Though anime traces its origins back to around 1917, its characteristic visual style first rose to prominence in the sixties through the works of animator Osamu Tezuka and developed a worldwide audience throughout the second half of the 20th century through its focus on the detail of settings and use of dynamic camera effects. To celebrate and appreciate this distinct style of animation, 15 April has been designated National Anime Day, giving anime fans the world over a chance to voice their admiration through conventions, cosplay, or a general sharing of their memories and experiences of anime.
Released: 16 July 1988
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Budget: ¥700 million
Stars: Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody, Tony Pope, Lewis Arquette, and Bob Bergen
The year is 2019 and Neo-Tokyo is plagued by corruption, anti-government sentiment, and terrorism following Tokyo’s sudden destruction on 16 July 1988. Amidst the chaos, biker Shōtarō Kaneda (Clarke) uncovers a diabolical government conspiracy when his friend, Tetsuo Shima (Jabson), acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident that eventually threaten an entire military complex.
It’s hard, if not practically impossible, to talk about anime without mentioning Akira; pretty much single-handedly responsible for the popularity of the genre outside of Japan, Akira remains an incredibly influential and popular animated feature and, arguably, the principal reason why anime remains so prevalent in the western world. Akira began life as a cyberpunk manga series written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo. What was initially thought to be a short work of only ten chapters ended up ballooning into a 120 chapter piece that was serialised bi-weekly in Young Magazine from 20 December 1982 to 25 June 1990. Akira proved such a success in its native Japan that Otomo was approached to publish an English language version in 1983; indeed, Akira is often credited for introducing manga to Western audiences, and Otomo was eventually intrigued at the prospect of adapting his story for the screen…as long as he retained creative control, which meant not only collaborating on the screenplay, but also helming the adaptation, which was the most expensive anime film at the time. In a first for the genre, Akira used pre-scored dialogue where the dialogue was recorded first and the animation was keyed to match it and over 16,000 animation cels were used to bring the story to life, although Otomo later expressed disappointment at making the anime before the manga was finished due to how many omissions had to be made. Although a moderate success at the Japanese box office, Akira eventually grossed $49 million worldwide, and its success on home video basically kick-started the widespread release of anime outside of Japan. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of anime will be unsurprised to learn that Akira is held in extremely high regard; critics praised the dubbing and presentation, especially the slick animation and kinetic action, and film went on to be extremely popular and influential on a generation of writers, filmmakers, and creators and is widely regarded as one of the greatest anime films ever made.
I feel like it’s important to preface this review by saying that I’m watching the original 1989 version of the film, dubbed into English; I know a lot of anime “purists” might take exception to this, but I always prefer a dubbed version over subtitles or the original Japanese language as it’s easier for me to digest it and understand the content. Secondly, I never really cared for Akira; I’ve seen this version, and the 2001 re-dub, a few times both dubbed and with subtitles and, while the animation and attention to detail and the premise has always intrigued me, it tends to lose me about halfway through so I went into this viewing a little hesitant, to say the least. The film opens on 16th July 1988 to dramatically set the stage for its narrative by showing the utter obliteration of Tokyo from a massive energy blast; thirty-one years later, Neo-Tokyo was built on artificial islands nearby and all that’s left of the once bustling metropolis is an ominous crater. 2019 Neo-Tokyo is both a technologically advanced civilisation and a crime-ridden cesspit full of seedy bars and dilapidated back alleys. It’s in both of these locations that we meet our two main characters; abrasive Kaneda, the leader of a biker gang known as the Capsules (who are embroiled in a bitter feud with the rival Clown gang), and Tetsuo, a young, embittered member of the Capsules who both idolises Kaneda and is envious of his iconic high-tech bike. A brutal high-speed chase between the Capsules and the Clowns is cut short when the cops arrive to chase them off and, amidst all of this, the city is under lockdown following a student riot; armed police are called in to help manage the chaos, and end up shooting an armed man as he tries to desperately protect Takashi (Barbara Goodson), a young boy with a wizened appearance who exhibits incredible psychic powers when under stress.
