I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a lot of Anime. I know, that probably makes me a bad geek. But what can I say? You gotta be into that kind of thing and apparently, I’m not. But over the years, I’ve managed to find a few titles that I did like. Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, and – best of all – Akira! Yes, not only was this the best piece of Anime I’ve ever seen, it managed to tell a story that still intrigues me years later. Not long ago, I watched it for what felt like the umpteenth time and found that it I still get wrapped up by its stunning visual effects, existential ideas, and its post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk theme. I tell ya, the animators spared no expense when it came to visuals, and the story-writing and direction was reminiscent of Kubrick in a lot of ways. Much of what is happening is shown, not told, and those watching it might therefore feel the need to see it more than once. But enough gushing, time to get to the review!
The movie Akira was actually based on the Manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also brought in to direct the movie. The movie condensed the storyline of the six original Manga novels, but kept all of the major themes and plot elements. Much like the comic, the movie is set in Neo-Tokyo, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future city where biker gangs rule the streets and an authoritarian government is hiding secrets about human experiments. It was well received by critics when it was first released in 1988 and has gone to become one of the top-rated animated movies of all time, and of course it attracted a cult following in the process. However, there were also some critics who panned it, claiming that it did a poor job of condensing six volumes of Manga into one two hour movie and cut corners in the process (fans of the Dune series can no doubt relate!) These critics tended to be in the minority though, with fans and critics alike hailing the end product for its visual style, its imaginings of a dark future, and its attention to detail. I, if it hasn’t been made clear already, am one of them!
The movie opens on a silent, birds-eye view of Tokyo in 1988, right before it is vaporized by what looks like a nuclear attack. The entire city is engulfed in light and things white out. The scene then changes to an orbital view, where the white light fades and we see what look like thermal images of Tokyo harbor. The white turns to red, which turns to blue, and the outline of a new city, build on the ashes of the old, appears. And then, a close up on the massive crater that was Tokyo and the name in big red letters… AKIRA! What is awesome about this scene is that there is virtually no sound at the beginning. You hear what sounds like a strong wind, but that’s all until the title rolls and a caption tells us that the setting is Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after WWIII. When the sound rolls, its just a series of loud, metallic pangs that chill you to your bones! An effective opening, conveying a sense of apocalypticism and dread, punctuating the visuals and making it clear that more horror and fright are on the way!
We then move to the streets of Neo-Tokyo where we meet the main characters of Shotoro Kaneda, the leader of a Bosozoku biker gang, and his buds. They’re up to their usual thing, battling the Clowns (a rival gang) and making a big mess of the streets in the process. Meanwhile, student and civilian protests are taking place not far away and the riot police are out in full force trying to contain them, shooting them with tear gas canisters and beating them with truncheons. In between all this, a man who is clearly a member of some underground cell is running through the streets and trying to stay ahead of the police. With him is a small boy who he appears to be rescuing, and we can tell he’s no ordinary child because his skin is blue! The resistance man is then shot when they run into the riot police’s barricade, and the boy gives us a preview of some freaky powers when he screams and shatters all the windows in the area, sending everybody running. In the crowd, a young girl and an older man are watching, themselves members of this same underground, and become perplexed when they see the blue boy disappear.
We go back to Kaneda and his biker gang, who appear to have routed the Clowns and are now chasing them down. Tetsuo, the obvious runt of the litter, gets seperated as he tries to chase down too Clowns, and ends up running into the blue-skinned boy. A mere second before impact, the boy freaks out again and Tetsuo’s bike explodes, sending him into the pavement. Kaneda and the others show up just in time to see him wounded but not killed, and the blue boy as well who’s appearance shocks them. Military choppers and shadowy figures show up seconds later, with some big mustached Colonel and an older, blue-skinned person leading them. The boy is taken away, the elder one scolding him for trying to get into the outside world where they don’t belong. Tetsuo is taken as well, with Kaneda and the rest unable to help because they are at gunpoint and face down on the asphalt.
