Retro Review: ‘Akira’
Every so often moviegoers are exposed to something radically different, from anything they have seen before. That must have been what Western audiences felt in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the ground breaking anime film Akira began to circulate among a new audience which had never seen anything like it before. The film’s popularity grew as it moved from a limited theatrical release to home video and regular screenings on the fledgling Sci-fi Channel. Based on the long running manga series from Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote and directed the film, Akira is a beautifully animated science fiction epic intended an more audience more mature than the ones animated movies tend to appeal to.
Set in a future where Japan was devastated by World War III, Shotaro Kaneda and his biker gang the Capsules have their run of Neo-Tokyo. A battle with a rival gang does not go as planned, as he and his best friend Tetsuo accidentally find themselves involved with a shady government conspiracy. It is uncovered that there is something about Tetsuo that is of great interest to the Japanese military. Before they can decide what to do, the young man escapes from their custody, and begins to develop new psychic abilities as well as a growing madness to accompany these powers. Shotaro joins with anti-government activist Kei, to help his friend who is becoming more of a threat to Neo-Tokyo. Together they learn a dark secret about their nation’s history and about a young boy named Akira who may hold a connection to Tetsuo.
Given the massive length of the source material Otomo, can not be commended enough for his ability to adapt the saga into a single film. Though a lot of the plot was certainly cut out, the viewer never feels like they are missing anything as we see is a cohesive narrative unfold. While the plot of Akira is fascinating, it is the cool cyper-punk visuals which are the true selling point of this movie. From the gritty streets to the futuristic to skyline to the urban destruction that would embarrass Zack Snyder, every animated cell of this film is absolutely stunning. Some may criticize Akira for seemingly emphasizing style over substance, but this is a movie where it truly benefits from this kind of storytelling. I defy anyone to watch the climax which beautifully combines massive devastation with haunting flashbacks and call it anything other than masterful filmmaking.
While this movie is full of breathtaking visuals, at its heart it is the story of two best friends and their evolving relationship. Kaneda has watched Tetsuo’s back for as long as they have known each other, so the idea he may have to kill his best friend is a tough pill to swallow. On the other side Tetsuo has always felt a tinge of belittlement at the way he has been treated by his friend, and now he has the power to do something about it. All the while the fate of an entire nation is caught in the middle. It is the friendship/rivalry of these two young men which keeps the audience at full attention throughout this epic.
In science fiction and anime Akira is rightly revered as a game changer. Katsuhiro Otomo crafted a masterpiece of a film combining; thrilling action, breath-taking visuals, and heartfelt drama.The success the film found in Japan led to Toho making the bold decision to seek out foreign distributors to bring in an international audience. Foolishly a number of major Hollywood players lacked the vision to see a cartoon appealing to adults. Fortunately the movie was able to cross the Pacific and is largely credited for launching anime fandom in the West. Companies like Streamline Pictures and Manga Entertainment found early success by bringing Akira to fans in North America and Europe. Even now three decades after its initial release, there have been many rereleases and reissues of Akira as its popularity remains.