“Otomo, who wrote and directed the movie, has told interviewers that he set out to ‘make a film that would be a jumble of images, instead of just showing the highlights of each scene’, and on that score, he succeeded.”–The Los Angeles Times, in a dismissive review entitled “High-Tech Hokum From Japan”
DIRECTED BY: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
FEATURING: Voices of Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama (original Japanese); Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody (1988 English dub); Johnny Yong Bosh, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee (2001 English dub)
PLOT: Tetsuo, a delinquent and member of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo, crashes his bike after seeing a strange child; black helicopters sweep onto the scene and armed men seize the boy and the injured Tetsuo. Doctors in the military hospital discover that Tetsuo has strong latent psychic powers and begin performing experiments on him, but he proves more adept than they could have imagined. Using his incredible newfound telekinetic abilities, Tetsuo escapes confinement and ventures out into Neo-Tokyo searching for the secret of Akira, the original subject of the military’s experiment, which he believes will grant him ultimate power.
- Akira was an adaptation of the director’s own six-volume manga (serialized comic) of the same name, begun in 1982. Ohtomo did not complete the written work until 1990, and it has a different conclusion than the movie.
- Akira cost a reported 1.1 billion yen (or about 8-10 million dollars) to produce, making it the most expensive animated Japanese film made up to that time.
- After becoming a cult hit on video, Pioneer Entertainment restored Akira and commissioned a new (widely considered superior) English language dub of the film, re-releasing it to theaters in 2001.
- Voted #440 on Empire’s List of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time and 51 on their list of the Greatest Non-English Language Films, number 15 on Time Out’s 50 Greatest Animated Films list, and number five on Total Film’s 50 Greatest Animated Movies.
- Warner Brothers acquired the rights to the film in 2002 and have been planning a live action remake of Akira; at various times Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hughes brothers, and others have been attached to the project, which has reportedly been shut down and restarted four times.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select what may be Akira‘s weirdest moment, a bizarre hallucination where a teddy bear and a toy rabbit grow and threaten bedridden Tetsuo—while inexplicably leaking milk from their faces. Tetsuo’s transformation into a giant roiling blob of limbs, tissues, tentacles and malformed organs, however, probably tops all of the psychedelic imagery that has come before. He becomes a Nameless Thing out of an H.P. Lovecraft story; it’s a grandiose vision that could only be brought to us in animation.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In 1988, Western eyes had never seen anything like Akira: violent, profane, mystical, and a cartoon. It was a foreign assault on the eyes, ears, sensibilities, and the part of the brain that processes plot. With its pallid middle-aged psychic kids, psychotic toy box hallucinations and mutating telekinetic antihero ripping apart futuristic Neo-Tokyo, Akira still packs one hell of a punch today. The Japanese have been trying to recapture Akira‘s cyberpunk spirit for twenty-five years now, but they have yet to devise a hallucination delivery device to top Ohtomo’s original animated masterpiece.
25th Anniversary DVD/Blu-ray trailer for Akira
COMMENTS: Watching Akira again for the first time in over twenty years, it occurred to me that the plot was even more disjointed than I remembered. Neo-Tokyo was under martial law, characters I couldn’t identify were dying in her streets with briefcases full of documents whose significance was unclear to me, and more characters I didn’t know were suggesting that “Akira” was some sort of omniscient interstellar genetic material (or something) from inside a prison cell. Then, when a dead character came back to life, I realized that somehow I had hit the “random shuffle” command on my Blu-ray player. It says something about Akira‘s structure that it took me twenty minutes to figure out the storyline had been digitally garbled and reassembled. I remembered the plot being full of confusing details and surprising incidents, but I also remembered the basic story was about a young man who slowly gains omniscient psychic powers—and since he becomes unbounded and godlike, any apparent limits on or explanations of his powers are arbitrary and almost beside the point. Most of the incidents could be shuffled around without doing much damage to the story. After all, Akira is primarily about spectacle: its purpose is for Katsuhiro Ohtomo to introduce us to startling sights no one but him has seen or even imagined before. The movie’s plot is just an incidental carrier in service of that visionary experience.
