Akira was released back in July 1988- coincidentally, the same day that Tokyo was destroyed in the movie. After its release, it wasn’t long before the anime classic gained a cult following. Then it eventually earned itself the title of, arguably, the most influential animated film of all time. Of course, that is debatable, as are all things. But it is hard to ignore how Akira has shaped our understanding of dystopian futures and animation as a whole.
It is by no means an exaggeration when I say that Akira was massively responsible for the growth and popularity of anime in western territories. Not only that, but it also gave the world a nice wake-up call. No, animation isn’t just for kids. In fact, it can be very thought-provoking, grotesque, and disturbing- synonyms very much associated with Akira. Akira helped audiences realise that animation can be grown-up.
Last week, I had the privilege of watching Akira on the big screen and in 4K. It had been a while since I had seen it and even discussed it. I studied it when I was at University and it was actually the centerpiece of one of my essays. However, it was a film that I watched very late into my anime obsession. So it took me a while to really grasp its significance. But, being able to revisit Akira and sit in a cinema again was incredibly exciting. It got me itching to talk about the cult classic once again and what better way to do it than on here, right?
Kaneda and his iconic bike
So, what is Akira about? An “Unknown” event obliterated Tokyo and plummeted the world into a third World War. Many year later, Tokyo has been rebuilt but is riddled with corruption, terrorism and poverty. The story follows Kaneda and his motorcycle gang who are at war with the rival Clown gang. Obviously, it’s not that simple.
Deep in the heart of Neo-Tokyo is a secret that could change the world forever. Espers and super abilities are very real, and very dangerous. Kaneda’s best friend Tetsuo has an unfortunate accident after meeting an Esper. Tetsuo then begins to develop powers of his own and is very keen on challenging an entity known as “Akira”. The entire world is at risk and the only ones who are strong enough to stop the coming calamity are two teenage kids and some Espers.
When you look at films or shows that feature superhuman powers or someone gaining abilities, they tend to glorify it. Look how cool these abilities are, aren’t they amazing? Akira goes in a completely opposite direction. These powers are seen as destructive, scary, and come with dire consequences to the mind and body. Tetsuo is a prime example of an individual who gradually loses control and essentially self destructs. He is very quickly consumed by his powers and the status he believes they give him. The idea of “Akira” is very much related to notions of a godly “second coming” and being a prophet. However, Tetsuo, in his wisdom, discards those ideas and attempts to challenge Akira.
Tetsuo’s transformation isn’t for the squeamish
While the powers very cool, there is something very unsettling about the psychological transformation that Tetsuo goes through. I won’t even mention the physical transformation because that speaks for itself. We’re presented with a character that very much depends on the strength and leadership of Kaneda. However, when Tetsuo no longer needs Kaneda he becomes an entirely different character. What I find very interesting about Akira is that the relationship between Tetsuo and Kaneda is explored towards the end. While it makes the last arc of the film that much more dramatic, I believe their relationship is slightly pushed aside to allow the aspects that made Akira stand out flourish in their entirety. That’s not to say that the story of Akira is irrelevant. Not at all. However, it is a very visual film- obviously.
Despite being over 30 years old, Akira is still an absolute triumph in terms of animation. Seeing it in cinema proved that very early on and the 4K experience only enhanced that feeling. The fluid motions, the action, the stylistic themes are all pivotal to Akira‘s continuous and perpetual success as a groundbreaking piece of animation. Just to prove that, the unforgettable shot of Kaneda sliding on his bike has been implemented in other shows such as TMNT, Clone Wars, Batman, and even Pokemon.
It can also be said that Akira helped push the “Cyberpunk” genre- Whereby technological advancements are juxtaposed with a dystopian world that is anchored by the collapse of society and a surge of political and radical change. This plays a massive role in Kaneda’s story but it is also part of the visual appeal. Giant skyscrapers, flashy lights, futuristic vehicles and weaponry are combined with run-down buildings, poor streets and older looking vehicles to create a postmodern world where time is confused. Both the future and past exist in Neo-Tokyo just like in Blade Runner. While the world has advanced technologically, there are themes and styles that remain cemented in the past.
Kaneda and his gang. What has them freaked?
Not only did the 4K experience enhance the visuals but the overall experience completely immersed me in the sounds of Akira. The soundtrack is remarkably unique. It draws on various types of traditional music ranging from Indonesian percussion instruments, the sounds of classic Japanese theatre, to a haunting and deep chorus. It’s strange because when you think of a futuristic setting, this soundtrack never springs to my mind. However, it suits Akira. It is impossible to imagine Akira without tracks like “Requiem” and “Kaneda”. Having it boom out in a screening full (social distancing friendly) of anime fans and being able to enjoy it on a big screen truly made it a memorable evening even with the addition of sweating under a face mask.
Akira is a film that will continue to inform animation and the sci-fi genre. There is no doubt about it. It changed so much in such a short amount of time. Just like how Star Wars changed the way we explore space and special effects. Akira proved that animation is an art form that extends beyond young audiences. Most notably, it brought in a wave of accessible shows and films that could be enjoyed by anime fans from around the world.
Here we are, 30 years later and anime is still a growing phenomenon that has encompassed much of the globe. While Akira isn’t the sole cause of this, it is definitely a contributing factor. Therefore, its significance and popularity will remain and grow all the while anime proves that animation can compete with the most expensive blockbusters and the biggest star-studded casts,