The streets are thrown into chaos as the cops use gas to disperse the crowd, and Tetsuo takes a bad fall from his bike after running across Takashi; Takashi’s abilities attract the attention of Masaru (Bob Bergen), a fellow ESPer, who leads Colonel Shikishima (Pope) of the Japan Self-Defence Forces right to him, resulting in Takashi, Tetsuo, Kaneda, and the rest of the Capsule gang being apprehended. While the injured Tetsuo is transported away, Kaneda and his gang prove too clueless to be involved in the greater concerns of anti-government protesters and resistance fighters, and are released from custody. However, Kaneda spots Kei (Cody) amidst the suspects and, taking a shine to her, manages to trick the cops into releasing her alongside them by claiming she’s part of his gang, though she rebukes his advances afterwards. At school, Kaneda and his gang are severely disciplined for their actions, which only riles the anti-authority biker up even more; he and the Capsules attract a lot of female attention for their bad boy antics, but he’s in no mood for socialising after the night he’s had, and openly criticises Tetsuo for “showing off”. Only Tetsuo’s girlfriend, Kaori (Barbara Goodson), shows concern for the boy, and he goes to her after escaping from the military facility; traumatised by his experiences, and fearing for his life, he steals Kaneda’s bike and prepares to leave the city with Kaori, but their escape is cut short by a group of vengeful Clowns. They attack Kaori, humiliating and hurting her as Tetsuo is held helpless and, though they’re saved by Kaneda and the Capsules, Tetsuo is angered at Kaneda’s constant interference in his life. Suffering from crippling headaches, nightmarish visions, and a voice tormenting him with an unknown name, “Akira”, over and over, Tetsuo is easily detained and returned to the facility for further observation by Shikishima’s staff.
Shikishima acts as the stubborn, pig-headed, yet surprisingly complex antagonist of the feature; convinced that there’s a mole within the executive council and determined to shut down any anti-government sentiment and apprehend anyone who learns of the ESPers no matter the cost. With no time for political games, Shikishima is more concerned with identifying and controlling telekinetic abilities so that the military can gain a formidable weapon without the risk of mass destruction exhibited by Akira; when Doctor Ōnishi (Lewis Arquette) identifies that Tetsuo has the potential to become as powerful as Akira, Shikishima orders that he be subjected to a series of painful and invasive procedures to unlock that potential but warns that the angst-ridden biker is to be terminated the minute any danger arises. Despite his implacable, hardened exterior, Shikishima seems to have a greater deal of respect and admiration for the ESPers in his employee and care and thus takes Kiyoko’s (Melora Harte) warnings of Neo-Tokyo’s impending destruction very seriously. Although he is disgusted at how quickly the city has degenerated into a den for hedonistic excess and believes that the people have lost their way, he’s not a scientist or an optimist and instead sees the world in very black and white terms and from a strict military perspective of action versus inaction, with little room for debate or hesitation between these extremes. Unfortunately, the supreme council fail to heed his warnings or to grant him the funding necessary to prepare against Kiyoko’s prediction; instead, they cast doubt over Akira’s existence and involvement in the last World War, call the colonel’s integrity into question, and would rather bicker and squabble about preparations for the upcoming Olympics, which only enrages Shikishima. Determined to track Tetsuo down and contain him before his powers reach their full, destructive potential, Shikishima takes control of the government and the entire military in a coup d’état and engages Tetsuo with the military’s full force, which results only in countless soldiers perishing and tanks being destroyed by Tetsuo’s raging powers, which allow him to form protective shields, toss back tank shells, and tear apart an entire bridge in his fury.
