AKIRA

STARING INTO THE HEART OF A GROUNDBREAKING ANIME MASTERPIECE

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
13th July 2023

The opening moments of 'Akira' feel like the approach of a storm. We pan across the cityscape of Tokyo on a bright sunny day in 1988, before a perfect pluming dome appears, engulfing the city in fire and destruction - in complete silence. The next thing we see is the gaping void cut into the middle of the city, but we are now in 2019, nearly 30 years in the future, with the city now rebuilding itself on the edges of the crater of this catastrophe, one that we are told plunged the world into a third world war. The only sound we hear, before we cut to a cyberpunk dive bar in what is now the post-apocalyptic Neo Tokyo, is a drum, deep and tectonic.

It feels like time and space have stopped. You sit there, transfixed and hypnotised by the cruel, cold simplicity of this opening, its ambiguity and enormity. The film holds you in this state as it carefully, piece by piece, introduces you to some of its main characters, chiefly two boys in a motorcycle gang. One is the charismatic, arrogant leader Kaneda, the other his headstrong, fiercely angry best friend Tetsuo. And then, just as you think the film cannot hold its breath any longer, it erupts into a symphony of drums and engines, endless skyscrapers and neon lights, speed and rumble and scale. And all of it animated by hand.

I was 17 the first time I saw Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 anime masterpiece 'Akira'. One of my best friends was an animation nut and had been integral in opening up my eyes to animation outside of Disney. He would go to the video store and rent out whatever strange thing he could find, and then convince our other best friend to let us commandeer her family's TV and surround sound system. She put up with a lot of our weird movie choices through those three years of high school, and we watched some amazing things under his guidance. But none of them affected me anywhere near as much as 'Akira' did.

Anime wasn't something I'd been interested in, and even now my knowledge is shockingly limited. I'd probably only seen 'Spirited Away' at that point, and that almost exists on a plane all its own. I had never been that interested in cyberpunk or giant robots or vast impenetrable mythologies spanning hundreds of episodes, and so I assumed 'Akira' wouldn't be my thing at all. I may have even resisted watching it, I don't remember now. What I do remember though was the feeling, in those opening minutes, of my brain being rewired. I had the profound sense, as Kaneda and his gang chased the opposing Clowns gang through the endless highways of Neo Tokyo, that I was seeing something I had truly never seen before and that there was no going back from this. And that was just the first five minutes. Anyone who has seen 'Akira' knows that what was to come would be so much stranger, so much greater, so much bigger, so much more mindblowing.

After we finished watching it, my brain dizzily tried to comprehend what I'd just seen. I asked if I could borrow the DVD from him before he returned it to the video store. I watched 'Akira' every day for a week until I had to give it back. After that, I got my own copy and watched it every day for another week. I was obsessed. I needed to understand this thing. I needed to understand how it worked, why it had this effect on me, what on earth it was about. I sat in my room and chased after Kaneda, Tetsuo, Kai, Colonel Shikishima, Takashi, Masaru, Kiyoko and Akira, trying to get anything from them to explain how this film made me feel.

I've been chasing them ever since.

On the 20th of December 1982, Otomo released the first serialised instalment of the manga 'Akira', which he both wrote and illustrated himself, in 'Young Magazine' in Japan. "I wanted to draw this story set in a Japan similar to how it was after the end of World War II," he said in an interview in 2019, "rebelling governmental factions; a rebuilding world; foreign political influence, an uncertain future; a bored and reckless younger generation racing each other on bikes." The chapters were released biweekly, and at first, Otomo intended for it to be a relatively short work. Instead, 'Akira' would become one of the most influential and revered manga ever published, finally coming to completion on the 25th of June 1990. It tells the story of Neo Tokyo in the aftermath of a devastating explosion, understood publicly to be some sort of attack that launched an international conflict. Decades later, a gang of teenage bikers find themselves caught between a secret government experiment into telekinesis and a rogue group of revolutionaries attempting to bring it down. At the centre of this conspiracy is a name - Akira - who appears to be the key, not just to these experiments, but to what happened in Tokyo all those decades ago.

'AKIRA' TRAILER

Thanks to the success of the manga, Otomo was urged to turn the series into an animated film. From mid-1987 to late-1988, he took a break from writing the manga to develop the film, demanding full creative control. What is fascinating about the relationship between the film and the manga is that, when the film was released in Japan on the 16th of July 1988, the manga on which it was based had not yet been completed. Rather than adapting the manga directly, Otomo instead extracted particular characters, scenarios and ideas and percolated them into a new work. Where the manga, eventually collected into six monolithic volumes, functions almost as a single breathless action sequence, rendered on a scale no film - animated or live-action - could ever dream of replicating, the film born from it is more of a spiritual meditation, a religious act, a cracking open of the mysteries at the heart of the story. It's as if Otomo is taking a moment to try and understand, through this act of adaptation, what it is he has been creating. The scale isn't just visual and action, but thematic. Both the film and the manga are masterpieces, both function as great works of 20th-century art on their own terms, and both complement the other in beguiling, beautiful ways.

