AKIRA Anime Review
US Release By
Psychic Cyberpunk Action Drama
Years ago, Tokyo was destroyed by an unknown force that sparked WWIII. Now, in the middle of the 21st century, Neo Tokyo has been rebuilt on the ruins of the old city. Ravaged by aimless youths and bike gangs, rife with political intrigue, cults, and the undercurrents of revolution, this new city a sight to behold. Somewhere in the underbelly of the city, a young punk, Tetsuo, runs into a strange boy. The boy is part of a military experiment involving psychics, and a mysterious project known as AKIRA. When Tetsuo begins to manifest psychic powers, along with bizarre hallucinations, he becomes a target of a shadowy government organization dedicated to stopping a repeat of the incident that destroyed the city once--at any cost.
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The definitive classic of Japanese animation, and a cyberpunk classic on top of that. AKIRA suffers somewhat from a dense, twisting, metaphysical, and all-around confusing plot compressed from several fat volumes of manga, but for those grabbed by its apocalyptic vision and socio-political layers, it's the sort of film that gets better the more times you watch it (or if you come in already familiar with the manga version). Regardless, AKIRA is a (if not The) visual masterpiece of anime. The art is consistent and very slick, the backgrounds richly detailed, and the animation itself is of near-Disney quality. It is also viscerally violent, and maintains a dark cyberpunk feel that eventually crescendos into a nightmarish scene of power run amok. The visuals in AKIRA are so good that, even if you hate the plot, you'll probably have trouble taking your eyes off the screen (or you should, if you're a fan of any kind of animation). The music is an equally gripping mix of guttural vocalizing, Buddhist chanting, and Noh drama, as well as some modern themes unlike anything else.
AKIRA is such a classic, and so visually striking, that any anime fan should see it at least once, and many will want to watch it again and again to more fully appreciate its multilayered density.
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AKIRA is widely considered the definitive classic of anime. Based on the acclaimed manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo, it was the highest-budget anime film ever produced at the time and one of the first "modern" anime films to be released in the US. Even as it approaches two decades old it is still a technical tour de force. Its well-realized cyberpunk setting, dark, layered plot, and disturbing vision of power run amok make it far more than just a visual spectacle--it's clear why it has grabbed the guts, eyes, and imagination of two generations of anime fans. It just has one problem: A heck of a lot of manga full of involved political and metaphysical plot make for a heck of a confusing two-hour film.
I'll address my complaint first. The manga version consists of six thick volumes densely packed with political scheming, religious conspiracy, revolution, shadowy organizations, secretive scientific projects of vast scale, the mystery of the incredible power of Akira, and a couple of kids caught up in the middle of it--one with newfound and uncontrolled powers and the other just trying to make sense of it all. The manga, in fact, wasn't even finished when the movie was produced.
When you try to pack all of that into a single film, you get an incredible tangle of information, characters, and sociopolitical interplay. You also get a very confusing movie--it is, frankly, a narrative mess. This substance overload appeals to some, and those who've read the manga probably don't have much trouble deciphering what's going on. As for me, as an unprepared viewer, I felt more lost than anything, like I was walking into the story halfway through. This works wonders for empathizing with the two teenaged protagonists, who are just as clueless and confused about everything that's going on, but it leaves the rest of it feeling rather random.
There are dramatic scenes that I'm sure are supposed to be very significant, but with characters who barely even show up before their "big moment" I didn't know why I was supposed to care, let alone feel any connection to the apparently momentous events. Likewise, the truly wild apocalyptic overtones of the film are pretty hard to get a grasp on, and I can't say that they really make that much sense without any backstory.
In short, AKIRA is the sort of film that's a lot better if you've read the manga first so you know what's going on. Unlike most films in that category, however, for most unprepared viewers the imagery is so mind-blowing that it's easy to forget about the plot entirely. Either way, it's best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is. Putting aside the incredible eye candy, the roller coaster of a story is full of angry teen energy, disaffected youth, hard-hitting action, and widespread social unrest. At the center are a couple of down-to-earth, believable punk kids who give you something to hold on to during the tempest.