This sets off the three intertwining plot elements that make up the movie. One the one hand, we have Kaneda and his friends trying to find Tetsuo, all the while trying to survive in the hostile environment that is Neo-Tokyo. We have the resistance looking to get back into some government facility so they can free these blue-skinned kids – known as the Espers, clearly the subject of experiments and covert activities. And we have the Colonel, who’s running said facility, overseeing the experiments on these individuals, and trying to figure out what to do with Tetsuo. It becomes clear after just a few scenes that his exposure to this small child is changing him, in the psionic sense, and now they must figure out what to do about it. While he presents an interesting phenomena, a normal person changed through accidental exposure, there are hints that this chance encounter could bring disaster.
In between all this, we get numerous snapshots of what life is like in the post-apocalyptic city, and all of it is interesting and awesome. The police are overworked trying to control a population that is beginning to become unruly after the shock and horror of a nuclear holocaust and the push to rebuild. The public school system is clogged with orphans who’s parents died in the war and who have to turn to biker gangs and deviant behavior to express themselves. And behind it all, there is the shadowy government project being run by the Colonel, who is haunted by the visions the blue kids are showing him and a name which might be a person, a phenomena, or both… Akira! At one point, in a scene that is both expository and foreshadowing, we are shown an underground facility where a massive cryogenic unit sits and waits. As they inspect it, the Colonel is reminded of conversations he had with the resident scientist about the children could be the next phase in evolution, how it is frightening, and how he fears for the city. In any case, we see a name on the big cryogenic unit… AKIRA! Whoever or whatever this is, its clear that the blue kids are related, and that the war itself might have had something to do with it.
At about this time, Tetsuo manages to escape from the military facility. He finds his girlfriend, Kaori, steals Kaneda’s bike, and makes plans with her to get out of the city. Unfortunately, some Clowns find them and begin beating the crap out of them. Luckily, Kaneda and his buds were on their tale and manage to intervene, but clearly something’s wrong. In the course of taking his revenge on one of the Clowns, Tetsuo begins to lose it. When they try to stop him, he starts to lose it and says that someday he’ll show all of them (case of foreshadowing here). To make matters worse, he starts experiencing intense migraines and has apocalyptic visions. He sees the city crumbling, his body falling apart, and hears the name Akira ringing like a shrill bell in his mind. And, wouldn’t you know it, the military shows up again and hauls him away! It seems that whatever is happening to Tetsuo is beyond his control, and naturally, his friends are even more determined now to find him and figure out what’s going on.
Paralleling this, we get a scene where one of the government bureaucrats is meeting with the leader of the resistance. The two watch a public protest where a religious cult begins burning TV’s and other “decadent” possessions, calling forth the name of Akira as some sort of messianic prophet and saying that the time for atonement has come. The bureaucrat explains how this is a sign, how the city is saturated and begiinning to rot like “an overripe fruit”, and how Akira is the seed that will soon fall and grow into a new order (clever metaphor). We are still not sure who or what Akira is at this point, but its clear that whoever or whatever it is, everyone is looking to it for deliverance. The resistance and their bureaucratic ally want it to pave the way to the future, the government wants to keep it under wraps, and the people on the streets see it as the name of the messiah. Real cool! From all of this, we see that at all levels of society, the name Akira is a secretive, powerful, and dangerous thing.
Along the way, Kaneda finds out about the resistance and begins making common cause with them. This begins when he notices that a particular young woman named Kei, whom he is obviously infatuated with, has a way of showing up repeatedly wherever and whenever shit is going down. At first, he was just trying to nail her; but in time, he comes to realize that she is part of an underground cell that is looking to expose a government secret, the same one that Tetsuo is now part of. They agree that they can help each other, mainly because she and her friends can get inside the facility and she is sympathetic with Kaneda’s desire to save his friend. Eventually, they succeed, but their attempt at a rescue coincides with another, scarier development.
In the facility, Tetsuo is still changing, and the process is getting beyond all control. His psionic abilities are reaching dangerous proportions, and he wants answers! He has come to see that there are others like him (the Espers), which happens after a psychedelic episode where the children enter his room in the guises of childhood toys and transform them into nightmarish creatures that try to devour him. It’s not quite clear why they do this, perhaps they grew scared of him and wanted to put him in his place. It is clear to them from their visions of a catastrophic future that Tetsuo is a threat, so perhaps this was their way of telling him to behave. In any case, this scene is nothing short of art! At once nightmarish, hallucinogenic and psychedlic, it manages to intrigue, creep out and terrify, in that order. And, ironically but fittingly, it ends when Tetsuo accidentally cuts himself and the children are terrified by the site blood and flee. However, Tetsuo is now angry and abundantly aware that he is not alone. He sees in his mind’s eye where the Esper’s nursery is, and sets out to find it, them, and the answers he seeks.