Kaneda continuously runs across Kei and is so besotted by her that he even tries to downplay her first kill and ends up following her to a resistance safehouse; there, he learns not only that they are trying to free the ESPers from their confinement but also that Tetsuo has become the military’s newest test subject, and he agrees to join their efforts both to help his friend and get close to Kei (and he’s allowed to if only to serve as a patsy for the resistance’s actions). While at the hospital, Tetsuo is plagued by vivid and disturbing nightmares of both his childhood, his destructive powers, and the mysterious Akira, the most powerful of all the ESPers who once potentially represented the next stage in human evolution. Akira’s power was virtually limitless, but when the government tried to take control of him, he lashed out in self defence and caused the catastrophe that decimated Tokyo. His remains are kept in cryogenic suspense beneath the Olympic Stadium’s construction site, and Shikishima has no desire to see that destructive power unleashed once more, and takes a vested interested into making sure that the remains stay dormant, though Akira still has a strong influence as many zealots in the city foretell of his destructive return. Sensing that Tetsuo’s powers are raging out of control, the ESPers try to kill him before he can awaken Akira and trigger another catastrophe; however, despite them being more adept at creating illusions and wielding their psychic powers, Tetsuo’s abilities are exacerbated by his anger, confusion, and trauma, which makes him more than a match for them, to say nothing of Shikishima’s forces. Revelling in his newfound powers, Tetsuo is driven to near insanity, lashing out at friend and foe alike with a maniacal glee; he kills a couple of his former comrades in search of Kaneda’s bike, garbs himself in a dramatic cloak, and is heralded as the returning “Lord Akira” for his immense powers. Despite Kiyoko’s best efforts, Tetsuo exhumes Akira’s tomb and is astounded to find that the feared psychic is nothing more than just organs and remains in jars; Kaneda attacks Tetsuo with a high-powered laser rifle and berates his friend with taunts, only to be outmatched by Tetsuo’s powers and at the mercy of his power-drunk friend. Despite losing at arm to Shikishima’s orbital cannon, Sol, Tetsuo proves his superiority by flying into space and obliterating the orbital weapon before constructing a replacement mechanical arm for himself. Although Kaori tries to comfort him, and even Shikishima tries to talk him into returning to the hospital for treatment, Tetsuo’s powers grow dangerous and out of control; wracked with constant pain and mutating at an alarming rate, Tetsuo metamorphosises into a horrific, foetus-like monstrosity that is only stopped by the ESPers reviving Akira and drawing him into a singularity.
The animation quality in Akira remains almost unparalleled; the feature-length anime definitely set a standard for all to follow with its gorgeous chase sequences, intense attention to detail, and slick, striking character designs. Neo-Tokyo is a neon-drenched metropolis that owes more than a debt to Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) and, alongside that classic science-fiction thriller, helped popularise the “cyberpunk” art style and genre. The city is ruled by the classic class system, with the lower-class and impoverished literally fighting for survival in the filthy back alleys and the upper-class living in opulence and luxury in the high-rise skyscrapers, far above the violence on the city streets. Neo-Tokyo is under constant threat from terrorist attacks by resistance fighters, who set of explosions across the city and cause anarchy in the streets in a desperate effort to fight back against an oppressive government. The city is alive with advanced technology, from futuristic motorcycles, flying craft, and complex machinery to monitor and contain the ESPers, the city, and the people and this is juxtaposed with rancid sewers and the comparative squalor of the alleys and lower street levels. The facility where Tetsuo and the other ESPers is kept is both a sophisticated military hospital and a bizarre nursery for the decrepit, child-like psychics, but the triumph of the modern age is Sol, a weaponised space station that Shikishima turns on Tetsuo in a desperate attempt to destroy him before his powers can rage out of control.
One thing that separates Akira from other traditional cartoons and animation is the gritty, unabashed adult themes and content in the feature; biker gangs race through the streets at high speeds, with little protection and even less regard for who they hurt or the damage they cause in their wake, curse words are dropped with reckless abandon by the hot-headed youngsters who make up our main characters, and bodies break and blood splatters as characters beat and pummel each other. This latter aspect is only escalated by the trigger-happy Neo-Tokyo police, who brutally gun down Takashi’s handler without a second thought, and both the visions Tetsuo is plagued by and the horrific mutations he undergoes as his powers rage out of control. Tetsuo is tormented by hallucinations of demonic toys and, angry and afraid, lashes out at everyone around him to leave orderlies and guards a mere bloody mess on the hospital walls. As Tetsuo’s powers grow, his ability to control them wanes; overcome by pain and hatred, he lashes out in a mindless fury and ends up becoming a rampaging monstrosity that kills Kaori and threatens to absorb Kaneda, the ESPers, and Shikishima. This replaces Tetsuo’s fanatical lunacy with outright panic as his body refuses to listen to his demands; as if the sight of him raging into the upper atmosphere with a bloody mess where his arm once was wasn’t bad enough, the sight of this grotesque mass of screaming flesh and muscle engulfing everything in its path certainly escalates the stakes of Akira from one boy’s madness to a disaster that potentially threatens all life in Neo-Tokyo and beyond.
