tenchi Muyo, Ranma ½ and Oh My Goddess showed the cuter more humorous side of the medium.

Sad to say, but Akira was probably the start of that nasty perception about anime.

On the flip side Akira did show Japanese animators that there were new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. I doubt that Ghost in the Shell would have been created if Akira hadn’t been so popular around the world. It showed that cyberpunk animation could be executed on a large scale. Several OAV series and movies delved deeper into that realm.

Perhaps the most interesting influence is thematic. The concept of putting a teenager into the role of immense power and responsibility, and watching them attempt to reconcile the fact was fairly fresh. Most anime up to that point had never had a teenager that was so angry and confused in a role of power. Most of the time, it was the responsible teen (or child) that was given power. It was the thrill of seeing a young person do a good job with the responsibility that was appealing to viewers.

But Akira was more realistic. Tetsuo is a bitter young man, and he lashes out with his new powers. He’s selfish, but not really hateful. His anger combined with the lack of control is what really endangers everyone. Tetsuo feels like a real kid stuck in a situation that would impossible to really grasp.

Shinji struggles with his fear and his fate.
This theme and approach would come up again and again in the angsty 1990s anime world. The most famous would be the character of Shinji in the series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Much like Tetsuo, Shinji is a bitter teen who feels abandoned and misunderstood. Unlike Tetsuo, Shinji does not try to face his problems, he runs away from them (usually by withdrawing completely from everything). Where Tetsuo indulged in his rage, Shinji hides from it. Shinji is told time and again that he has the power and the responsibility to save the world. He can not handle it. Fear is the driving force in Neon Genesis Evangelion just like anger is the driving force in Akira. But both series put a teen in an impossible situation and we watch them attempt to handle it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion became a huge hit and spawned many imitators. For a long time every lead character in an anime series was an angsty misunderstood teen. Hell, this even crossed over into video games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Often I see people complaining about Evangelion’s negative impact on anime story telling. But I think the real root is Akira. Honestly I can’t condemn it. I think Evangelion is a great show.

The other element that Akira made popular in anime was the imagistic, philosophical explosion in the final reel. Obviously it was inspired by the visual dynamics during the final reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately this is a double edge sword. When used properly, this type of ending can leave the viewer with intriguing questions about the film and it’s message. Used poorly, it can be an attempt to cover up the fact that no one really thought out how to end the movie or series.

Whoa, more philosophy?
Again Evangelion is often called out for having a horrible ending (especially the television series). I never agreed with that. I thought the ending, while a bit disconcerting and abrupt, made sense in the context of the show. The surreal images were not out of left field as so many folks claim.

Many series attempted to end with a massive explosion of bizarre visuals and characters talking about the meaning of life. Even The Matrix films were guilty of using this trope. It all goes back to Akira.

So, Otomo’s film did inspire its share of good and not so good. These days, anime is less influenced by Akira, but most anime fans still hold the film in high regard. It’s just interesting to look at the immediate aftermath of it being unleashed on viewers in Japan and in the rest of the world.

Interested in another anime legacy? Check out my thoughts on Tenchi Muyo and it's impact on Japanese animation and anime fandom.


  1. One of the pleasures of having a deep viewing history is the ability to recognize how a genre evolves and what one film owes to what went before. Sometimes the creators of later pieces aren't even fully aware, since they may be influenced second hand by something that itself is derivative.

    1. Yeah it's a fun game to play. How far can I go back? Lots of this ties back to ancient mythologies and stories, where many of these ideas first appeared. And some folks readily admit they were inspired by something. The creators of "The Matrix" stated on a number of occasions that they were big fans of anime. And they specifically sited "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell".

      The inspiration doesn't bother me too much. What bothers me more is when people start calling something original, when it clearly isn't. Both "The Matrix" and "Independence Day" were often called innovative and original. Still makes me prickly. :)