Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
At least one of my co-workers, several of my friends, and many of my students are big fans of anime. Sadly, I have never really gotten into it. It’s just never been that interesting to me. The biggest issue I have is that so much anime seems to require a lot of exposition, and it’s rarely provided. I just can’t make sense of a lot of it. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or an anime thing. A friend asked me if I had the same problem with Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the answer is that I did not. Herbert’s lack of exposition bothered me less, so I suspect that the problem here is a culture gap. I am not otaku.
Akira is more or less the Gone With the Wind of Japanese animation films. It’s not necessarily the first one, or even the first great one, but it’s unquestionably the best-known of anime before it became far more popular, at least in the U.S. Certainly there was animation before this, but Akira woke up an entire generation of animators and artists.
I remember seeing this in college about a year after it was released. One of my roommates was an art student and he insisted on at least one of us in the house going with him to see a showing. I had no idea what to expect. He promised a good show and animation like I had never seen before. He was right.
As with most anime, the story here leaves a lot to the individual to understand, or attempt to understand on his or her own. The movie starts officially in 1988 with a massive explosion in Tokyo, heralding World War III. The rest of the film takes place 31 years later in 2019. Neo-Tokyo is a dystopian city: futuristic but with futuristic touches and technology. We meet a young cycle gang consisting of a few high-school age boys. Of these, Kaneda is in charge, while Tetsuo is the weakest, and the one least capable of taking care of himself.
The gang fights a battle with another cycle gang called the Clowns, and this is not what one might think of in terms of high school fighting. The fighting involves motorcycles, wrenches, metal bars, and high-speed pursuit. In the course of the fighting, several of the Clowns and a few innocent bystanders are killed or hospitalized. Meanwhile, a man and a strange, grey-green skinned child with the face of an old man are running away. The man is killed, but the boy escapes. He does this by screaming, which causes a nearby building to explode.
Tetsuo is injured when he encounters this old/young boy/man. The boy/man is captured by government officials, who take Tetsuo with them. It appears that Tetsuo carries many of the same abilities as the strange boy. As it turns out, he does: Tetsuo has the capability of being incredibly telekinetic and of manifesting incredible mental powers of destruction. All of this is tied to something called “Akira,” which is something like an ultimate power source.
That’s about as much as I can explain. The film actually makes more sense to me than a lot of anime does, although that frankly wouldn’t be hard. It is a traditional anime in the sense that it looks like anime, but that’s about all that, in my limited experience remains the same. While plenty of anime is violent, Akira is significantly violent, much of it sudden, unexpected, and shocking. Death comes quickly, unexpectedly, and horribly for not only characters we have come to know, but also for hundreds of bystanders. Tetsuo’s transformation near the end of the film is highly disturbing—borderline nauseating, which is something of an accomplishment for an animated movie.
What’s missing here and present in a substantial amount of anime that I’ve encountered is an obsession with the cute. There are a few moments of comic relief in this film, but not too many, and there’s very little going on here that anyone would classify as traditionally cutesy in the anime style.
While the story is an interesting one, and the implications of the ending (which I will not reveal) are fascinating in the extreme, Akira is not a film I love. It’s difficult for me to enjoy a movie that leaves so much unanswered for me. I don’t mind uncertainty. What I do mind more is that much of the basic background of this film is simply never explained. An ending open to interpretation isn’t a problem. A complete lack of a frame of reference makes my head hurt.
The art is pretty, though. If nothing else, Akira was the first movie that made people realize what could be done with animation when it wasn’t created for children or shorted on budget. It’s a true achievement. I just wish I liked it more.
Why to watch Akira: Groundbreaking animation and artwork.
Why not to watch: Disturbing imagery.