Tetsuo is a tragic figure, one filled with conflicting emotions of abandonment, resentment, and anger; the more his abilities grow, the more overwhelmed and out of control he becomes. Finally given the power to strike back at those who seek to use or hurt him, Tetsuo’s confusion and fury are only exacerbated by the ESPers, Shikishima’s vendetta, and even Kaneda, who mocks his friend even as his body horrifyingly transforms. Realising that they’re not powerful to oppose Tetsuo, the ESPers revive Akira, who sucks the monstrous beast into a sphere of pure light. Kaneda is drawn inside this singularity and relives Tetsuo’s memories of his traumatic childhood, a time of abuse and fear where he idolised Kaneda; the ESPers willingly enter the singularity as well in an attempt to rescue Kaneda, and their memories of being subjugated to experimentation are also revealed to him. Shikishima, Kei, and Tetsuo’s remaining friends watch from a safe distance as Neo-Tokyo is engulfed by the singularity, destroying it in much the same way as its predecessor was obliterated some thirty years ago, and the ESPers are able to return Tetsuo to the remains of his home so that he can help Kei during the development of her own psychic powers. As for Tetsuo, the feature concludes with the ESPers and Akira using all the power at their disposal to help him fully transcend beyond the mortal realm; having tapping into the limitless energy and primordial power that exists within all humans, Tetsuo ascends to the level of an omniscient God and, to herald his birth, gives life to an entirely new universe! This, honestly, is not massively clear by the finale which is an ambiguous and surreal series of images, memories, and half-finished sentences, but brings the film to a conclusion that I have to say was very much out of left field considering it started off as a simple tale of an angsty gang of bikers.
Even now, after a few viewings of Akira, I struggle a bit with this film; while it’s undeniably beautiful to look at and full of some absolutely stunning animation, its surreal metaphysical undertones always knock me for a loop. Like a lot of anime and manga, there’s a lot happening here, from street-level violence and social discord, to childhood trauma, to government experiments and children developing psychic powers. It’s definitely a very complex and multifaceted world, with a lot of layers and sub-plots happening all at once that some characters, like Kaneda, aren’t entirely aware of; people revere Akira as some kind of prophet and saviour, resistance fighters bomb buildings and kill to try and expose the government’s experiments, and shrivelled up children with telekinetic powers bring toys to life in the most disturbing way possible. I think the concept has a lot of legs, however; this idea of a screwed up little biker kid being empowered by these destructive abilities and lashing out at the chaotic world around him leads to some of Akira’s most dramatic and memorable moments, and the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo as these kind of traumatised kids with a chip on their shoulder bonded by a lifetime of hardship results in them being the clear standout characters. Shikishima is also surprisingly well-rounded, and every character, even the ESPers, is seeped in shades of grey rather than being morally black or white. Of course, Akira will forever be remembered and praised for its slick and detailed animation, which results in some stunning chase sequences, dramatic moments, and grotesque imagery to really inspire the viewer to think about what they’re seeing, what it means, and rethink their surface evaluation of these characters. It can be a lot to take in, no doubt, but the visuals and narrative intrigue are well worth taking the time to give Akira a watch and, if it hooks you, check out other similar anime or even read through the manga if you want your mind blown even further.
Are you a fan of Akira? Which of the characters was your favourite and what did you think to the morally ambiguous nature of its cast? What did you think to Tetsuo, his emotional outbursts, and his eventual monstrous transformation? Were you a fan of the film’s cyberpunk setting and the escalation from street gangs to psychically-endowed children? How did you interpret the ending, and were you a fan of how the story wrapped up? Have you ever read the original manga and, if so, how does the film compare as an adaptation? Was Akira your introduction to anime or did a different feature make you a fan of the genre? How are you celebrating National Anime Day today? Whatever you think about Akira, or anime in general, sign up to drop your thoughts below or drop a comment on my social media.