Reaper's Reviews: 'Akira'

Updated on January 6, 2020
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Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: TMS Entertainment (as Tokyo Movie Shinsha)
Genre: Action/Drama/Horror
Format: 124 minutes
Release: July 16, 1988
Source: Manga

To most people, the name “Akira” will bring between two to three connotations. Legendary movie director Akira Kurosawa, legendary Dragon Ball author Akira Toriyama, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s legendary 1988 anime movie—and the subject of today’s review—Akira. I know I used the word “legendary” like three times (now four) here, but all three deserve that label.

Akira is one of those anime that don’t need any formal introduction, and for a good reason. Many anime over the years can claim their part in boosting the popularity of the medium outside Japan, but Akira is often considered to be the one prominent example that launched the medium’s success in the west.

Akira was also a big showcase that animation was not restricted for only kids cartoons, with its unrestrained depiction of chaos and madness. And it was also influential for both the sci-fi genre and especially its cyberpunk subsidiary, giving rise to new works both in its homeland and outside of it. Alongside Ghost in the Shell, Akira more or less solidified the hard sci-fi corner in the anime medium.

Not bad for a movie that was seen as a commercial disappointment in Japan when it was first screened, huh?

But with the announcement of a new Akira project by Otomo, this time what sounds like a full adaptation of his titanic flagship manga, I want to go back and check Akira for myself. Having already watched the movie countless times, I want to see if the movie’s legacy goes beyond pretty visuals and influence—I want to tell you, my dear readers, if Akira is still worthy of its monstrous reputation.

And so, this time I review the 1988 sci-fi classic directed and written by the acclaimed Katsuhiro Otomo—who also, uniquely, wrote the original 1982-1990 manga, and produced by TMS Entertainment (then known as Tokyo Movie Shinsha): Akira.

Story & Setting

In 1988, a mysterious explosion occurs in Tokyo and obliterates it off the face of the earth; an event that leads to World War III. Over thirty years later, in 2019, the city of Neo-Tokyo stands upon its predecessor's ruins. However, the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo is a crime-ridden hellhole where the streets and roads are battlegrounds for biker gangs and the rich live comfortably far away.

One such gang is led by the rebellious and rude Shotaro Kaneda, who leads it across Neo-Tokyo's slums and routes on his unique (and now iconic) red motorcycle. Among his most treasured men is Tetsuo, his introverted and competitive childhood friend.

It is during one such gang war when things inevitably change for the worse. Tetsuo crashes himself into a mysterious child, an accident that grants him psychic abilities. He is then taken to be experimented on by the Japanese military, with the belief that he may cause an incident similar to the one that destroyed Tokyo decades ago. Having none of that, Kaneda plans to save his best friend, or potentially confront him as Tetsuo slowly succumbs to insanity.

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Akira’s story as a bizarre and messy rescue story with some government conspiracies and sci-fi elements thrown in. It’s not a work devoid of heart and passion, but the writing tends to lack noticeable emotion throughout the majority of the movie. That said, there is a fortune to unfold through the film’s depth and complexity.

Indeed, Akira’s beauty comes from its world and subplots more than its main narrative. Neo-Tokyo is one of the most fully-realized and dense settings in an anime movie to date - decades after its first appearance, an impressive feat considering the limited running time of theatrical releases in comparison to television and today’s streaming.

I’ll talk about the movie’s technical merits in the Animation section, but let me say that Akira’s mere presentation and atmosphere are key reasons to its absorbing and lifelike setup. Katsuhiro Otomo has my deepest respect for constructing Neo-Tokyo in his original manga, but the movie evolves it from a fascinating creation to the film’s best character.

This is a movie that talks about a large variety of subjects in a little over two hours. Otomo delves into gang violence, social fragility and discourse between classes, inferiority complex, the threat of power, government corruption and juvenile delinquency. All crammed into an otherwise straightforward narrative, but done in a remarkably deliberate and subtle way.

You won’t get some bombastic announcements and melodramatic speeches - a rarity in storytelling, especially in anime. Akira is well aware of its strengths and lets its environments and background events unfold its dozens of smaller stories. Some executed much better than others, but they intertwine with each other beautifully.

While nothing exceptional, the main storyline connecting the movie is a fun romp filled with action, shocking discoveries and suspense. It’s a tale of two friends forced into a situation that tests their bonds, neither of them being a particularly relatable character at first, but the movie builds their history competently.

The middle act slows down somewhat, but it provides a good exploration of Neo-Tokyo’s impending downfall as well as Tetsuo’s character arc. I’m surprised by how disturbingly riveting Akira’s depiction of jealousy and corruption by power is; the way Tetsuo’s newfound abilities creep into his troubled mind and how it feeds to his resentment towards Kaneda is nothing short of terrifying brilliance.

