Memories of Neo-Tokyo: 'Akira' Review
Lauded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, anime films of all time, Akira is a wonderfully sketched tale of juvenile delinquency, personal struggle, political tension, post-war culture, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Set in the (now) near-future of 2019 in Neo-Tokyo, Akira centers around 14-year old Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata/Jonny Yong Bosch) and his biker gang who are locked in eternally unnecessary conflict with other delinquent gangs. During a high-speed chase, Kaneda’s long-time childhood friend Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki/Joshua Seth) encounters a strange young boy in the middle of the road and stranger even, has his bike blown up right before hitting the boy and suffers critical injuries. Before Kaneda and his friends can recover Tetsuo however, a government helicopter convoy intervenes and takes both the boy and Tetsuo’s unconscious body. In the government lab where he is held, Tetsuo discovers his newly-developed telekinesis and resolves to use his abilities to satisfy his longstanding need for respect and power.
When discussing Akira, the primary influence behind so many exemplary works of science fiction (The Matrix, Chronicle, Stranger Things, Looper), one thing that cannot go understated is the degree of its impact on not only science fiction but on filmmaking as a whole. Akira was in many cases, the first real anime film to gain traction in the West. During the 80s, English dubbing of Japanese work was sloppy, and this resulted in confusing dialogue and cryptic interactions when viewing the English dubbed version of many Japanese movies. This vagueness, however, worked to the Japanese industry’s favor; the enigmatic tone of many Japanese films, including the one delivered by Akira’s, garnered significant attention for its mysterious allure. Although that little bit of film trivia alone does not account for the entirety of Akira’s fame, it did play a role.
Where Akira gains much of its credit is its story. Based off of a six-volume manga of the same name by the film’s director Katsuhiro Otomo, it is a transformative work and changed the science-fiction landscape irreversibly. Though the film features a very watered-down, almost unintelligible (mainly only towards the end) version of the story, the key elements all remain intact, and their uniqueness and level of depth continue to inspire storytellers today. Highlighting a message on post-war dangers through complex character development, depressingly true political tensions, terrifying yet tragic antagonists, and portraying it with breathtakingly gorgeous, hand painted animation, Akira is simply unforgettable.
Why the film is so iconic aside from its powerful story is perhaps the most referenced reason many people will cite when trying to convince someone to watch the film: the art. Oh man, the art.
Having a manga source must have undoubtedly helped in adapting the work, but the film’s original animation stands on its own. From the iconic speed-trails of the motorcycles during the movie’s opening scene to the stunning cityscapes sprinkled throughout the film, the art is awe-inspiring. Another aspect often mentioned is the film’s attention to detail. As the director was the original writer and illustrator of the manga base, it’s no surprise that he wanted the film to be in every regard genuine. What is surprising is the degree to which he pursued that desire. Individually drawn windows among hundreds onscreen, detailed explosions and smoke trails, cels with dozens of layers that appear for mere seconds simply for the sake of immersion. Though they aren’t noticeable (and purposefully so), the gems of tone-setting detail distinguish this film more than anything.
Despite all this, despite my most fervent efforts to convince everyone I know to watch this movie immediately, many will brush the requests aside quickly because I’m not the first to tell them. That’s the tradeoff with becoming definitive as a work of art, when you urge others to experience it, like a good film, book, or album, they choose not to because it “can’t be as good as everyone says” or, “I’m so sick of how much everyone talks about this.” That’s unfortunate; because though fame and being overrated may, in some cases, be inextricably linked, they are not one in the same. Akira deserves all the praise it receives and then some. The best part is, like so many other famous adaptations (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Shining, Blade Runner, etc.), there’s a whole new world to discover in the source material.