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Anime Review & Ramble: Akira

Akira (1988) is timeless.  If you’re okay with violent anime, watch it.  If you saw it a long time ago (and are okay with violent anime), watch it again.  You may be very pleased at how well Katsuhiro Otomo’s twenty-five-year-old anime film, loosely based on his lengthy manga, stands up both as a story and work of cinematic art.

Classic Akira Poster

Classic Akira Poster

Akira is a near-future dystopian drama set in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo run by corrupt a government, a nefarious military-scientific complex, and—nearer the ground—by teen motorcycle gangs.  The story centers on teen bikers, Kaneda and Tetsuo.  Kaneda is the flashy, badass gang leader, Tetsuo the runt of the pack, who, we can guess, is only included in the gang because he’s Kaneda’s best friend.  This power dynamic changes, however, when Tetsuo is abducted by the sinister Akira project, concerned with channeling massive energy through children.  Tetsuo becomes the latest in a line of young test subjects, including the eponymous Akira, to have their lives and health devastated in exchange for superpowers.  To save Tetsuo, Kaneda joins a band of revolutionaries and infiltrates the top secret Akira installation, only to discover that the friend he set out to rescue is no longer the boy he knew…

Going back to watch Akira for the first time in some years, I was unprepared for how violent it was.  If asked, I would have said, “Yes, it’s violent,” but I had forgotten the fluorescent red blood spatters on car windshields.  Violence in Akira is not always realistic, but it is always realistically serious: it is there to horrify, not glorify.

Tetsuo-Akira

Tetsuo has a bad (or good) day. I don’t think he’s sure which.

If dark and grisly stories don’t put you off, Akira is a must-see.  It pays off on nearly every level.  Convincing character psychology, complex characters, and a moving friendship story? Check.  Hard-hitting sci-fi social commentary on government, science, use and abuse? Check.  Excellent, consistent world-building?  Yep.  Gripping, beautifully structured plot?  Yes.  Top-of-the-line production values in art, music, and direction?  In its day, it was number 1, and it stands up well.  Much of Akira’s enduring popularity lies in the fact that it succeeds across multiple levels and offers a wide range of viewers something to appreciate.

For myself, as a character- and relationship-oriented viewer, the soul of Akira is the friendship between Tetsuo and Kaneda.  Their relationship does what the best relationship stories do: it creates an organic sense of tension in the midst of believable affection.  Tetsuo and Kaneda are life-long best friends.  They’ve grown up together, supported each other; they enjoy each other; they are family.  And yet their love for each other is snarled up by their inequality.  Their acquaintance begins with Kaneda standing up for a bullied Tetsuo, and this dynamic continues.  Kaneda is tough, smart, athletic, and charismatic.  Testuo is a pretty average kid: there’s nothing particularly klutzy or inept about him, but in the dog-eat-dog world of juvenile delinquents on super-charged bikes, he barely has the skill to hang on to last place.  And as much as he has profited from the hand up Kaneda has given him, their relationship is darkened by years of Tetsuo’s resentment compounded by Kaneda’s putdowns.  (The irony is that Tetsuo is liked and accepted in their gang because Kaneda makes fun of him.  If Kaneda had played favorites with him, everyone would hate him.  Still, it would be asking a bit much of juvenile delinquent teen Tetsuo to expect him to see it that way.)

Akira gang

Kaneda and the gang being menaced by adults.

This resentful love is the status quo of their friendship as the story opens.  The film subsequently puts the friendship through two major turns, one highlighting the resentment, the other the love.  When Tetsuo finds that the power of Akira has made him, for once, stronger than Kaneda, naturally, it’s the catalyst for all his years of buried anger to burst out.  What follows might be described as an explosive airing of their dirty laundry.  But the anger, while real, is not the core of their friendship, and just when they seem bent on killing each other, the story turns again and, in the last extremis, reasserts the fundamental unbreakability of their bond.  This arc defines one of the best-told friendship stories I know.

Quick Overview:

Plot:

The plotting of Akira is beautiful.  At some points, it’s slow.  The film is under two hours but feels longer.  Yet it moves with a Shakespearean trajectory, building the tension, with moments of reflection and slight comic relief, up to its apocalyptic climax.  Watch the times of day: the moods of film hinge on the turning from day to night to day, a lovely example of matching psychology to the external environment.

Characters:

The film showcases several strong characters.  In addition to Kaneda and Tetsuo, who are psychologically very well fleshed out, well-realized characters include the three major children in the Akira program, Kiyoko, Masaru, and Takashi; the Colonel who reluctantly oversees the project; the young revolutionary woman, Kei; and Tetsuo’s girlfriend, Kauri.  Not well realized is Akira himself, who remains more symbol than character.  Overall, since the film is only two hours, character development is limited, but the film does a lot with the time it has.

Art & Presentation:

Akira is one of the great anime of the pre-CGI era, but even placed against the current CGI-heavy standard, it stands its ground with few handicap points.  The characters’ movements can be a bit jerkier and less perfectly proportioned (especially at a distance) than we typically see today and the basic style is flat cell painting without the slickness and 3D qualities common today.  But once you accept the style, the visual art is amazingly well executed.  The character animation is generally well proportioned and flowing, and the background art, not least the color pallet, is consistently gorgeous.

Neo-Tokyo_Akira

Neo-Tokyo: Dystopia has never looked so lovely.

The music is exceptional.  Composed to match the eerie, futuristic nature of the story, it is by turns creepy, unsettling, and pulse pounding.

The Japanese voice acting is good and notable in its time for casting young men (instead of women) to play the teen boys.  Fun fact: Nozomu Sasaki, who voices the runty Tetsuo, went on to voice the amazingly baritone Mello in Death Note (2007).

The dub is bloody awful—though etched across my auditory memory forever from years of VHS.  Kaneda sounds like a gangster.  And, no, Kei does not actually say that humans evolved from insects in Japanese.

Content Warnings:

I have already mentioned that the story is violent, including biker gang wars, guns, blood, guts, smashed faces, weapons of mass destruction, and various types of abuse.  There is one short attempted rape, not hugely graphic by current standards yet convincingly a very violent assault.  Scientific experiments are done on children with various harsh health consequences.  And there is a lot of general ickiness.  (Akira is the prototype of the great anime tradition of having people turn into giant blobs of pulsing protoplasm.)

Overall:

This anime is dark, dark, dark.  But it’s a very good film.  I worry that I’ve oversold it here and set up expectations it might not meet for new viewers.  I’m plainly a fan; others’ mileage may vary.  But consistently reviewed as one of the great anime classics, Akira is certainly worth checking out—or checking out again, as long as you’re prepared to look a brutal world in the face.

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