There is also plenty of meat to chew on here after finishing the movie once. Akira has a noticeably high replay value due to in no small part its denseness. I admit that the first time I watched this movie I was overwhelmed by its raw energy and compressed story, but with every new rewatch I’ve grown to admire and notice its smaller moments.

You can potentially watch Akira a dozen times and still find yourself noticing new details and eureka moments spread throughout its 124 minutes of content. It also, apparently, stands as a bit of a requirement to get the most out of its ending. Why? Because the ending could very well stand among some of Gainax’ greatest.

The final moments of the movie, without giving away anything major, are surprisingly somber and peaceful, closing on a genuinely hopeful note. However the last twenty or so minutes before that are sort of a mess. A beautifully animated mess that shines light on some backstory events that complete the character arc between Kaneda and Tetsuo, as well as serving as an interesting parallel to the movie’s opening scenes.

It’s surreal, to say the least. It also feels rather rushed at some points with its exposition and cuts, which isn’t surprising given how overblown and expansive was Akira’s budget at the time; but the end result feels more like trying to tie everything with a nice little bow than resolving the movie in a more organic way.

Does it ruin the movie? No, not at all. But it does stop Akira from fully achieving its ambitions. It’s still a far better ending than most philosophical sci-fi works could ever hope, mind you.

By the way, can we just talk about the fact that this movie seemingly predicted the 2020 Olympics?

The Characters

Sadly, the characters of Akira—at least on an individual note—are the movie’s weakest aspect. Partly because of their large quantity, most of the characters only serve as smaller gears in the large machine that is Akira. With the exception of two of our main characters, most of them are generally static in nature.

That’s not to say that any of these characters are bad or badly-written, but left each for their own and most of them don’t have enough substance. Part of this is probably because of Akira adapting a then-still running manga infamous for its large amount of content, so some corners had to be cut to fit the movie’s runtime. All things considered, Otomo and the production team have done a wonderful job at that.

The greatness of most characters lies in them forming one entity that is the population of Neo-Tokyo, while the avoidance of clear-cut good characters lend to the overall morally ambiguous nature of the setting.

From our main protagonist Kaneda and his biker gang, to the Japanese government inflicted with corruption and greed, what the characters lack in depth they more than make up with their dynamics within the greater setting.

Speaking of Kaneda, he’s fine. Despite being the main protagonist, Kaneda is a rather static character. Aside from slightly downsizing his womanizing habits and bratty attitude, Kaneda is really more of a supporting protagonist than the main lead of the story. He’s not the most relatable lead, but he does his job well enough and his relationship with Tetsuo becomes genuinely heartbreaking by the end.

Tetsuo, as far as characters go, is the center of the show. A lonely, disturbed kid with a lot of self-confidence issues, Tetsuo becomes the most dangerous player in Neo-Tokyo overnight.

However, with great power comes great insanity, and Tetsuo ends up as a tragic example of when a troubled, ill kid gains superpowers that can level entire cities in a few minutes. And slowly but surely we witness as the power creeps into Tetsuo’s mind, taking an already unstable youth and creating a threat to all life around him.

Like Kaneda, Tetsuo is not the most likable guy around (to put it mildly), but it’s hard to not feel some semblance of sympathy or empathy with him as the movie slowly unfolds his psyche and early life. It’s easy to forget that beneath the crazed behavior and godlike powers, hides a child that succumbed to his inner demons.

The final character I’m going to talk about in detail is Colonel Shikishima, a high-ranking officer of the Japanese military who also happens to be stationed in Neo-Tokyo and govern a top military research about the psychic abilities that plague the setting.

Initially presented as a stern and serious antagonistic force that controls Neo-Tokyo with an iron fist, the Colonel is slowly revealed to be an honest, honorable and caring man who fights the corruption that infiltrated the Japanese government. Despite his position, Shikishima is also an understanding and tender person who treats people as fellow human beings instead of pawns and subjects.

As with the rest of the cast, some of his actions, including his almost totalitarian control over Neo-Tokyo in a well-intended attempt to restore its order, paint him as a flawed person. Not necessarily a villain or a hero, but as a believable character with his own motivations that drive him to do questionable actions while maintaining some level of morality.

And that’s really it. The rest of the supporting and minor characters are memorable and distinctive enough to enrich the world with their unique looks and quirks, even if most of them are sidelined. That said, I do enjoy the fact that the movie uses most of them until their last minutes in the movie, never totally wasting them.

Animation & Sound

Do I really have to talk about it in-depth? Why, yes I do. The animation and art direction of Akira are easily the movie’s best known aspects. Alongside the soundtrack, it’s the one thing both fans and detractors will agree on that is great, and boy it’s not hard to see why.

Akira boasted the largest budget for an anime movie at the time, at $9 million. That’s about a forth of a Disney production from the same time period, and hell even nowadays it can be a pretty hefty budget for an anime movie; your typical modern Ghibli movie is made on a budget that ranges from $10 million to almost thrice the price, for example.