On a secondary, thematic level, subservient to the audiovisual confectionery, Akira is about violence, and transcendence, and the suggestion that transcendence occurs through violence. Akira is like a Sam Peckinpah film in its celebration of the balletic qualities of violence; it’s like Godzilla and his kaiju kin in its fascination with the epic grandeur of urban demolition. The movie begins with what appears to be a nuclear explosion in 1988, then fast-forwards to the post-WWIII world 2019 of Neo-Tokyo, suggesting that the movie world we are tossed into was birthed in violence. The first attention-grabber is an extended high speed rumble on motorbikes between our putative heroes and a rival cycle gang who dress like clowns, featuring grenades tossed at innocent bystanders, bikers propelled through restaurant windows, and heads crushed with tire irons as riders speed past. Low angle shots show us a ground’s eye view of cyclists tossed off of their bikes, bouncing off the pavement. An intercut sequence shows a man riddled with automatic gunfire by soldiers until his body is reduced to a red mushy pulp. And these are just the introductory scenes, before Tetsuo has even awakened his telekinetic powers. Once he escapes his military internment, Neo-Tokyo turns into the psionic whiz kid’s personal playground, a series of city blocks set up so the godling can gleefully knock them down. Tetsuo raises his arms, and a concrete bridge splits apart at its joints; his victims, whether they be tanks, innocent bystanders, or his own cultlike followers slide down the upturned slabs into the river, scrambling hopelessly to escape their fate. It’s a magical sequence that would have been almost impossible to stage in live action. The city turns to rubble at Tetsuo’s whim; eventually the army attacks him with particle weapons beamed down from satellites, removing his arm at the shoulder. Like an evil Superman, he flies into orbit and crumples the satellites, sending the wreckage crashing back down to Earth.
How Tetsuo acquires this omnipotent power is not 100% clear. He is a Chosen One, a natural adept at psychic destruction, some sort of diabolical messianic figure. Mystical abilities surge within him, but he is as controlled by them as he is their master. We are told that the powers harnessed by the mysterious Akira, three psychic kids, and Tetsuo are inherent in all of us; some of us are just capable of harnessing it. There is talk of psychic energy being buried and inherent in DNA. Tetsuo’s powers are no more scientific than witchcraft or chi, of course; they’re just part of sci-fi cinema’s long tradition of explaining through “science” what would be too ridiculous to believe if it was attributed to the supernatural or the divine. Akira‘s specific bits of lore about the origin of this omnipotence are a plot necessity, but are ultimately irrelevant; the thrust is mythic. Akira’s followers, who quickly develop rituals and a hierarchy and funny hats to wear, realize the need for transcendence myths. We live in a secular, technological age (even more so than Japan in 1988), devoid of magic. As Andrei Tarkovsky mourns, “our world is hopelessly boring…. there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.” Science-fantasy myths like Akira provide us with non-denominational, built-from-scratch glimpses of the forbidden Divine. Akira taps into religious yearnings for omniscience and immortality without siding with any particular creed; it palms off its origins on the unlimited power of future evolution. In this aspect, Akira especially resembles Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the end of Akira Tetsuo undergoes a transformation as profound as Dave Bowman’s encounter with the star child; limited only by Ohtomo’s ink and imagination, his transformation is even more stunning than that 1968 psychedelic trip to the edges of the Solar System.
