Man, when I think about Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 anime adaptation of his own manga Akira these days, I feel bad. Once upon a time, as a teenager watching this movie in the middle of the night to avoid sleep, everything about it blew my mind and opened me up to exploring animation in film further than any moment of my life beforehand save for when I was a child and really ate that stuff up. And obviously, I don’t need to indicate that it was the same for most people here in the West long before I even had a chance to watch it. For the majority of American filmgoers, Akira is THE anime – the one that kept cyberpunk still rolling past its 1980s rule of science fiction culture to its optimization in the end of the 1990s by The Matrix and, more importantly, the one that introduced North America Japanese animation in cinematic packaging with all the storytelling elements that entails, including world-building, moral complexity, and gore, yo. Big time gore that 16-year-old me thinks makes the movie is the most mature piece of animation to ever exist and, to be sure, Akira is a hella mature film in a medium that was previously widely considered juvenile (something that always grits my teeth thinking about). Sure, the west didn’t need to go very far to find mature animation because Ralph Bakshi but there’s a clear difference between the puerile element of Fritz the Cat making it look too sexy for kids and the story-driven violence of Akira giving the environment a real sense of devastation and tension.
Anyway, later exposure to the works of Anno Hideaki and Kon Satoshi and, hell, even Takahata Isao has pulled me away from thinking of Akira as the best of even Japanese anime (as well as just subsequent viewings of the movie where it starts wearing out on me), let alone world animation. I think the only movie I’ve grown even more severely away from is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but in the end, nothing can take away from Akira‘s watershed moment in anime exposure to us Americans or from making me suddenly want to get into animated movies again and so here we are squaring with what Akira is outside of what I owe it for my cinephilia.
And what it is is, all the wear still on it, a very solid science fiction junked-future story. One that follows Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo), the leader of the Capsule biker gang, as he witnesses his childhood friend and lieutenant Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu) get kidnapped by government agents in the aftermath of a heavy battle with their rival gang The Clowns and Tetsuo’s bike being destroyed in an encounter with a very sickly looking child who seems aged to corpselike form (Nakamura Tatsuhiko). During his arrest, Tetsuo would be the subject of tests by Doctor Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho) under the oversight of the grim Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro) and discovers that Takashi, the child responsible for his wreck, is among two other similar looking children Kiyoko (Ito Fukue) and Masaru (Kamifuji Kazuhiro) in being tormented by Onishi’s experiments into having psychic powers. Powers it seems Onishi is intent on unlocking inside of Tetsuo himself utilizing Tetsuo’s already existent angst and stress from his tragic life. Meanwhile, Kaneda is trying to find a way to rescue Tetsuo, aligning himself with a group of revolutionary terrorists intent on overthrowing the government, though that is almost accidentally through his attraction to the young woman Kei (Koyama Mami) involved with them.
It’s a complicated plot summary trying to compact way too much material from a medium that could handle that to something like film where it’s all limited to a little over two hours, but somehow that doesn’t lose me at all. In fact, it’s exciting for a while to see a movie try to figure out what to appropriate from its supposed genre (there’s moments of biker gang action, moments of political thriller, moments of horror, etc.) and stream into Kaneda and Tetsuo’s stories. From what I understand, Otomo and Hashimoto Izo’s script adapts the first three volumes loosely and it’s every man for himself from there. But, it honestly feels like the storytelling strands really come apart once those volumes are completely brisked through (by the time Tetsuo unlocks his power close to the level of the mysterious “Akira” entity which has close to no presence in this movie and more in the manga), Otomo was lost in a story he still hadn’t completely finished and had the opposite effect as George R.R. Martin, rushing instead to find some satisfying ending point to most of the precious plotlines he retained and that’s kind of where Akira sputters out for me as a tale.
Anyway, Akira is not a movie I watched for its story even when I thought it was the best thing in the world (and mercy to those who do), but there was a clear though I had watching the opening biker battle/chase for the first time through the streets of a fully detailed rich-in-color (especially red) and textured background post-destruction neo-Tokyo in all of its urban age and tear desperately trying to keep some industrial metropolitan identity even though not a single building seems devoid of cracks and it’s not hard to picture areas of the city abandoned. And that was in the motion of the bikes zooming through the streets and the beatings and crashes occuring, all so very fluid (including an iconic shot of Kaneda braking to turn around that is one of my favorite moments in animation, covered in lightning to give it extra kineticism included in his intense acute diagonal angle) that it felt too fast to be real life and yet it was so easy to buy within the world of the film itself.
I’d later discover that the animation was done one frame per drawing (as opposed to traditional 2 frames) which gave it such energy that I honestly didn’t know I’d ever see in another animated film again and made me more aware of the process than I had been before (and I haven’t really seen it done elsewhere, save for maybe Kon Satoshi’s work). And that gives more impact to the violence and grotesqueries at hand, especially round the middle nightmare sequence that has an arresting and frightening vibe because the stuffed bear growing more and more monstrous is so swift we barely have time to register. There’s a particularly small moment of an innocent bystander in a restaurant being killed by crashing motorcycle landing on his head that shocks the hell out of me to this day and to say nothing of Tetsuo’s final mutation in a coliseum to the demise of his poor girlfriend Kei (whose presence is just to be the victim of some really severe nihilism).
Add to that the incredible lighting design for the late 1980s animation and the ability of the facial features to distinguish characters so clearly in attitude (we’re obviously meant to like Kaneda a lot more than Tetsuo and that’s done easily by Kaneda’s big boyish rogue feature and design with his cool red jacket and souped up motorcycle; Tetsuo on the other hand looks sad from the very get go and when he becomes outright villain wearing a red cape, it’s kind of laughable and reminds me of One Punch Man) and Akira stands right next to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as an argument for 1988 as the best year for Japanese animation.
It’s a shame I don’t have the love I once had for it and I had over the years been exposed to works that I felt accomplished what Akira wanted to do even more fully (even before I saw Akira, Blade Runner was already a movie near and dear to me and Akira probably owes its greatest debt in design and atmosphere to it), but in the end it still means something to be the first. And Akira absolutely gets to hold clear to that claim, standing might proud at its place in animation history and the history of my personal canon, marveling at the ambition of Otomo as its creator whether or not I think it really works out.
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