We return to our 50 Mondays of Sci-Fi series with a seminal one for the genre. A film that crossed multiple genres all at once. Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 classic Akira.
Akira opened up the Western World to the possibilities of Anime. It cannot be overstated how important this film is to cinema as it crossed boundaries and became a phenomenon worldwide. Opening the gates for Westerners like me to see that there was so much more to animation than just the standard Disney fare. In truth one of the few non-Disney animations that I watched when I was in my teenage years was Watership Down. So I had barely an inkling of how wide a net and how many different genres animation could encompass.
The gates opened wide after seeing Akira, by chance if I remember on a Friday night on Channel 4. I remember the next day hurrying to ExtraVision to see if there were any other movies like this. It opened up such a wonderful world to me that I will only ever find joy in that medium. Anyway, it is probably best to get into the review right?
After an apparent nuclear explosion in 1988 Tokyo has rebuilt itself to be known as Neo-Tokyo. Corruption and protests plague the city, police cannot control the gangs and the city is on the verge of collapse. Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) and his motorcycle gang are fighting their rival clown gang when Kaneda’s long time best friend Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaki) crashes his bike trying not to hit the mysterious Takashi who appeared on the road. Takashi has escaped a government facility and he and Tetsuo are captured and taken back. Kaneda joins forces with a government resistance group member Kei (Mami Koyama) to save his friend as the Government realise there is more to Tetsuo than originally thought.
We are not starting this story at the beginning and we are promptly dropped smack in the middle of a world in flux. This government is failing its citizens by the looks of the mass protests and martial law. Violence and crime are on the rise in the city. All the while police are stretched far too thin as teenage biker gangs can room the city. We get exposition of course, but this is given on the go and will often not be repeated.
We learn the government have been housing children with powerful abilities for over 30 years and have kept secret the reason why Neo-Tokyo even exists in its current form. The film moves at an unrelenting pace, almost making the audience play catch up with their brain as we switch back and forth from one subplot to the next. It is an amazing feat that so much of the comic is present in the film adaption when the film is as short as it is (A shade over two hours).
The arcs in Akira shine brightly here, with director and creator Otomo being very careful with his characters. Kaneda, while still, a teenager is careful and smart enough not to get into protests and politics and only does so when Tetsuo is taken by the army/government. He needs to find his friend and knows who can get him in. It of course helps him that the person who can get him in is attractive.
With Colonel Shikishima, his arc is probably the best of the lot due to what he knows and has already experienced. He saw the original fallout with Akira and has been trying to keep control of Neo-Tokyo ever since. Shikishima is lobbed with the blame at every turn from politicians unwilling to accept responsibility and most importantly he cares for his wards. He wants to protect the three subjects Kiyoko, Takashi and Masaru. They are effectively his adopted children as he will do what he needs to. To keep them safe above all else, his career or his life. I have always connected with that and it feels as if he was purposely made to be the sympathetic adult in the room as he had no political leanings or interest.
Then we have Tetsuo, poor awkward Tetsuo, he starts the film very much in the shadow of Kaneda his lifelong friend. Slowly the realisation that he has powers beyond his and everyone else’s imaginations take him on a power-drunk fuelled odyssey to Old-Tokyo that culminates in horror right when he accepts he needs help. The power growing at an unthinkable speed within him after his accident has him having the worst possible hallucinations. His arc is a tragic one that showcases what happens when you let rage and anger pent up within you. His tale is a sobering one. He may be all-powerful, yet he is still a boy who needs help and love in a world that has barely ever shown him any.
Otomo was able to finely walk that precarious tightrope of being ultraviolent, yet also tell a human story. We are shocked by what we see, the hallucinations, the experiments the world left behind and after the explosion. We also get to see how these characters are navigating this world and as mentioned their arcs are important to that and are not just one note. These are layered characters who deserve our time.
In terms of animation or cinema for that matter, we have never really seen anything like Akira before. After we get through the astounding visuals of Tokyo exploding in on itself, we are given a crash course into this new world. How it is run (and not run) and our main characters for the next two hours. The Neo Tokyo landscape and the scenery are unbelievable. You are immediately immersed in this world. You want to know everything that goes on within it. Animations shouldn’t look as visually stunning as Akira does here.
Akira is rife with vibrancy, the opening scenes as we travel through Neo-Tokyo provide a precursor for what to expect. The city never seems to end in how tall its buildings are as our characters ride down the motorway away from it during chases. These moments are when the score of Akira shines. We are watching a world we do not know. Akira has a score that forces the audience to look and wonder.
When we reach the final act with Tetsuo, for first-time audiences it will stun and amaze. But for older audiences who perhaps have not seen it recently, it is decidedly less gory than remembered. Of course, some scenes will still affect you while watching. You will still be scared as we see everything unfold into a monstrous mess with no one left safe. This is a testament to the Otomo’s decision making. That he didn’t require the audience to have to sit through such graphic scenes. Instead what he puts on the screens in some of those 120,000 cels is pure visual madness.
What allows Akira to stand out above all else is how timeless the film is. You would not think (especially in the remastered versions) that this is a film that Is 32 years old. It also has so many intriguing threads lying under the surface that weight is presented to the viewer. We have discussions of what happens to a person when they gain power and it consumes them. We have discussions on the obvious socio-economic issues of governments of Japan post World War II. It has to be remembered what state Japan was in, during the 1950s and 1960s. Kaneda and Tetsuo are orphans, much like many children were after the war. Loss is the main theme in Akira, everyone seems to have lost someone they care about. Yet they continue, some doing so better than others.
If possible whenever you try to, watch the original language and thus subtitled version, but if you are so inclined to want dubbed version. Search for the latest version as there was a severe issue previously with the translation in the older versions that caused the story not to translate as intended. Thus affect your full enjoyment of the overall picture.
Its influence on film and not just anime or animation is in plain sight. Probably none more so than in 1989s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Its cyberpunk tendencies spread throughout as well. Christopher Nolan was influenced by the film by some of his work and it is hard not to see the influences that Akira and Ghost in the Shell (the latter potentially more so) on films like The Matrix.
Akira remains one of the best animations to ever be released, the fact that it is a science fiction cyberpunk tale is all the better. Audiences will never forget this landmark film after experiencing it.
50 Mondays of Sci-Fi
In our 50 Mondays of Sci-Fi we just want to highlight which 50 science fiction films have influenced or had us fall in love with them. We would not consider this a 50 top list, but more a 50 science fiction films you should try out! For other posts in our series please have a read at a few down below.
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