Nearly 20 years on from my first dance with 'Akira', my understanding of animation has grown considerably, and as such, I've come to appreciate more fully just what a remarkable achievement 'Akira' is. Even compared to other classic anime, it still feels singular. It's both obvious and a tad glib to say that, without 'Akira', we wouldn't have 'Ghost in the Shell' (1995) or 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' (1995-1996), or the countless western films that have pulled from it (from 'The Matrix' to 'Chronicle'), but it isn't just the international attention 'Akira' drew to anime that makes it important. It's a simply enormous film; Otomo's uncompromising vision and understanding of scale establishing a new benchmark for anime and pushing it to its limits. In western terms, it's perhaps the equivalent to 'Sleeping Beauty' in 1959 or the Spider-Verse films now. It not only showed what animation was capable of, but demonstrated a kind of storytelling only possible in animation.

I've been lucky to see 'Akira' on the big screen several times, including its controversial 4K IMAX restoration, and it's only really on that scale that the film can be fully appreciated. Describing the plot of 'Akira' never feels like an adequate way to do it justice, if only because the mechanics of the plot aren't what make it memorable or distinct. Even the manga, when condensed down to a pithy summary, sounds like standard manga/anime fare. What matters with 'Akira' is the execution. To begin with, there's the detail and depth of the world of Neo Tokyo. Otomo's vision of the future may feel indebted to 'Blade Runner', but animation allows the world to expand to a scale Ridley Scott was incapable of achieving. The city is endless, the buildings tower over the streets. It has the strange feeling of being both modern and derelict all at once, an ecosystem established on an unending cycle of progress and anarchy. You get the sense that Neo Tokyo is a city stuck in time, unable to imagine any kind of future, endlessly devouring itself as it grows larger and larger. You can't imagine the teenage characters at the heart of the story ever escaping because you can't imagine the city ever coming to an end. They're ants trapped in the largest ant mound imaginable, like the city in Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' as a parasite.

From a sensorial perspective, 'Akira' is an overwhelming experience. For the manga, Otomo said in 2019 that he wanted to "dig deeper into my issues with speed and flow, polish my skills at telling a story with the fewest words/sentences possible". Those principles carry over into the kinetic flow of the film, where visual and atmospheric storytelling supersede dialogue to push the narrative forward. In fact, there are moments where the screenplay is knowingly obtuse, taking you tantalisingly to the very edge of explaining itself before snatching that clarity away. What matters instead is the experience of watching 'Akira', of being engulfed by it, the way it engages our senses of sight and sound guiding us through its dense thematic ideas. I've long suspected that this is the direction Christopher Nolan has been going with his films, but he hasn't yet achieved it with the same dexterity as Otomo and his team. 'Akira' is a film in a state of constant motion, an unending series of kinetic images driven by the pulse of its extraordinary sound design and legendary score. Even moments where characters sit and talk feel like spectacle, movement found in the musicality of the dialogue, the punctuation of the editing. The film is always one step ahead of you, and part of the thrill of revisiting it is seeing how close you can get to catching up with it.

For all its immense aesthetic beauty though, 'Akira' is an unforgiving, brutal film. The violence is striking and visceral, taking it just across the line of exaggeration to adhere to the film's operatic tone but grounding it in bone-crunching, bloody reality. This begins with the bombast of the opening bike chase and ends with the incomprehensible body horror of Tetsuo's telekinetic powers, foolishly and carelessly awoken, turning his own body against him. One of the most startling moments, a hallucination where Tetsuo imagines his guts spilling out onto the road, happens in total silence. Almost none of the violence is executed without purpose, though the attack on Tetsuo's girlfriend Kaori is one moment the film would perhaps be better without. Otomo is demonstrating the brutality of this world, particularly the brutality inflicted on and by young people who have only known this post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo. This goes to serve the central thesis of the film and of the entire 'Akira' body of work, something we will get to a bit later.

What matters instead is the experience of watching 'Akira', of being engulfed by it, the way it engages our senses of sight and sound guiding us through its dense thematic ideas.

Adding to the brutality are some of the most indelible, haunting and nightmarish images in any animated film. There are the obvious ones, such as Tetsuo's transformation or hallucinations mentioned earlier, but it also comes with the inversion of childhood images and experiences. The composition of each image is practically flawless and intensely cinematic, unsurprising when you look at Otomo's work in the manga. If speed, flow and image are of primary importance here, then these images need to communicate as fully as possible the emotional and mental collapse of these characters, or what is at stake as they are pulled further into this experiment. Benign objects such as teddy bears or toy cars become towering beasts with razor teeth and milk for blood. The purity of a child's face is ravaged into old age by experimental misuse. Even the moment where Tetsuo uses a piece of fabric as a cape is a disturbing inversion of childhood play at heroism. He sees himself perhaps as a superhero in a red cape, rather than an agent of intense destruction. When that destruction begins in the second half of 'Akira', it's on a scale that boggles the mind. Neo Tokyo isn't so much collapsing at the hands of these tortured, troubled teenage minds as much as disintegrating, and the degree to which Otomo and his team are able to handle this scale within an animated context is still breathtaking. Even more mind-boggling is that this isn't even a tenth of the level of visual destruction they achieve in the manga.

