A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Akira

September 27, 2010

Akira

In my childhood there were limited options for somebody who wanted to watch imported Japanese animation. Long before I had ever heard the word “anime” – back in the late seventies and early eighties – my favorite cartoons all had this strange otherworldly aesthetic to them. Things like Battle of the Planets or Robotech (which puzzled me because when I missed some episodes once it seemed to have a completely different setting and cast… which of course was because the show was mashed together from three different Japanese shows.) I loved Star Blazers and two of the five programs that made up Force Five and the lion version of Voltron was pretty cool (yes, I had the toys.) In 1990, when I was in college, I had only begun to understand Japanese animation and its breadth of power and depth of emotion. Those in the know told me at the time that there were two essential movies that anybody who wanted to understand anime had to see. One was Vampire Hunter D, and the other was this movie. Akira.

It’s been a few years since I last watched this and yet still, more than twenty years after it was made, I am astonished by how little it has aged. The level of the animation, the apocalyptic bent of the plot, the pure incomparable scale of the whole movie, all combine to form a master work the likes of which still has not been seen decades later. I don’t quite know where to begin in my attempt to review it.

I once started to read the manga series that this movie was adapted from. I think I read perhaps three of the six volumes that one of my friends in college had. It’s a complex vast and dense work. Serialized as it was over the course of several years it does tend to meander a bit, but it has some central themes which carry through all the bits I read. Themes of corrupt government, dangerous experiments that have resulted in unstoppable psychic powers and a mysterious apocalyptic event that once destroyed Tokyo and must somehow be prevented from re-occurring at any cost. Most of the characters from the manga appear in the movie in much the same way, but things have been necessarily truncated to fit in the much more restrictive format of a movie.

The movie starts out following a band of biker toughs in Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda, Tetsuo and their band are flotsam on the edge of a society that is falling apart. The only thing they seem to care about are their (extremely cool) high-tech motorbikes and their feud with a rival gang of bikers who dress as clowns. That is until they encounter a runaway shrivelled child with psychic powers who has escaped from a top-secret military facility. Something happens to Tetsuo when he encounters this walking experiment and something inside of him is awakened. He begins to develop psychic powers of his own at a frightening rate.

I can’t possibly hope to encompass the plot even of the movie in just a short review. Most of the characters I remember from the manga are here in some form or another. Manga-ka Katsuhiro Otomo does an admirable job of distilling the most important parts of his own comic as he writes and directs the film version. We still have Kei, the revolutionary soldier girl that Kaneda is obsessed with (though in this version it’s not altogether clear what she eventually sees in him.) We still have the noble Colonel who seems to be the only person with any understanding of just how powerful the psychic forces being unleashed in the movie are. There’s the corrupt politician Nezu who is staging a rebellion against his own government in an attempt to grab power for himself. There are the three wizened children who are part of the military experiments into psychic powers. Lady Miyako, the fanatic religious leader, is here too, although she is never named and she doesn’t really interact with any of the other characters. (Her entire backstory is completely lost though, which is kind of sad.) And although his final reveal is radically different from what I recall from the books Akira is in the movie too of course.

It was Akira, with his godlike powers, who first destroyed Tokyo in a massive psychic detonation that started World War III way back in 1988. Now there are some who believe that Tetsuo’s rapidly advancing powers signal a return of Akira. Some want to wipe Neo Tokyo from the map. Some want to prevent this new apocalypse at any cost. And some have more mysterious and spiritual goals in mind. One thing is sure – a massive confrontation of unstoppable forces is sure to occur.

I simply cannot believe how amazing this movie still is. Even after multiple viewings and after so many years. The sheer spectacle of it is a wonder to behold. The film makers must have employed armies of animators to capture all the amazing action, particularly in the later half of the film. In most hand drawn animation you become used to detailed static backgrounds with the characters, somewhat more crude because they must be drawn hundreds of times over to be animated, pasted on top. During most of the last half hour of this movie though there is so much constant destruction, flying debris, wafting smoke and pulsing, throbbing, animated insane flesh (you have to see it to understand that last) that there are few painted backgrounds and they are mostly obscured almost all the time. Everything on the screen is crumbling, exploding, pulsing or moving. It boggles my mind just how much effort must have gone into making this movie. It would be almost ten years before another movie with animation of this quality would appear (I speak here of Princess Mononoke.) Akira was far ahead of its time, and has not been surpassed by any other hand drawn animated film I have seen yet.

The soundtrack, which is so sparse and alien, is iconic too. It’s all blasting organs, strong choruses, and pounding percussion. It doesn’t feel like music from any one time period (though it does have a strong traditional Japanese feel) and so it doesn’t date the movie. I own the soundtrack CD of course and love how evocative it is. It doesn’t sound to me like anything except Akira, and that’s pretty impressive.

But oh, there’s so much more to this movie. It’s about so much more than the action and the spectacle and the adventure of it all. It’s filled with powerful and difficult themes. I know that many a paper has been written on it. About the common figure in modern Japanese drama of the corrupt politician. (And the general mistrust for all politicians for that matter.) About how evocative is the imagery of the apocalyptic destruction of Tokyo at the start of the film, especially in Japan which to this day is the only country to ever have been attacked with nuclear weapons. About the deeper metaphysics of the later part of the movie and the dangers of unleashing powers we cannot begin to understand in the name of progress.

As an eighteen-year-old watching this for the first time most of this went right over my head. I was just impressed to see animation that was so mature and so many miles away from the Disney pap that was all you could see in the theaters during my youth. (Even today there’s not really an industry in America making mature animation for adults – something I kind of regret.) I was being thrown headlong into a whole other world which I only barely understood. The fact that I could at that time think of this movie at the same time as Vampire Hunter D (which has not aged quite so well, and may someday be another review altogether) indicates how very little I understood the art of anime at the time. But it is as true now as it was all those years ago: if you want to see a truly great anime movie and expand your understanding of what is possible in the world of animation you need see only one movie. Akira.

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September 27, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , ,

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