Akira – Review
It’s the year 2019, thirty-one years after the end of World War III, and the authorities of Neo-Tokyo are waging a constant war against the Underground rebels. Caught in the middle is a motorcycle gang whose members delight in causing trouble. The gang leader, Kaneda, gets involved in more ways than one when a laboratory experiment, a child with psychic powers, escapes and results in gang member Tetsuo’s capture and subsequent experimentation. Tetsuo, the “bitter runt” of the pack, now has the power of Akira and soon escapes just when everyone realizes that his power can result in the total destruction of Neo-Tokyo.
Based on director Katsuhiro Otomo’s own 6-volume manga series of the same name, Akira is a deeply complex and richly elaborate animated feature-film. With the manga series consisting of over two thousand pages and a multitude of subplots, the film is certainly condensed to accommodate the source material’s massiveness in both scope and narrative, a move that drastically removes much of the character development filled throughout the manga. This in turn is replaced with moments of frenetic action, and while relying heavily on such to promote its narrative, the film also retains traces of its source material’s foray into government corruption, disaffected youth, and societal collapse of a civilization gone seriously awry. It’s these themes that lend the film its credibility as a solemn view into a realistic dystopian environment, where society has built itself up from the ashes of the old, with traces of a bygone era still quite visible through the cracks of its futuristic terrain. While other animated works have delved into environmentally degraded societies before Akira, none have quite handled the visual magnitude of such a society as Otomo’s film so vividly does.
With its adherence towards showcasing massive high-tech urban structures amidst old, crumbling city landscapes, Akira offers a very authentic look into a future where society hasn’t exactly removed itself from the grasps of its horrific past. The film’s artistic strength is one essentially centered on its various localities—and where Otomo establishes evocative set pieces that are as momentous as they are striking in their imagery. Whether this is seen in its presentation of a decrepit interior and exterior of a vocational high school where the young characters attend, to the enormous Olympic Stadium in which the final battle commences, to even the nightmarish hallucinations offered through Tetsuo’s uncontrollable newfound powers, the animation within Akira is a spectacle to behold even when compared to the standards of today’s animation industry. With the apocalyptic imagery remaining the focal point of the film—from a purely visual standpoint—Akira contains a host of well-choreographed action sequences that are the primary motivation for advancing its plot. From thrilling motorcycles chases amidst the backdrop of a neon-infused city, to the riotous atmosphere of the civilian populous when the military attempts to slow Tetsuo’s destructive rampage through downtown Neo-Tokyo, the fluid nature of the animation is highly visible as is the attention to the miniscule details the film offers. This can most certainly be accredited towards the film’s substantial production values—costing upward to an incredible $10 million—with Akira being the most expensive undertaking of any anime feature film at the time. With roughly 160,000 animation cels used for the film, Akira also integrated lip-synched dialogue, which provided the film with unparallel facial movement coinciding with the speech of characters. This was also a first for anime, and lends further to the unique position in which the film found itself as a pioneer within the production values of anime feature films.
But for all the aesthetically pleasing visuals the film showcases, Akira still contains a narrative that delivers an impressive look into the complexity of its world. Whether this is from the biker gang’s attempt to understand the chaos that is increasingly consuming them, to calls of revolutionary rebels wishing to overthrow the corrupt government, to even the disastrous endeavors of the military in addressing Tetsuo’s growing connection with the psionic and illusive Akira, the film further promotes its diverse premise by allowing us to see how various characters view, understand, and interact upon the elements within the story. The slow and steady societal collapse that the film portrays is envisioned through the eyes of its multitude of characters, which establishes to us as viewers a greater comprehension towards the tumultuous and monumental events that transpire on screen. Stemming from the film’s release in 1988, Japan was going through a considerable period of economic growth—a time where its future was not exactly assured and definitely questionable—similar to its position as a country during its reconstruction period after World War II and all the way through the social uprising and activism witnessed in the 1960’s.
In many respects, Akira can be directly associated thematically with that of the postwar experience within Japan, where economic uncertainty, the issue of nuclear weaponry, and civil unrest were primary concerns for every citizen—with Japan fighting to gain control over itself as a nation. Akira presents a tale that is eerily reflective upon losing that control, whether it’s over the individual—as in the case of Tetsuo—to street gangs, military personnel, or even government as the never ending flow of time brings about change and hardship for these entities. This change is keenly observed in the characters of Kaneda and Tetsuo and the social roles they play within the biker gang. The film, as in the manga, is focused extensively on the deterioration of the two’s friendship alongside the break down of society. With their roles essentially being reversed by the film’s end—as Tetsuo gains unimaginable power and Kaneda steadily loses his own over Tetsuo—we begin to see a slipping away of the traditional ways to be replaced with a new behavioral order. The dynamics shared between the two characters is what makes the narrative all the more appealing, as two individuals who were once friends fight bitterly for control over one another—only on a more massive and destructive scale. The film weaves many of these themes in a cohesive manner—whether it is political, social, or cultural—and offers up a compelling satire on to the contemporary and postwar Japan.
But even with its multifaceted story and astute technical innovation, those familiar with the Otomo’s manga may find the film version of Akira rather convoluted considering the immense and expansive scope that the manga series offers. As a standalone film, Akira works relatively well, but also suffers from instances of unusual editing and continuity, elements that were more appropriately handled within the manga. The film at times seems somewhat distant from showcasing Tetsuo’s transformation from the young and naïve biker gang member to one fully in control of his psychic abilities. The complementary nature of the manga series only enhances the film during these segments, as we only view the somewhat quick metamorphosis of Tetsuo—and the collapse of the social and political framework Neo-Tokyo—as events that take place in a matter of days within the film, wherein the manga’s narrative timeframe is relatively larger and incorporates substantially more character and plot development. With the scope of the original source material being so enormous though, it was bound to be difficult for Otomo to adapt his entire creation within the confinement of a film, and where Akira somewhat stumbles in its execution. It’s seemingly more appreciable because of its ability to showcase its tremendous universe through the likes of its superb animation rather than its plot, which may disappoint some viewers who’ve read the manga. It would appear to be a case where ignorance is truly bliss—those who haven’t read the manga will more so appreciate the universe that is offered through the film, as for those who have read it may find the manga as a superior exploration of the Akira narrative.
Akira in many ways is the one of the most important anime productions ever created, mainly because of its daring undertaking to break conventional forms of animation. The film’s ambitious nature is one that easily reflects the essence of Otomo’s manga series, but it also creates its own legacy by reweaving elements from the manga series into a whole new experience. While not perfect in effectively conveying its massive narrative—that is mostly expressed through its remarkable quality of animation—the film is one that has stood the test of time primarily through its awe-aspiring imagery and realistic undertones. But Akira is most certainly a film that is important for its thematic values as well—whether this stems from its subdued commentary on a postwar Japan, to the overthrowing of dilapidated social structures, to even the absolute corruption of governmental agencies. It’s these elements and more than produce Akira as a film with considerable substance, one that was made not for the sake of simply appeasing the viewer through purely aesthetic purposes, but delivering a cautionary tale on the effects of gaining absolute power amidst a crumbling society. Offering a spectacular visual showcase, intelligent social commentary, and exhilarating action sequences, Akira is a memorable and astonishing film for its time—and remains one of the most significant anime feature films to come about since the inception of the medium.
Author: Miguel Douglas
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