In the pantheon of 1980s sci-fi anime, there is one name that stands above all others. A gargantuan presence that cast the longest shadow of all, kickstarting the second wave of western fandom, and defining many of the best (and worst) traits that would be associated with the medium for years to come. I am, of course, talking about ̶V̶e̶n̶u̶s̶ ̶W̶a̶r̶s̶ Akira, the tale of two punk bikers whose petty rivalry sets Tokyo on the path to nightmarish destruction.
A vastly condensed version of director Katsuhiro Otomo’s own manga epic, the film follows teenage hellraiser Kaneda and his wimpy friend Tetsuo, as they career round the streets of Neo-Tokyo in their ongoing battle with a rival gang. After a near-fatal run-in with an eerily withered child, Tetsuo is subjected to experimentation in a military hospital, awakening in him terrifying psychic abilities similar to those of Akira; a young boy who caused the atomic bomb-like destruction of Tokyo 30 years earlier. With the military’s own psychics unable to tame him, Tetsuo wreaks havoc throughout the city, but as his power grows beyond his own control, only Kaneda stands any chance of reaching his friend and stopping another all-consuming blast.
For a long time, I wondered if it was actually worth my while writing anything about Akira. So ubiquitous was the film that, love it or hate it, you could take it as a given that anyone with even a passing interest in anime had at least seen it.
Time, however, marches on. As of last year, Akira has passed the 25th anniversary of its original release and, despite re-releases and revival cinema screenings, its reputation as required viewing seems to have slipped. You could chalk it up to changing tastes, but to a degree, it might even rank alongside Bubblegum Crisis as one of those things newer fans resent, due to a feeling of having it forced upon them by the old guard.
Nevertheless, as we look upon the new generation who have seen Attack on Titan and ask, “What else have you got with huge monsters and super smooth action?”, Akira may well be one of the most relevant things anyone could mention.
A lavish, high-budget production from the height of the economic boom, Akira is one of the most sumptuously animated films ever to come out of Japan, yet, it’s almost like a mirror image of Studio Ghibli’s output. From the light-trails on the motorcycles to Tetsuo’s grotesque transformation, everything is crafted with that same level of care and attention to detail, but the worldview is totally skewed. There are no lush forests here; only a seductive neon hell. The squat looking character designs and their tightly arranged facial features betray the film’s age, but to this day, rarely has anything managed to match its sense of scale and spectacle.
Dealing with five years worth of a manga series that was still incomplete, the film is often accused of being hard to follow, (resulting in the oft-derided mantra of “you need to see it twice”) but really, in this post-Matrix, post-Inception landscape, I can’t see the central narrative troubling most audiences. There are allusions to events happening at the sidelines that are far better explored by the manga, with some major characters being reduced to little more than a fleeting appearance for the film, but the story’s core thread is both intact and deceptively simple.
A more credible criticism would be that the characters are not especially well developed or (according some) particularly likeable in their own right, but the film is clearly more interested in the big picture than any one individual. It succeeds more on a thematic level, where I think the story manages to explore some pretty diverse topics. If you take the time to break it down, it’s almost like peering into the national psyche of its time, picking out the fears and anxieties of an entire generation, as the film touches upon everything from the legacy of the A-bomb to the looming AIDS crisis.
Akira is readily available on UK Blu-Ray and DVD. Pick it up; it’s true what they say. Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.
Originally posted by Alan Graham