Underpinning all of this though is something much harder to articulate; a deep kind of cosmic spiritualism. There are allusions to greater forces at work here, whether that be the physics of the universe or the mysteries of the human mind, but they always remain a mystery. Rather than over-explaining itself into oblivion the way 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' occasionally would, 'Akira' is much more reticent to explain how its universe works. It exists in the space between atoms, between logic, in the dark matter holding the universe together. What struck me watching it for the first time when I was seventeen was how similar watching 'Akira' felt to watching '2001: A Space Odyssey', both supreme works of art using their groundbreaking cinematic language to ask questions about mankind and the universe that we can't articulate. Like Stanley Kubrick's film or the best work of David Lynch, some of the images in 'Akira' don't necessarily make logical sense next to one another, but they make an emotional, almost spiritual sense. This links into the importance of 'Akira' as an experience rather than as a story to follow. In order to understand it, you need to feel it, and it's only in concocting images of cosmic grandeur and destruction that it is able to achieve this.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important question to ruminate on with this film: what the fuck is 'Akira' actually about? With a film as intriguing as this one, there's always a hunger to know more, but I've also been pretty content to bask in the unknown of it. This was the reason why, for most of the last two decades, I've resisted reading the manga. I worried that it would offer too concrete an explanation for what the hell is going on in the background of this film and that this would colour my viewing of the film going forward. This year I finally decided to read the manga, and as I highlighted earlier, found it to be an astonishing piece of storytelling in its own right and a perfect compliment to the film. The manga offers some detail to the mythology of 'Akira', but not enough to rob it of its ambiguity. What it does help highlight, in both the manga and the film, is what Otomo is trying to say with 'Akira'.

It links back to the quote I sighted earlier, the idea of the generation of teenagers coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War and Hiroshima, "a bored and reckless younger generation racing each other on bikes". At its heart, 'Akira' is the story of children suffering from the mistakes and hubris of the generations that came before them, and trying to carve a place for themselves in a world falling apart around them and actively antagonistic towards them. There's no place in this post-apocalyptic city for characters like Kaneda and Tetsuo. The men above them see them as degenerates and rats, locked away in reformatory schools to rot away or destroy themselves. The same can be said for the children trapped in the experiment, their innocents and resilience weaponised in order to explore untapped human potential. These young people are forgotten at best, taken apart piece by piece at worst, and as such, they retaliate with violence. This is the balance Otomo offers us by beginning with bike gangs beating themselves to a pulp and ending with an all-powerful teenager reducing the world around him to dust. At their core, these are young people, children, who want to know they are safe and that they belong. When that safety is threatened, their reactions will be led by all they know - their emotions. That is why Testuo is reduced to a monster and why, we come to learn, a little boy named Akira, given the power of the universe in his tiny hands and no way of understanding how to use it, caused endless destruction. Really, can you blame them? If 'Akira' can be boiled down to any central idea, it may be the way the adult world goes out of its way to be cruel and dismissive to its children. Hideaki Anno made this the central conceit of 'Evangelion', eventually bringing this theme to a place of forgiveness. 'Akira' is much bigger than that. It is the act of wiping away the mistakes of our parents, the ones who destroyed the world with their arrogance and greed, and building something new from the rubble. In 2023, this idea is starting to feel hauntingly pertinent.

'Akira' is often credited with introducing anime to western audiences, for beginning the cultural exchange that would establish it as one of the most beloved artistic forms in cinema and television. Even 35 years later, it's impossible not to be floored by it, by the scale of its vision and the scope of its ambition. Though countless animated and live-action films have tried to imitate it, nothing has come close to matching it. That's perhaps why every attempt to remake it as a live-action film has failed. How could you possibly replicate a frame of this, when every frame of it is ostensibly perfect? 'Akira' is an untouchable work of art, one of the greatest masterpieces of animation. Those of us who adore it do so with an almost religious reverence. It's both tactile and incomprehensible, relatable and overwhelming, an artistic triumph and a spiritual cataclysm. You can try and understand it, something I doubt is even possible, but the joy is in the pursuit.

Earlier in this piece, I noted that the only work of art I can think to compare 'Akira' to is '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Both films reach for something beyond the infinite, beyond human experience, to understand something about why we are here and what our future might be. They both understand fundamentally that we will never find answers to those questions, but that it is the purpose of human experience to try. '2001' though is the more terrestrial of the two. In '2001', the cosmos around us is tangible. The universe is there around us, an endless swirling storm of mysteries, but it is there in the rocks and gasses. We can travel through it, touch it. We exist within it, as does the entity we communicate with in the film. 'Akira', arguably, reaches further. In 'Akira', there is the suggestion of a design, the suggestion of a greater purpose we can play in the fabric of our reality. The infinite is not just around us but within us.

To watch '2001: A Space Odyssey' is to see the curtain pulled back and to see the beating heart of the universe. To watch 'Akira' is to stare into the face of God.

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