Jamie Carruthers went along to Manchester's independent cinema, The Cornerhouse, to see if Katsuhiro Otomo's genre-defining anime still holds up after 25 years of hype and advances in animation technology.
As the home of science run amok, Japan has had it fair share of earth-shattering screen disasters but none so wonderfully realised as 1988's Akira. Opening western eyes to the legacy of Hiroshima in a way that men in monster suits tearing through plywood cities just couldn't, Katsuhiro Otomo's perennial classic anime is equal parts brain, brawn, and beauty.
Released in 1988, Akira almost instantly legitimised adult animation in the western world, something which American cult hero Ralph Bakshi had been trying to do for decades prior. While Japanimation had been finding its way on to screens worldwide in one form or another since the 60s, it was Akira that cemented Japan's animated exports as something special. This lead to anime distributors popping up across the globe to satisfy new relish for a specific style of Japanese animation that remained in demand for decades.
In post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, two members of a biker gang, Tetsuo and Kaneda, butt heads when one of them discovers new psychokinetic powers and begins to rampage through the ruined streets in search of a evolutionary deity by the name of Akira. All the while, being chased by a fascist colonel, his troops, and three wizened children, known as The Espers. Part grotesque body horror, part dystopic allegory, all twisted splendour; Akira takes a fairly straightforward narrative regarding the corrupting influence of power and folds it into something truly cinematic, sacrificing cohesion for emotional resonance. Every single moment is deliberately crafted to elicit a range of feelings, aided by the cataclysmic pounding of Shoji Yamashiro's soundtrack.
Otomo's nihilistic vision of Tokyo's future is sprung to life by innovative design and animation techniques. Akira feels like a live action film because it is composed as such. As the action becomes more frenzied, the line becomes blurred and it may be very easy to forget that each frame was drawn by teams of animators, rather than shot on location with actors. Such is the resonance of the plight of these characters, they bounce from the two dimensional into a very real world populated with genuine threats. While some may consider the characters to be clichés and stereotypes, this might be why it is relatively easy to impose yourself into each of the situations.
Akira is as much a film about growing up and finding your identity as it is about a post-nuclear world. Tetsuo's arc is similar to that of any rebellious teen, alienated and jocking for attention in a world that only really notices the biggest and strongest, with tragic consequences. This also appears to act as a satirical reflection of Japan's swift transformation from Land of the Rising Sun to technological superpower, extrapolating the possibility that this amount of new power over such a short period could cause undesired side effects.
Films that grow with you are a rare beast, but Akira fulfils this. As you age, you can appreciate nuances not seen before, or find new weaknesses and strengths in the characters. It is a testament to writing and directing of Otomo that there is a cross-generational affection for Akira. It can be enjoyed on multiple levels, sometimes simultaneously. At the same time as Otomo's masterpiece defining two decades of anime, it also ushered in a new wave of messianic sci-fi. Christ figures have been prevalent in science fiction as long as anyone can remember but Akira subverted the 'star-man' mythos for new and destructive purposes, birthing The Matrix Trilogy and countless other films along the way. While the roots of John Connor and that franchise's apocalypse lie in the James Cameron's original Terminator film, Edward Furlong's character could almost be a transplant from The Capsules.
The 25th Anniversary version screened at Manchester's Cornerhouse featured sharper lines and bolder colours than any previous release, but it cannot be argued that animation techniques have moved forward since 1988. Akira has aged, but still retains the bite. Due to its envelope-pushing visuals and accessible themes of adolescent transformation, alienation, identity, and anti-authoritarianism, Akira will continue to endure.
Sensational – Akira is a perpetual feast of stylish substance to be shared between your mind and your
senses. It is a seminal piece of anime that richly deserves the praise lavished upon it, but you already knew
Stunning visuals: 9
Arresting narrative: 9
Thematic ruminations: 10
Akira: 25th Anniversary Edition may be screening near you, look for local listings online. It comes to blu ray in November. Please avoid the dubs where you can.
- This was published in 2013 on the sadly defunct zombiehamster.com.