As a result, Otomo and his team at TMS Entertainment crafted one of the most kinetic and impressive looking animations of all time, and even to this day, Akira has aged outstandingly well, to the point that it can still compete with a few of the anime movies coming out today. Hardly surprising when one learns Akira contains well over 160,000 animation cells.

Neo-Tokyo is brought to life in such a way that it becomes its own character, and a big reason for that is an insane amount of effort and detail poured into its landscapes. Every road, every alley, every building - every single piece of Neo-Tokyo is not just some random background. They are all dedicatedly drawn with small quirks and meticulous details that injects them with subtle character.

There is very little wonder that Akira, alongside fellow classic Ghost in the Shell, helped shaping the general aesthetic for dystopian and cyberpunk manga and anime. The city’s skyscrapers are imposing in structure and dense in populace, illuminated by glamorous light and fading neon sights. The slums are messy hellholes packed with garbage, forgotten pubs and dangerous scum. And the highways are controlled by unpredictable bikers whose motorcycles leave shiny light trails behind.

And to talk a little more in detail about the animation itself, there is not a single dull or poorly made moment in the entire movie. The animation is fluid and lively beyond words, the artwork is crisp and morbidly vivid, and the action scenes are an incredible orgy of explosive violence. Akira is not for the faint of heart, and its embracing of cruelty is a visceral ride through and through.

The character designs are probably the most divisive part of the package, and I will say it can be more of an acquired taste. But they fit the overall atmosphere of the movie with their more realistic designs and defined features, and each character has their own distinctive appearance and features. On a related note, Akira used a rare process of recording voice performances before animating the movie, in order to match the lip-syncing with the dialogue.

And after all this talk about the animation, let’s talk about the music. Akira’s soundtrack was composed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, a musical collective headed by Tsutomu Ōhashi. The collective as a whole hasn’t really done anything else in terms of anime works, which is a shame, because Akira’s soundtrack is one of the medium’s best.

If there’s a word to describe the soundtrack with, it would be chaotic. Dubbed the “sonic architecture” by its creators, the soundtrack is heavily influenced by an Indonesian ensemble style called Gamelan, as well as Japanese performance style known as noh - yes I was checking Wikipedia about it.

This combination of styles breed a distinctive, folk-like, almost barbaric family of tracks that compliment the movie’s visuals in an almost enchanting way. This can partly be attributed to the fact that, as with the voice recordings, the soundtrack was composed before the animation on the film even began.

Controlled jegog instruments beat in perfect harmony, while ghostly chanting masterfully change from encouraging to ominous depending on the track. Bombastic chores fill most of the tracks, and some utilize synth music and even a good dose of electric guitar.

Most of the pieces on the list are loud, striking and hostile in their execution, but it’s remarkable how Ōhashi and his team maintain control over their musical insanity. From the guttural chanting of “Battle Against Clown” to the haunting epic “Requiem”, the OST captures the twisted nature of the movie perfectly.

As far as the voice acting goes, my recommendation is the original Japanese version. The original 1989 Streamline English dub for the movie was okay for its time, but nowadays it’s well below the average for the industry.

The 2001 revision, done by Animaze and Geneon, is a far superior version, notable for having Johnny Yong Busch in the lead role of Kaneda, opposing Joshua Seth as Tetuso. And you also have the likes of Wendee Lee and Jamieson Goddamn Price among the cast, so it’s a pretty good English dub overall.

That said, I just find the Japanese dub to be stronger overall. And given its setting, it’s unsurprising, so if this review makes you curious about Akira, my recommendation stands.

Final Verdict

Few anime movies possess the same level of reputation and influence as Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo’s complex and brutal magnum opus cemented itself as a piece of art that managed to stand the test of time and immortalize its advancements in technology and animation in the modern animation industry. Its well-earned reputation, despite a lackluster release in its home country, propelled the popularity and influence of anime worldwide and even within Japan it provided the footprints for succeeding cyberpunk works and anime techniques in general.

It has a handful of shortcomings given its massive source material, but I believe that the flaws only enhance the movie’s good part. Akira is a benchmark in the anime industry’s history, and visual entertainment medium in general. It influenced so, SO many different movies and shows in and out of anime for over three decades by now, and with new Akira projects in the air, I’m certain that it will be talked and discussed for many more years to come. It may not be the ultimate masterpiece of the medium, but Akira is a brutal, riveting piece of art.

The Good:

  • State-of-the-art visuals that still hold up amazingly well today
  • Striking, unmistakable soundtrack
  • Neo-Tokyo is a stunning setting filled with detail and visual storytelling
  • Explores a wide array of complex themes and intense issues organically and subtly

The Bad:

  • Ending can be confusing and overwhelming, feels rushed in some parts
  • Outside of Tetsuo and the Colonel, the characters are mostly sidelined
  • Character designs are an acquired taste

& the Ugly:

  • Mutated testicles

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Raziel Reaper

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