Retro Review: “Akira”

Akira cropped

Occasionally, it takes a detailed knowledge of an artwork for it to be truly appreciated. In the case of this Japanese animation, its impact and legacy often shine in comparison to its other attributes. And that makes it all the more fascinating.

Neo-Tokyo is a desolate place – the post-apocalyptic city, built in the middle of Tokyo Bay, is a nest for corrupt officials, bloodthirsty criminals and vigilante bikers. Just one of these bikers is Shotaro Kaneda, a teenager in red leathers who leads his own motorcycle gang along the city’s motorways. Kaneda’s life is turned upside-down when his buddy Tetsuo is injured in an accident and taken away by the military.

While under military observation, Tetsuo is operated on by a group of scientists who give him extraordinary telekinetic powers. His Godlike abilities wreak havoc with his mind, giving him nightmarish visions and children’s voices which speak of the mythical being Akira. Kaneda does all he can to help the situation, but it seems that nothing can save Tetsuo from his decent into madness.

Akira is considered a ground-breaking film for the Japanese animation, or anime, industry. Its rich, detailed illustrations went far beyond the standard set by other Japanese studios, in turn becoming the benchmark for all films which came after it. The gritty tones, violence and themes also aided in creating an adult-oriented anime industry.

Akira - Tetsuo
Tetsuo is finally sent insane in “Akira”

Equally as important is the influence of Akira on Western culture. Its overseas release – many months after its 1988 debut in Japan – opened the floodgates for many Japanese studios, proving that anime was not only marketable in the Anglosphere, but it had an audience. I’d go as far to say that without Akira, there may have never been a Studio Ghibli presence in the West. Or at least, it wouldn’t be near as popular as it is.

Thankfully, once the historical significance of Akira is overlooked, there is still substance to be found. As stated above, the hand-drawn animation is excellent even by today’s standards, with many exquisite and iconic images contained within. When paired with the ominous electro-orchestral soundtrack, the imagery draws parallels with Mad Max and Blade Runner – two other dystopian science-fiction films.

The story is one of great depth and complexity, acting as a social commentary, coming-of-age drama, dark comedy and action film. The two-paragraph synopsis you read just a moment ago only scratches the surface of the plot – to discuss it all in great detail would require an entire novel. The characters are equally complex, failing to be heroes, villains or even anti-heroes. They act and behave like (gasp) real people!

Where the film falls short is in the dialogue, which often comes across as hammy and unnatural. Whether this is the fault of the screenwriters, English translators or voice-over artists I am uncertain – having not seen the original Japanese dub, I cannot draw to a solid conclusion. Furthermore, the ending isn’t as satisfying as the plot builds it up to be, but none of this takes away from the movie’s wonder.

Look beyond its extraordinary impact and Akira remains an astonishing film, and not just by Japanese standards. It’s a well-drawn, intelligent and multi-faceted animation that will have you thinking long after seeing it.

4 stars

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