There’s a lot of talk about anime on this site, and while some of it might be familiar to Western audiences, none of it wouldn’t have been so accessible if not for the success of one film in 1988 known as Akira.
Akira is based on a manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in the year 2019, Neo-Tokyo is still rebuilding after the fallout from World War III. It’s a time when biker gangs–known as bōsōzoku—are on the rise, along with secret military projects and all sorts of really bizarre happenings.
The Story: The Fight Against Injustice
Kaneda and Tetsuo are two best friends in a biker gang known as the Capsules. However, during a turf war with a rival gang, Tetsuo runs into a strange little man (with the voice of a young boy) with psychic powers. This causes the military to step in, retrieving both the little man and Tetsuo, the latter being forced into a series of experiments that unlock his own psychic abilities–and some very, very disturbing hallucinations.
Kaneda is determined to get Tetsuo back, so he joins up with a resistance fighter named Kei to do just that. However, Tetsuo finds that he has all the power he needs and proceeds to demonstrate to the world why trying to control the power of God is not the smartest thing to do. This leads to a bitter conflict of Kaneda against Tetsuo, whose control over his power begins to slip and results in a very twisted and unholy transformation.
The Cast: Just Your Typical Post-Apocalyptic Misfits (With A Dash Of Crazy And World-Shattering Power)
Kaneda is a brash young man who laughs in the face of law and order, has not much respect for women, and cares nothing about going to school or staying out of trouble. His only redeeming feature is that he cares about his friend Tetsuo and will do anything to stick up for him, even if it means risking life or limb–or his precious motorcycle. It also becomes a way for Kaneda to find some semblance of romance with Kei, although they take a rocky road toward it that involves the near-ending of the world.
Tetsuo is much like Kaneda, only with a more tragic element. They grew up in the same orphanage, where Kaneda defended Tetsuo from bullying. While their bond developed from there, Tetsuo became ashamed of being “held back” by Kaneda–which turns to a bad direction once the military gives him psychic powers that can manipulate reality. But as much as he becomes a villain, Tetsuo is deeply conflicted about what he wants and whom he can trust, especially when his hold on reality becomes less certain.
The Setting: Forget It, Jake, It’s Neo-Tokyo
The world in Akira is much like the story itself: on the surface it appears to be a reconstructed society with cyberpunk architecture, warring biker gangs, and a police state. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find little old people with kid’s voices and psychic powers, a mysterious entity known as “Akira” who caused the last World War, and horrifying mutations that result from contact with Akira (such as the image above suggests).
I rather liked the early part of the film, which focused more on bikers and the cyberpunk atmosphere (one influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, no less). The second half of the film was more esoteric, which isn’t necessarily bad, but became disturbing on many levels: Tetsuo’s descent into madness, the truth behind Akira, Tetsuo’s transformations, and that weird image and dialogue at the very end.
I saw Evangelion sequences that made more sense than this, but it’s not all bad. It’s just confusing for first-time viewers, so be warned.
Final Verdict: An Awesome Film, Despite Its Awesome Weird End
Overall, Akira is a great film in terms of animation, which it what made it so successful. If the story seems odd, it might be because it’s an adaptation of the much-longer manga series by Otomo, which had still been in production when the film was released.
I should point out that what prompted me to watch this film was the news that an American live-action adaptation was in the works. Having seen Akira and heard what’s planned for the new film, I’m feeling pessimistic about the whole thing. Any attempts to Americanize this film are going to take away from it. It’s a wholly Japanese work and deserves to be viewed and enjoyed as such.
Bibliography: Akira (film). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Produced by Ryohei Suzuki, Shunzo Kato, and Sawako Noma. TMS Entertainment. Toho, 1988.
Akira (manga). Written by Katsuhiro Otomo. Published by Kodansha. December 20, 1982 – June 25, 1990.