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Akira (1988) - Neo-Tokyo is about to EXPLODE!
I first saw Akira on VHS in 1990. It was the first anime I had ever seen, it blew me away. This wasn’t The Little Mermaid this was something else, something weird, something I’d never seen before. I was hooked. I wanted more.
By the end of the 90’s I had collected dozens of anime titles on video. 20 years later Akira remains my favourite, a landmark in animation and arguably the greatest anime of them all.
Akira was written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, adapted from his long-running manga (1982-1990), the film was premiered in 1988, two years before the manga storyline was finished.
Echoes of the hugely influential Blade Runner are undeniable (the film is even set in the same year), but Akira owes less to an alleged "cyberpunk" sensibility than it does to Otomo's perspective on 1960s counterculture – crazed biker gangs, rioting students and corporate intrigue. Also influential were the wartime experiments on human guinea pigs and the effects of nuclear contamination from the Atomic bomb.
In 2019, 31 years after World War III, Tokyo has been rebuilt and renamed Neo-Tokyo. As the city prepares to host the Olympics, it is rocked by antigovernment terrorism secretly organized by a power-brokering politician. Kaneda and his biker gang are racing a rival gang, the Clowns, through the streets of Neo-Tokyo.
Kaneda’s best friend Tetsuo crashes his bike into a strange child with the face of an old man. The military suddenly arrive and take the shaken Tetsuo away. Shocked and angry Kaneda allies with terrorists to find out where they’ve taken his friend.
Tetsuo has been taken to a military hospital and experimented on, he begins to develop psychic powers and discovers that he is one of many experimental subjects in a secret government program to replicate Akira, the human bio-weapon that destroyed Tokyo in 1988. Orders are given to kill Tetsuo if his powers escalate beyond their control.
Tetsuo encounters the Espers, aged psychic children working for the military, and on reading their minds he finds out that Akira is in cryogenic storage below Neo-Tokyo's new Olympic Stadium. Now mentally unstable Tetsuo escapes from the hospital and goes on a bloody rampage.
He arrives at the stadium and discovers the remains of Akira stored in glass jars in a hidden chamber. Kaneda and the military attempt to stop him and all hell breaks loose.
Tetsuo finally loses control of his psychic powers and starts to mutate, transforming into a giant blob-like monster. The Espers, fearing that Tetsuo is now unstoppable resurrect Akira, resulting in a massive explosion which obliterates most of Neo-Tokyo.
Tetsuo is gone and Neo-Tokyo lies in ruins. Kaneda has survived thanks to the Espers. The film ends with a disembodied voice saying, “I am… Tetsuo.”
Akira is a visual tour-de-force, including experiments in digital and analog animation that were to stun audiences worldwide, enjoying greater success abroad than in its country of origin. The movie consists of 2,212 shots and 160,000 images, using 327 different colours, 50 of which were exclusively created for the film.
Japanese animators of the time would usually cut corners by having limited motion, such as having only the characters' mouths move while their faces remained static. Akira broke from this trend with fluid motion, detailed scenes and lip-synched dialogue.
Akira was the first anime to break into western consciousness, today it remains fresh and exciting, easily holding it’s own against two decades of massive technical advancement. The production budget was allowed to spiral completely out of control by the director’s perfectionism, insisting on producing high quality images and partly because the writing is so solid – plot, pacing and characterization are superbly handled.
Akira was selected by Roger Ebert as his Video Pick of the Week in 1989 and gave the film a “Thumbs Up” in its 2001 re-release. It is currently no.40 in IMDB’s Top 50 Animated Films. It also appeared in Time Magazines list of top 5 anime DVDs.
In 2009 Leonardo Di Caprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt were the rumoured stars in a planned live-action movie version. In 2011, James Franco, Justin Timberlake, Chris Pine and Keanu Reeves were all rumoured to be in the running to play Kaneda, while Andrew Garfield, James McAvoy and Robert Pattinson were rumoured to be in talks for the role of Tetsuo.
Angry fans fueled by casting rumours have set up a petition on Facebook protesting the use of non-Asian actors in a live-action version of the anime.
The English language version of Akira was re-dubbed in 2001 and is closer in meaning and tone to the Japanese original, although the Japanese voice acting is so strong and emotional that it’s worth watching the subtitled version. The film was released on Blu-Ray in the UK in June 2011.
The Critics Wrote -
"A dark, violent, animated fantasy...[which] is by any standards an extraordinary piece of work... The plot is convoluted and jerky; the characters are not always easily distinguishable to a Western eye. But the film remains exceptional, if only for the sheer brilliance of its animation." (Hugo Davenport, Daily Telegraph)
“Apocalyptic Japanese cartoon, superbly animated but marred by an unintelligible storyline, a pornographic preoccupation with violence, asinine intellectual pretensions and mindnumbing length. Much praised for its style, but even its defenders could make little sense of its content.” (Christopher Tookey)
“Some of the most mind-blowing animation ever seen... Artwork apart, the admirably complex plot is imaginative and serious. An impressive achievement, often suggesting a weird expressionist blend of 2001, The Warriors, Blade Runner and Forbidden Planet.” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out)
“A must-see for adult animation buffs.” (Maltin)
"Phenomenal is the word for [it]... The minor faults of excessive length and occasional sentimentality matter little given the work's ferocious imagination, its ambitious range and its breathtaking design." (Mansell Stimpson, What's On in London)
"Visually enthralling and spectacularly violent... Never has any feature film, animated or otherwise, so faithfully and beautifully transposed panels to screen while out-fantasizing Fantasia ... A study in pubescent rage and terror." (Richard Gehr, Village Voice)
"A remarkable technical achievement... " (Variety)