Not only are violence and transformation/transcendence major themes in Akira, the one is linked to the other. Tetsuo’s growing powers are marked by painful migraines and hallucinations; in the first of them, he falls to his hands and knees in agony and sees his guts own spilling out. His penultimate transformation (before he becomes pure energy) is even more painful. It’s Cronenbergian body horror blown up to gargantuan extremes, as Tetsuo’s body revolts against him, mutating in an agonizing display of spontaneous organ mutation and tumor generation. This pain and violation of the body, we must conclude, is necessary for Tetsuo’s transcendence. In the film, we are always sympathizing with violent characters: Kaneda and his motorcycle gang, the rebels striving to overthrow the government. The “peaceful” civil authorities and diplomats are not to be trusted; they are shown as sneaky, corrupt, weak and self-serving. Nor are the scientists our salvation; they got us into this mess with Akira and Tetsuo in the first place. Curiously, the one institution we can trust is the military. In a somewhat uncomfortable pro-fascism twist, the army is right to stage a coup and overthrow a civilian government that was ignoring the Akira threat. We can put our faith in them because they are blunt instruments of violence, tools who do their job of protecting the populace. “It’s not my job to believe or not believe,” says the Colonel. “It’s my job to act or not act.” He has no love for Neo-Tokyo, which he calls “a garbage dump made up of a bunch of hedonistic fools,” but he will nonetheless defend it because “I am not a scientist. I think like a soldier.” The dystopian Neo-Tokyo is a garbage dump, and it is clear that it’s the weak civilian (democratic) government that has led it to this state. In their own ways, the anarchic punk gangs, the rebels, the military, and rampaging Tetsuo all seek to tear down the corrupt society. The disasters Tetsuo wreaks, while they seem frightful, are actually cleansing. Once the city is reduced to rubble they may rebuild again, as Tetsuo himself passes into a new phase of creation. The Colonel laments of Neo-Tokyo that “the passion to build has cooled, and the joy of reconstruction is forgotten.” After Tetsuo is done with the place, the passion to rebuild will rise again. In this way Akira is a nihilistic tale, positing destruction and violence as a positive forces that allow new orders to emerge. The world of Akira seems to be perpetually doomed to blow itself up, then rise from the ashes anew; hopefully, though, this time Tetsuo’s lesson will teach the citizens of Neo-Neo-Tokyo to build a society on a firmer foundation.
Seen through a mythological rather than a science fiction lens, some of Akira‘s logical flaws and incoherences become forgivable. And the movie can always simply be watched as an awesome spectacle of weaving motorcycle lights, psychedelic hallucinations, and mayhem galore. That is perhaps the best, most honest, and maybe even the noblest way to watch it, because Ohtomo’s futuristic neon visions coupled to the amazing gamelan and synthesized chorus score are achievements that far outstrip any philosophical depth in the movie. Consider it a hallucinatory cyberpunk version of a monster-tramples-Tokyo flick and you’ll like it just fine. Oh, and if your DVD player offers you the option to watch the scenes in random order, I highly recommend the experience.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an instant cult classic. Its post-apocalyptic mood, high-tech trappings, thrilling artwork and wide array of bizarre characters guarantee it a place in the pantheon of comic-strip science fiction.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“An impressive achievement, often suggesting a weird expressionist blend of 2001, The Warriors, Blade Runner and Forbidden Planet.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out
“…a blast and a half, a twisted dystopian parable of violence and rock and roll, Japanese-style. It’s Disney on PCP, mean, rotten, psychotic, but incredibly vivid.”–Stephen Hunter, The Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)
Official Website – In Japanese
Akira at Funimation– Official site of the 25th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray release; “Elite Video Subscribers” can watch the movie online here
IMDB LINK: Akira (1988)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Akira 2019 – This blog-style fansite is a couple years out of date, but has some interesting content including a hypertext version of an old Akira Usenet FAQ from 1995
BlueBlade Akira – UK based fansite that hasn’t been updated since 2005 but still has a FAQ, a comparison of the anime and manga, fan-made wallpaper and other goodies
Warner Bros. Resumes Live-Action ‘Akira’ Movie Plans With Director Jaume Collet-Serra – The latest (Aug 2013) info on the planned Akira remake, with sneak peek concept art
DVD INFO: Funimation’s 25th anniversary edition is available either on 2 DVDs (buy) or in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy). This release offers the option to watch the movie in the widely-panned original English dub, the 2001 re-dub, or in Japanese with subtitles. Extras include several different variations of the trailer, a 20-minute featurette on the music, a 30-minute interview with the director, and an 11-minute report on the 2001 restoration. There’s also an extensive collection of pencil storyboards, “The Writing on the Wall,” a trivial featurette that translates some of the graffiti seen in the movie into English, and a glossary of characters and terms that’s likely to induce a nerdgasm in susceptible otaku.
UPDATE: In June 2016 Funimation released a restored edition of Akira in a steelbook casing. Extra features appear to be exactly the same as the 25th Anniversary Edition.
Funimation also offers the film on-demand (rent on demand.)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Howard,” who called it “one of the strangest, in my opinion.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)