In the process, a number of attendees and guards try to stop him, but he makes short work of them all. Yes, Tetsuo has come to understand that whatever is changing him has given him some freaky powers, including the power to kill with a simple thought. As he walks along the hallway, he kills numerous people in sick and ugly ways, a clear indication of his descent into madness and a preview of what’s to come. Once he reaches the blue kids’ nursery, they begin fighting it out with their crazy mind powers, and the effects used to illustrate this are not just cool, they’re crazy! One really gets the sense of the psychic and psychotic; music, effects and dialogue all coming together to intrigue and scare the viewer! In the course of all this, Tetsuo gleams a name from their minds. Seems their is another like them, someone who is even more powerful than the Espers and Tetsuo combined. Tetsuo wants to find this person, this… Akira! He even manages to get the location from their minds before they are interrupted.
That interruption comes in the form of Kaneda and Kei who have successfully broken in amidst the chaos. They have a brief rendezvous, but Kaneda’s attempts to get Tetsuo to leave with them fail. Seems Tetsuo thinks he’s beyond Kaneda’s help now, and that he’s in charge and ready to show him what’s what, as promised earlier. The Colonel and more men enter and attempt to stop Tetsuo, but he kills even more people, destroys the nursery, and flies from the facility (much to his own surprise). Seems his body is now flying him on autopilot and taking him out into the city to find the last known location of the fabled Akira. The Colonel and his troops are then forced to declare martial law, in part because of Tetsuo’s escape, but also because the government has decided that he is not fit to run the program anymore and try to arrest him. After a brief scene where some bureaucrats show up and a minor gunfight ensues, the Colonel orders his troops to arrest all members of the government and get their asses to where Tetsuo is heading! He means business now!
Meanwhile, Kaneda and Kei have been arrested and stuck in a cell. Here,Kei begins to explain exactly what they think Akira represents. In a word: evolution! Essentially, Kei says that the power that has driven single cell organisms and reptiles to evolve into spaceship-making, atom-splitting humans is still at work. Harnessed in the human genome is a ton of energy that is just waiting to manifest itself in the form of freaky powers, the kind that Tetsuo and the Espers now demonstrate. Kei begins to become distant as it is made clear that one of the Espers, the young girl, is speaking through her. She explains that in the past, this process went horribly wrong, but someday soon, it would become a reality and their kind would exist freely. Kaneda is totally lost, but that doesn’t matter for long. Kei snaps out of her dream-like puppet state and reveals that the door to their cell is now open. Seems the Espers are pulling strings to make sure the two of them get out.
With the help of voiceover, they even say that they plan on using the girl to stop Testuo. And they don’t make it far before they put that plan into action. After meeting up with Kai, another member of the biker gang, Kaneda is told that a rampaging Tetsuo killed one of other members. He’s pissed, but is made even more pissed when the Espers show up and make Kei come with her. She walks away (on water, no less), and leaves Kaneda fuming angrily over how helpless he feels. Caught between a friend who’s gone rogue and some freaky kids who are using his would-be girlfriend for their own purposes, all the while caught up in plot he can’t begin to understand, he decides to set out on his own to find Tetsuo and end him!
Speaking of which, we meet up with Tetsuo next and see that he’s been stalking the streets and killing anyone who gets in his way, all the while seeking the other secret facility where, as we saw earlier, Akira is housed. This is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie, as the street people, seeing some psionic boy in a red cape (yep, he fashions himself a cape!) become convinced that Tetsuo is Akira and start following him like a messiah. They all die, naturally, as Tetsuo’s is forced to fight his way through soldiers and his powers cause untold amounts of collateral damage. When he finally reaches the facility, just outside the uncompleted Olympic Stadium (bit of a side story to that one), he runs into Kei again and they fight. Not so much “they”, more like the Espers fight Tetsuo through her, but of course he beats them/her and breaks into the facility anyway. As soon as he cracks open the cryogenic seals that hold Akira, the Colonel arrived outside the stadium and begins to fill him in via a megaphone.
