Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.
The entire genre of Japanese Anime is a cult unto itself. I hesitate in limiting the inclusion of Anime entries to a thousand films, let alone one. Anime’s following is so passionate that no selection is going to be good enough for its devotees. So before they come home from their schools/jobs at video/hobby/ comic-book stores or jet-propulsion laboratories and get on the Internet to issue a Satanic Verses style fatwa, understand that I comprehend this. As no list would be complete, I simply give you the undisputed classic: Akira.
Basically it’s an animated Hong Kong action film in a sci-fi setting. Set in a post-holocaust Japan, a repressed society begins to uncoil, governmental psiops programs are in progress, and two motorcycle gang members and an escaped young boy become the catalysts for a new world order.
Gang leader Kaneda and his friend Tetsuo battle a rival gang. Tetsuo is seriously injured and taken to a military hospital, where he becomes the subject of a secret army experiment in ESP that renders him able to destroy anything by sheer will.
Escaping from the hospital and on the verge of insanity, Tetsuo sweeps through Tokyo armed with his supernatural power. It’s up to Kaneda, his rebel friend Kei and a trio of ‘psionics’ to stop Tetsuo and prevent the destruction of the world.
The plot can be too complicated for its own good, becoming somewhat entangled in the ideas it is juggling, with too many subplots and minor dramas to maintain focus. If you want to fully appreciate Akira, I suggest you watch it at least three times so you can fully piece together all the elements.
The film is notable because the director (Katsuhiro Ôtomo) also created the comic on which it is based. This rarely happens. Some of the convolutions in the plot may have arisen from the challenge of condensing one’s own 38-volume manga into a 2-hour film.
The animation is stunning – burning from the neon of NeoTokyo, where giant advertising hoardings float over huge skyscrapers and bustling street markets while motorbikes paint streaks of light across the motorways. It positively drips with light and colour, most notably in the film’s unforgettable opening ten minutes. Akira is the true spirit of cyber-punk – anarchic, intense, dark and virtually crackling with sheer energy. One of the things that stands out in this movie is the detail. The texture on buildings, realistic lighting effects and constant movement in the background make the film extremely atmospheric. A superb soundtrack by Shoji Yamashiro reinforces the effect.
The characters move fluidly and realistically. It sounds like pure geek snobbery to suggest that a dubbed version of animation could be inferior, but if one watches the subtitled version of the film, the speech actually matches the characters’ mouth movement. Likewise, elements of dialogue and emotional subtext really are lost in the bare-bones translations.
Akira is a very influential film. It brought the anime genre into the mainstream. It had a deep stylistic influence not just on animated action features, but also on sci-fi generally. The resemblance between Akira and The Matrix is not coincidental. The creators of The Matrix (1999), the Wachowski brothers, have enthusiastically cited Akira as an influence.
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Writer(s): Katsuhiro Ôtomo, Izô Hashimoto
Runtime(s): 124 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.