Tetsuo is the most interesting of it--an average disillusioned kid gifted with psychic powers of truly frightening scale and as tortured by them as he is hollowly empowered. His torment, god complex, and desperate breakdown give an emotional center to events that are otherwise drastically out of human scale.
That scale is, perhaps more than anything, what makes AKIRA so memorable; there are many tales of psychics and power run amok, but few if any that so viscerally portray out-of-control power. Tetsuo's experiences are like the twisted reality of a fever hallucination given form, yet at the same time frighteningly concrete and, eventually, of apocalyptic scale. There are disturbing scenes and images that, love them or hate them, will be burned into your mind well after the film ends.
Otomo obviously has a fascination with this specific sort of uncontrolled power; variations of it are featured prominently in AKIRA, Roujin Z, The Order to Stop Construction, and even to a degree the climax of Metropolis. The idea of a "monster" that grows organically, uncontrollably, and unstoppably, subsuming everything around it, at least for me, taps into something fundamentally frightening in the human subconscious--it is exactly the sort of nightmare image that terrified me as a child. In most of his films, the creature going wild isn't even malicious in its intent, but the image of a sort of "macro scale virus"--growing out of control and becoming one with its surroundings in an effort to survive--is a powerful one.
There are also images of out-of-control power of an entirely different sort--snapshot scenes of social unrest that look like something right off the nightly news. These capture the eye and the mind for an entirely different reason, since they are exactly the sort of torrent that any of us might one day find ourselves caught up in.
As for the visuals, there's little that needs to be said; truly an animated masterpiece, AKIRA is full, theatrical-quality, Disney-grade animation sparing no expense in its portrayal of a dark cyberpunk future, brutal violence of the most realistic sort, and eventually a crescendo of nightmarish supernatural power. The backgrounds are dense and exquisitely detailed, the animation uniformly fluid, and the action razor-sharp and concrete. Of particular note are the crowd scenes--often full of dozens of individually animated people, they feel alive and rich in the way few films capture. I have only one complaint: The character deigns are faithful to Otomo's originals, which means that nearly all the teenagers look the same, regardless of sex. I exaggerate slightly, but portraying variety among the young isn't his strong point.
The music also deserves special note; a unique and powerful mix of traditional Japanese themes and pounding industrial beats, it in and of itself is something of an experimental masterpiece. Some scenes are backed with guttural vocalizing and driving percussion, others with an airy chorus, Buddhist chanting, or even Noh drama, all woven together into something mesmerizing. A soundtrack unlike any other.
I don't have much to say about the acting, other than to note that there are now two English dubbed versions; Streamline's original, that accompanied their US release in the early '90s, and a Geneon dub to go with their remastered restoration, based on a more accurate translation. The original Japanese features atypical but effective casting and plenty of emotional force, lead by Mitsuo Iwata--now known mostly for goofy comedy--who gives Kaneda an angry edge while keeping him human.
In all, AKIRA may feature a plot that is weird, only partially explained, and thoroughly confusing, but the nightmarish, apocalyptic visions will be hard to take your eyes off of, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the lush visuals are the rule by which all other anime is measured. AKIRA is such a classic, and so visually striking, that any anime fan should see it at least once, and many will want to watch it again and again to more fully appreciate its multilayered density.
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It doesn't get any better than this for spectacular animation, but another good-looking (and similarly confusing) movie with a weird plot and lots of powerful, destructive psychics is X: The Movie. Angel Cop also has something of a similar psychics run amok theme, but is otherwise very different in theme. You might also be interested in Roujin Z, a completely different but oddly similar movie by AKIRA's creator, as well as "The Order to Stop Production," one of the shorts that make up Neo Tokyo, also by Otomo.