We then get the big moment of truth: turns out the facility was holding the remains of a boy, a boy named Akira. He is what caused Tokyo’s annihilation in 1988, as he was an evolutionary curiosity that evolved beyond anyone’s control. After the explosion, which started WWIII since everyone thought Tokyo was under nuclear attack, his remains were sealed away for future study. That’s it, that’s all! No mind-blowing conspiracy, no earth-shattering answers, just a bunch of test tubes and tissue samples in formaldehyde. And as for the conspiracy, that was just the government trying to keep the truth of Akira under wraps so they could study it in the hopes of preventing the same thing from happening again. Hence why they’ve been holding the Espers in a sealed location, seems they were Akira’s fellow potentates who survived the obliteration.
Tetsuo is obviously phased and disappointed, but he’s quickly snapped out of it with the arrival of Kaneda. The two get into it as Kaneda tries to talk him down, but a fight quickly ensues with Kaneda employing a captured laser gun and Tetsuo using his freaky powers. The government jumps in and tries to kill Tetsuo with their orbital laser satellite, but this only manages to critically injure Tetsuo by blowing off his arm. The kid proves beyond their control again, and flies into orbit where he takes over the satellite and then crashes it. This, however, gives Kaneda, Kei, and Kai a chance to escape.
A lull follows as the Colonel and his forces lick their wounds, Tetsuo fashions a new arm out of random machine parts, and Kaneda, Kei, and Kai recharge the laser gun and keep each other company. Some time later, they all meet up inside the stadium, where Tetsuo has placed the remains of Akira on a sort of shrine and is sitting in the chair he has fashioned into a sort of throne. Symbolism! The Colonel urges Tetsuo to come home, but he refuses. He is once again losing control and its beginning to show in his body, which is sprouting amorphous blob-like appendages! He is also losing his mind, at once amused and in terrible pain over what’s happening all around him. The Espers show up and begin praying to the remains of Akira, hoping to get some kind of instruction or deliverance. Seems they too revere him since he was the first to undergo what they are experiencing now.
Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori is also drawn to the stadium, but she soon dies as Tetsuo’s loses all control over his body and it consumes her. Kaneda returns, shooting his laser and trying to bring Tetsuo down, but the attempts appear to be in vain. Even Tetsuo is being killed by his own abilities now and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. And the scientists watching it all are stunned when the queer instruments they have that measure psionic abilities go off the charts and begin to show the “Akira pattern”. And then, in a blinding burst of revelation (destructive, apocalyptic, revelation!) Akira appears to the Espers! His white light, much as it did at the beginning, starts consuming the stadium and Tetsuo’s amorphous body. Kaneda is willing to risk his own life to pull Tetsuo from the expanding ball of light, but the Espers decide they will take Tetsuo with them and save Kaneda by sacrificing themselves. Essentially, they are going into the light, which means either death, transcendence, or a little of both. Kaneda, Kei, and everyone else, will be sent back in the process so they can live on.
However, Kaneda is still inside the light for a moment and experiences what can only be described as a taste of transcendence, or possibly the afterlife. It is a totally mind-blowing scene, biggest one of the movie, as he watches entire city blocks get mangled in the light, catches glimpses from their and Tetsuo’s life, and hears the Espers speaking to him about the meaning of it all. He gets a chance to say good-bye to his friend, who appears before him as a blinding ball of light, and sees moments of their lives together. He then wakes up next to Kei, safe and sound. Might sound cheesy, but trust me, its sad, meaningful, and above all, awesome to behold. All the more so because you’re not being told what’s happening, you gotta figure it out on your own. The vivid imagery and passing bits of explanation paint a picture, but you’re left pondering what it means.
Meanwhile, the city is once again in ruins, even though Kei, Kai and Kaneda survived. The Colonel has also survived, having found shelter in a nearby tunnel when the apocalyptic light show began. Clearly, they are the survivors of this new apocalypse, and it is to them that the responsibility to rebuild once more falls. The Espers end things by reiterating their final message, how things are changing, and though the world may not be ready, someday what they have will become a reality. “It has already begun…” they say at the end. By it, of course, they mean the next leap in human evolution, where we will evolve beyond flesh and blood bodies and become unrestrained forces of pure consciousness, with all kinds of freaky psionic abilities! Yes, the day will come when we shall all be… Akira!
