Akira (1988): Revisiting the classic anime 26 years later
In 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira hit cinema screens across the world, challenging North American ideas about what a ‘cartoon’ could and should be, and becoming the vanguard for anime as a mainstream medium in the West.
Twenty-six years later, the landmark science fiction film has well and truly been canonized as a classic. It’s a movie that, as The Guardian’s Phelim O’Neill puts it, “refuses to become dated.”
And if you still haven’t seen it… where have you been?
The film follows Tetsuo and Kaneda – two biker punks in the William Gibson-inspired city of Neo Tokyo, in the year 2019. Not yet out of their teenage years, the boys’ lives are already a premature conclusion – die at the hands of some rival biker gang and become another anonymous stain on the road – or end up in jail. That is, until a chance encounter with a being beyond human.
His run-in with a grotesquely mutated child on a lonely stretch of dead highway leads Testuo to develop radically powerful telekinetic abilities. With his own insanity growing in tandem with his power, Tetsuo cuts a swathe through anything and everything that tries to stop his destructive advance through Neo Tokyo.
What is he so desperately trying to get to? To the voice in his head that calls him day and night, to the pain in his mind that won’t go away – to Akira.
With Akira, you get two narrative styles in one. A grounded, plot-driven Cyberpunk adventure and an Evangelion-style philoso-dream.
The film starts off a coming of age story with a hard science fiction backdrop. The first half is all about Kaneda and Testuo’s friendship, their gang, their bikes, and their girls. It’s a violent tale of troubled youth, punctured by a little humour, an apocalypse story, and the creeping tendrils of the film’s own brand of techno-mysticism.
It’s that mysticism, that Cyberpunk philosophy, that envelopes the second half. Toward the final act, the previously hard plotlines of Kaneda’s girl-chasing adventures in domestic terrorism, Testuo’s jealousy issues and the dystopian government’s psychic child experiments begin to drift away. They eventually give way entirely to a metaphor filled, dream-like treatise on … the end of the world? Man as God? Technology vs spirit? Who knows really.
You can interpret the ending (which I won’t give away here) in any way you choose – it’s certainly vague enough. You could even decide to switch your brain off and simply enjoy all those cool laser bazookas and Dragonball Z style power fights. There’s no wrong way to watch it.
However you choose to experience Akira, there’s one thing I’m certain of — your first time watching will not be your last.
Akira was made during what I’d consider the pinnacle of cell animation in Japan – the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the exception of a few specific studios and animators (Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, for example), animation in Japan would never again reach the same levels of detail, fluidity, skill and beauty it did in that decade before the millennium.
To that point, the violence in the rated-R Akira is unnervingly visceral, and stunningly animated.
The scenes of mass protests, shootings and biker fights are bloody enough, but it’s the “body-horror” (to borrow a phrase from David Cronenberg) that really makes you cringe. I’m talking of course about Testuo’s horrific transformation near the finale of the film.
When his powers outstrip his own ability to control them, Tetsuo explodes into an enormous mass of flesh in parody of human form. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s something like you’d find in John Cartpenter’s The Thing, or any David Cronenberg movie from the ’80s, just on a grand scale.
What begins as an artificial arm he – somehow – materializes from the inanimate metal junk lying at his feet, Tetsuo’s body creates limbs of its own and rebels against him, shooting out toward friend and foe alike, growing rapidly and swallowing human beings whole inside it.
It is perhaps the unforgettable scene in the film, and the effect has never been perfectly replicated, before or since, in animation or live action.
The sound of violence
One spends so much of the film in awe of Akira’s visuals, it would be too easy to overlook the soundtrack, which itself is an understated coup of atmosphere.
The backing music is a combination of organic sounding xylophone percussion, 1980s style drum snares and those unmistakable “DUMM” hits. It makes for a film that feels very 1980s and somehow timeless, all at once.
Have a listen blow for an example:
Those aforementioned thunderous “DUMM” hits, often timed to be in sync with the action, conjure up an aura of celestial dread that fits Tetsuo’s violent ascent to godhood like a glove. It’s a soundtrack that would not be out of place in a production like Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Bad science fiction has a tendency to lean on visuals or techno jargon to cover up poor writing. This is not the case with Akira, where the characters are interesting, the plot engrossing, and the storytelling (at least for the first 3/4 of the film) fast-paced.
If I had one criticism of the script, it would be its total refusal to give Tetsuo any empathetic qualities and make him the anti-hero he could be, instead of the villain he is.
We should be feel conflicted about him — and at some point we should even be rooting for him. After all, what is Tetsuo really but a troubled soul, an underdog, who succumbed to the abyss of power via his own personal insecurities and inferiority complexes? Instead, Akira plays it pretty black and white, with Tetsuo possessing few if any redeeming qualities and Kaneda picking up the anti-hero slack.
We can probably chalk much of the script’s success (as well as its shortcomings) up to the source material, the Akira manga. And bringing an eight-year, six-volume serialized comic to life in a two hour anime format is no small task. Especially when said comic wasn’t even finished when production on Akira began.
Dub vs. dub
The 25th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray isn’t the definitive Akira release it could have been, but it does include three versions of the film: the original remastered Japanese audio, 1988 English dub from Streamline Pictures, and the 2011 English re-dub from Pioneer. The re-dub is, as you’d expect, the superior version. The audio quality is much higher, the voice acting improved and the translation tweaked.
That original Streamline dub has a tendency to botch the pronunciation of Japanese phrases and names, especially “Kaneda”, and you can really hear the difference in production quality when you watch each version side by side.
There is something endearing about the cheesy acting and badly delivered lines in the ’88 version though, and the physic children’s voices are played more sinister, which I like.
It’s also worth noting that through slightly altered dialogue, Streamline seems to consciously paint the Tetsuo character in a more sympathetic light than Pioneer. This, all while using the exact same source material and a largely similar translation.
Click here for an eye-opening comparison of the two productions, where audio from one dub is inserted into a scene from the other.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 25 years since Akira first raced into theatres. A lot can change in a quarter century, but this is one thing that hasn’t. Katsuhiro Otomo’s entrancing masterpiece is still as thrilling as I remember it, and I’d like to think that 25 years from now, I’ll still be watching it.