“Akira” is one of the most influential movies to come out in the last 30 years. It opened up anime to film-goers outside of Japan in a big way, and the animation style was unique and expensive — but still lauded to this day. “Akira” is one of the most intense films I have ever seen — not just in animation — and even though I am writing this review the day after I saw it, I am still thinking about it. “Akira” is memorable not just because of its brilliant plot but also its visual design, fantastic setting, and the phenomenal soundtrack. Some people are put off by anime, but if you are going to cut your teeth on some and need something to get you started, watch this movie.
In 2019, 31 years after the end of World War III, Neo-Tokyo has been corrupted by biker gangs, corrupt politicians and talks of a revolution once the lord Akira returns. Two teenage bikers, Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) and Tetsuo (Nozomo sasaki) are riding along the streets of the city when they are ambushed by the clowns, a rival biker gang. After an accident during his escape, Tetsuo is abducted in full view of Kaneda by the military that surrounds them in helicopters. Tetsuo isn’t seen by Kaneda for some time and he isn’t told what hospital he was taken too. We soon find out that Tetsuo has been illegally experimented on during a secret military project and he manages to escape with his new psionic powers. Tetsuo’s deep set inferiority complex causes him to resent Kaneda for being the clear leader, but also respect him for protecting him.
The post war Neo-Tokyo is in a real state, the city feels like it is about to collapse. In the opening sequence of the film we follow the bikers through the city and watch them in their conflict with the clowns. In these scenes leading up to Tetsuo’s accident, the story is told almost completely visually with very little dialogue. The lights of the bikes linger on the screen, the backdrop of the corrupt city played to the absolutely incredible soundtrack is unforgettable. I have never before heard a soundtrack compliment and enhance a movie so much since “Pulp Fiction“. It helps turn the opening biking sequences into a sort of grand opera of vehicular choreography. I couldn’t help but find myself totally engrossed in the atmosphere of the movie.
Tetsuo gets stronger and stronger rapidly, and the second half of the film is almost entirely dedicated to dealing with his reign of destruction, as he has become mad with power and seeks to destroy the city that oppressed him. The last half of “Akira” managed to stay intense for the whole hour, where it could easily have dragged on and completely lost me (“Transformers” cough, cough). Kaneda teams up with a mysterious girl named Kei (Miami Koyama) to kill Tetsuo. Also, the military led by “The Colonel” (Tarô Ishida) and composed of three psionic children are out to capture their creation, for fear he may awake Akira and lose control.
Some might find the animation style looks a little odd at first, when I saw screenshots I thought I might not enjoy the style. It is recognisably anime in motion but it has a slightly more realistic quality to the character and setting design that separates it. As a result, “Akira” is one of the most unique looking films I have ever seen, and the vivid colour of the movie just means it sticks out in my head even more. As Tetsuo rampages through the city swathed in his makeshift red cape, those are scenes I’ll never forget. I’ll always remember too how this film has clearly influenced such films as “The Matrix” as well as — more clearly — “Chronicle“.
“Katsuhiro Ôtomo” is the director and he should be commended for how well he has brought his creation to the screen. I don’t doubt that it helps that he got to direct the film to a manga series that he wrote, in that case I’m glad they let him do it. He clearly knew how to adapt his work into something special yet separate. Hollywood have been in talks about doing a live-action version of “Akira” and I just don’t see how they could pull it off. The incredible design and lack of limitations provided by animation is what makes it so special. To remove the animation will almost certainly only serve to increase the budget, and lower the artistic merit, at least in this case.