Okay, I’m feeling mind-blown just recounting all this. Like I said before, this movie did things right, relying on a sort of show-don’t-tell philosophy, psychedelic and existential themes, and an attention to detail that is unsurpassed. From a technical standpoint, there was also the stunning visual effects and a great combination of music, sound and visuals to punctuate the plot and dialogue. But the thing I liked most was the depth and development shown by the plot and thematic elements of the story. For example, the clear religious themes: First off, there was the coming of the messiah and the End of Days. There was also the Garden of Eden or Deluge Myth that was present at the end. Lastly, there is the Fall. All of these were present at one time or another, the first being a recurring theme while the others became clear closer to the end. The fascinating and gritty use of them all was awesome, terrifying and hugely intriguing.
Then, of course, there was the plot. You’d think that with the archetypal and religious tones that were at work, you’d get some cliches or cardboard cut-out characters. But, interestingly enough, the characters were pretty damn realistic throughout. They are at once cynical, greedy, scared, brutal, and sympathetic, no one a crystal-clear good guy or bad guy. Whether it was the overwrought bureaucrats, the cautious and troubled Colonel, the street toughs who see each other as a family, the fallen Tetsuo or the romantic scientists, every character felt genuine and justifiable. Just like real people, everyone is motivated by their own combination of things, no one is perfect, and everyone just wants to do what they think is right. That, plus the fact that the story doesn’t end happily, but with some hope, was also very realistic. In the event that human beings actually began manifesting psionic powers, we can expect that the results would be frightening and probably disastrous. And in all likelihood, it would take a few disasters before humanity found a way to control it or live with it.
That being said, the movie could also be a bit daunting at times. Towards the end, the action sequences and dialogue did get a little drawn out and could even feel emotionally taxing. Like with a lot of movies of its kind, there were moments where I was just like “enough death and destruction! Get on with it, already!” But for the most part, this is effective in that it conveys the right feel and attitude. After all, death, destruction and the apocalypse are not neat and tidy things. They are painful, demoralizing and downright brutal! One would expect scenes or total destruction and terrible strife to be sad and terrible, so I can only say that Katsohiro’s direction was realistic in that respect and in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. Speaking of which, the movie also showed some very obvious insight into the mentality of destruction and holocaust. All throughout the movie, there is a sense of shock and horror at work, and it comes out in full force at the end. But unlike your average disaster movie, the destruction in Akira wasn’t some cheap attempt at action-porn, it was the real deal!
And you really get the sense that this speaks directly to a sense of cultural experience, Japan being a nation that has not only experienced earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes regularly in the course of its history, but is also the only country on the planet that has experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack. When one sees the blast at the beginning, the flashing, cooling orbital view, and then the big, black crater, one immediately thinks of Hiroshima, and not just the physical impact but the terrible psychological toll it took as well. All the scenes involving the orphaned kids, the apocalyptic dreams, the post-war reconstruction; you really feel like Katsohiro was relying on the real-life experiences of those who had been there.
Oh, and one final note: I’ve since seen two versions of the movie, the original VHS release that was available back in the 90’s, and a more recent version which was clearly dubbed in Japan. The Japanese dubbed one is actually more faithful to the original dialogue, but my advice would be to get the version that was dubbed by Hollywood studios. The translation was better, and the dialogue and voices more effective and less cheesy. Don’t know what it is about Japanese voice actors, but the men sound too gruff and the ladies too high-pitched! Also, in what I am assuming was the original Japanese script, the dialogue was also remarkably less subtle. If you can see both versions and compare for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.
But other than that, this movie is an enduring classic for me. Its appeal is cultish, its style awesome, and its effects stunning even though they are over twenty years old by now. I look forward to the live-action American remake of this movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set for release sometime in the next year, or possibly 2013. One has to wonder how they will spin things and if they plan on sticking to the grit and realism of the original. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I might have to give it a scathing review!
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Direction: 10/10 (Yo!)