The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Akira

Title: Akira
Genre: Drama/Action
Company: Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Format: Movie; 124 minutes.
Date: 16 July 1988

Synopsis: The city of Neo-Tokyo is wracked with stagnation, anti-government terrorism and gang violence in the years following World War III. A teenage gang member, Shima Tetsuo, comes across an esper on a highway; this contact brings forth the latent psychic energy that has lain dormant within Tetsuo, who is captured by the government for experiments. An anti-government group and Tetsuo’s best friend, Kaneda Shotaro, plot to rescue Tetsuo before his newfound powers consume him and the city.

The Highlights
Visuals: Astoundingly detailed art and animation that is creatively filmed.
Story: Actually makes a fair amount of sense despite the movie’s reputation.
Characters: Have solid depth and complexity.

Akira is a landmark film in the history of Western anime fandom. It created more Western fans of Japanese animation in the 1990s than perhaps any other anime movie. The years of Akira’s heyday are unfortunately long gone; however, the movie feels as fresh as ever and deserves to be viewed by new fans of the medium today.

Akira is famously one of the most expensive anime ever created, and it shows in every frame. Each scene is packed with details, large and small, that breathe life into Neo-Tokyo. The setting provides one of anime’s greatest visions of a worn-down, tired populace dragging themselves through life in a city – and society – that is coming apart at the seams. The disconnect between the elites and everyone else in Neo-Tokyo is interestingly detailed and truly feels like two different worlds.

The animation itself is worlds beyond just about any other anime feature other than the best of Studio Ghibli. There’s not only a superb fluidity to the movement that makes the violence have a real impact, but also, there’s real thought and energy put into the way many scenes are filmed. One scene that is particularly illustrative of Akira’s massive budget is an incidental one where Kaneda’s motorcycle gang travels through a tunnel. The scene is drawn at a low angle, just behind the motorcycles as they plunge through the tunnel. There’s a series of quick twists and turns, and the rear lights on the motorcycles leave a trail of color as they dance through the tunnel. The scene lasts just a few seconds, but it’s instantly memorable.

What really makes it incredible, though, is that it’s not just a one-off scene that director Otomo Katsuhiro decided to pour some budget into to make it flashy while skimping on others. The entire movie is like this; Otomo had the time and money to be as creative with the animation and filming as he pleased.

But the animation would be interesting only to a point if the story didn’t back up the excesses. Akira has built a reputation for being weird and confusing due to its ending, but the story actually makes a fair amount of sense, even if the ending feels rushed. The Cold War informs the story through and through: it begins with a (supposed) nuclear explosion, and it’s the military (with science pushed to the brink as the military’s lapdog) that is tasked with rebuilding the world. The race to master latent psychic energy mirrors the arms race, and the disconnect between powers pursuing greater weaponry and the disaffected population on the verge of revolution reflects the state of many countries at the time.

The characters involved are not painted simplistically. The Colonel – ostensibly the antagonist – is a surprisingly complex character who legitimately cares about the city and its residents, but also takes a hardline, totalitarian attitude toward reconstruction. Tetsuo is a misguided youth who has great powers but is destined to use them solely for destruction because he’s a product of a destructive society. Kaneda is a street thug and skirt chaser who gets unwillingly swept into potential revolution. Nobody is entirely good or bad; they are just people living the way they see fit in a world torn apart. There’s definite care taken with the way the world and conflicts are built.

While many anime are undoubtedly products of their times, Akira stands as a movie that still feels strikingly modern and distinctive. It’s a true classic that should be remembered for decades.

The Rating: 9
9/10

Reviewed by: Shinmaru

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