Notes and Trivia
AKIRA is based on a manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo of the same name. The manga ran from 1982 to 1990 and are compiled into six volumes, though at around 400 pages each they are roughly twice the size of the average manga collection. It is available in English from Dark Horse, and has been in one form or another for quite some time.
AKIRA was the first release (way back in 1990) by old-time US anime company Streamline Pictures, who also gave it a limited theatrical run. Interestingly, it was also the only movie they ever released a subtitled version of (although they did release parts of Robotech's component series in subtitled form at one point).
More recently, Pioneer (now Geneon) bought the rights to the film, and spent a rumored million dollars restoring it for a DVD release. They also produced a more accurate English dub to replace Streamline's.
In 2006, AKIRA was amusingly featured as part of a montage in an Absolut Vodka commercial, "The Absolute, Spot 1" as "The Absolute Anime." The video can currently be found here, at YouTube as well as on the Absolut Vodka Website under downloads, Absolut Brand Campaign Spot 1.
A couple of notes on the title: As most people even passingly familiar with anime or Japan know, Akira is a common given name (Akira Kurosawa, for example). This is worth mentioning because AKIRA (the movie) has become such a fixture in the minds of anime fans that it's easy to forget that titling it "Akira" is roughly equivalent to a movie titled "Bob." Like the films Dave and Carrie, without the connotations it has developed, it wouldn't sound nearly as striking as it does to many people now.
That said, the title is generally written in all capitals in English (though I'm not quite sure if that's "technically" correct or not). I expect this is to correspond to how the title is written in Japanese; it is "spelled out" in phonetic katakana, as if it were a foreign word as opposed to a name, which would be written in Kanji (Chinese characters), or at least hiragana. The all-caps in English makes it look like an acronym for something, which is roughly the same effect as writing it in katakana in Japanese.
US DVD Review
There are two DVD versions available--one with just the movie, and one with an entire separate disc of extras, including literally hundreds of stills, and the feature-length Production Report (a making of video). In either form, the video is a spiffy one--a beautiful, remastered anamorphic widescreen transfer, a sharp Pro Logic Japanese soundtrack, and a new Dolby 5.1 English dub. There's also a neat little feature where you can have a pill pop up on the screen occasionally that will let you pause for a second and see some info about that scene--most of it is translations of graffiti or signs, but there are some informational notes.
More recently, a version of the movie (without the extras disc) was released that includes a full 5.1 Japanese soundtrack, though it's in DTS instead of Dolby.
There is also a Blu-Ray release from Honneamise. That features 1080p video, and particularly fancy audio; in addition to relatively standard English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, uncompressed Japanese surround, and Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1, it also has an even-more-remastered-than-the-rest Japanese 5.1 track encoded in extreme-quality Dolby TrueHD 192khz, 24-bit that they boast includes frequencies outside the normal range of human hearing. It doesn't, however, have as many extras, as has been the case with other Honneamise Blu-Ray releases.
Very graphic violence accounting for a 16-up rating.
Violence: 4 - Plenty of blood and guts, along with a brief attempted rape.
Nudity: 2 - One brief scene.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - A bit of making out, and the above mentioned sexual harassment.
Language: 2 - Occasional strong language.
Available in North America from Geneon in completely remastered form, in your choice of the basic feature-only "Signature Series" DVD, a 2-disc DVD set that includes a second disc full of extras including the "making of" production report, and a feature-only version with an enhanced DTS 5.1 audio on the Japanese track instead of the 4-channel Dolby one.
In addition is a bilingual Blu-Ray version from Honneamise that features 1080p video and extra-high-definition audio tracks, but fewer extras than the DVD versions. There was also a bilingual UMD version.
The modern Pioneer version was originally also available on subtitled and dubbed VHS. Was originally available from Streamline (and was their first release) on dubbed and later subtitled VHS (Streamline's only sub), and bilingual LD.