Akira: A Transcendental Experience

I’ve been a fan of anime for a long time. Almost five years now, which is quite a bit of time for me really. I’ve seen various anime shows over the years, but haven’t seen any anime movies specifically. Recently, I helped my friend Nick Sharps put together a fiction anthology kickstarter, and when we were discussing the art that he was going to contract, he mentioned Akira, an anime movie from 1988 that is widely regarded as the best in the genre, even today, and certainly for its time. I’d never even heard of it before, but when Nick mentioned it, and later showed me an early version of the cover for the anthology, I was amazed. And I really wanted to watch Akira now.

Something about bikes just gets to me, I suppose. Whether its movies like Torque (yeah, yeah, I know its a terrible movie really), Tron and Tron: Legacy, Mad Max or Bollywood flicks like Dhoom and Dhoom 2, I love ’em all. All that adrenaline and action is something that I really enjoy. And for me, Akira proved to be no different, except for the fact that is so much more cerebral than either of those movies. It’d be like comparing The Lord of the Rings to Dungeons & Dragons, where Akira is, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Having seen the film now, I can definitley say that Akira is a fantastic film that truly survives the test of time and doesn’t feel dated at all.

Akira 001That image right there? Of the protagonist Kaneda (voiced by Mitsuo Iwata in the original Japanese version) walking towards his trademark bike, with all that swagger and confidence in his step, like he’s about to do something badass? Yeah, I totally love that. Its the image that hooked me to watching this movie when I saw it (actually, Nick told me to look it up IIRC). Oddly enough, that poster doesn’t really capture what the movie is all about, but that didn’t matter to me. Great movie poster = I want to watch a movie. That’s how simple it is. And its great that the poster doesn’t really give away what the movie is about, just gives a brief glimpse of that. That’s the way to do it.

The setting in Akira is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Japan, specifically Neo-Tokyo. An atomic bomb destroyed the heart of Tokyo several years ago and Neo-Tokyo sprung up from the ashes, turning into a land of lawlessness and discontent. If you think about it, Neo-Tokyo could very well be a city in the same vein as the Mega Cities of the Judge Dredd setting. Tonally, it is a perfect match, and I could certainly see some (no doubt unintentional) references to it, in that respect. This served in a very positive way, because it instantly drew me in. As did the second element that I found to be intriguing, biker gangs racing through the streets of Neo-Tokyo, engaging in gang warfare. How cool is that? Katsuhiro Otomo, who wrote the original Akira manga and directed the movie adaptation with Izō Hashimoto serving as a second writer, has filmed this entire sequence brilliantly. Its so much fun to watch all these bikers have a go at each other even when they are all in the saddle, so to speak. It reminded me of that classic (for me!) video game Road Rash, in which the player controls  a biker in a street race and can punch, kick and elbow other racers, even stealing their own weapons, or taking guns from bike cops.

So. Much. Fun.

In its adapted version, Akira is a sprawling, post-apocalyptic and dystopian vision which really hits home with its grim story, a story that is intensely violent and brutal, and features a lot of blood being shed. It even has a cyberpunk-ian grandeur to it through the narrative of the other protagonist (well, antagonist really), Tetsuo Shima, who is Kaneda’s best friend and part of his biker gang. There is so much here to recommend in the movie. All that sprawling grandeur is reflected through the animation detail, the care that is undoubtedly given to each scene. And as well as it should have been, given that this movie is supposed to have been made with a very expensive budget, for that era. All the characters, whether minor or major, stand out in terms of detail, and the entire city itself is lavishly built and portrayed.

In many ways, Akira reminds me of the dark epic that is Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series that I utterly love. Tonally, and mood-wise, they both complement each other, even though the overall vision and the setting is completely different. Regardless, Akira has that same… magical charm that first drew me to Evangelion, so really, what can I say. Akira seems to have influenced a lot of creators over the years, that’s undeniable.

As the movie progresses, it gains a dimension and life of its own. It starts out as a struggle between two biker gangs. Then it morphs into a sci-fi tale about genetic experimentation and ESP. From there it moves on into the realm of superhero-ish stories about psychics gone mad, and finally, it culminates in a jaw-dropping finale where an ordinary guy takes on a god, in a not-so-subtle nod to the story of David and the Goliath.

For someone of limited anime experience as me, Akira hits all the right notes. It entertains from start to finish, for all of its 124 minutes of running time. Each and every character has a story to tell, whether it is a “main” story or just a subplot. There are some dark moments in the movie, but they never feel out of place or random. Each little plot point is important in moving the overall narrative forward. And I never once felt bored by any of it.

Akira 002Of course, it bears repeating that the animation in the movie is brilliant. Just brilliant. All those detailed scenes, the dream sequences, the action, the expressions and body language of the characters, everything. It all combines to present a visual aesthetic that I’d say is still unparalleled today. It took a bold man to write the manga, and it took that same bold man to make a movie out of it, to present to the world something very much ahead of its time in almost everything.

With all its complex characters with their realistic and non-foolish motivations, for all its visual brilliance, and a (pretty much) perfect pacing, Akira was well worth the 2 hours I spent watching it and all the time that I spent thinking about it. For my friends who recommended the movie, Nick Sharps, Ben Cawkwell, and others, thank you so much!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Posted on September 13, 2013, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Akira was one of th first Anime-films I saw, and it’s still my favourite. Unfortunately I never finished reading the manga – got through two of the anthology books, but never got my hands on the others. One day…

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  1. Pingback: Monthly Report: August and September 2013 | Shadowhawk's Shade

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