Akira: Revisiting Katsuhiro Otomo’s Anime Classic

Katsuhiro Otomo's classic animated film is returning to UK cinemas to mark Manga Entertainment's 25th anniversary. We take a look back...

For anime, 1988 was an extraordinary year. That April, Studio Ghibli released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies, two films that would soon cement its already growing reputation as one of Japan’s finest animation houses. And three months later, writer, artist and director Katsuhiro Otomo would unveil Akira, one of the most important and influential animated features of the entire decade.

Based on Otomo’s best-selling, voluminous manga of the same name (which was still being published when its adaptation was released), Akira is set in a 2019 Neo-Tokyo balanced on a knife-edge. Rival motorcycle gangs fight in the streets. Revolutionaries and religious fanatics clash with the police. Behind the scenes, the military and sneaky politicians tussle for control, while scientists carry out strange experiments on grey-faced children.

Akira‘s multi-strand plot is told primarily from a gang of teen bikers, including the outgoing Kaneda and his downtrodden childhood friend Tetsuo. When a chance encounter with an escaped test subject named Takashi leaves Tetsuo wounded, he’s dragged off to a government lab by the towering Colonel Shikishima and amoral scientist Doctor Onishi. There, Tetsuo acquires god-like powers that threaten to tear Tokyo apart.

A manga artist and writer for many years before he moved into animation, Katsuhiro Otomo was given unprecedented resources to bring Akira to the screen. With a then huge budget of $11 million, Otomo’s team of 70 animators worked at a ferocious pace, rendering tens of thousands of intricate cels and pieces of background art. The result remains one of the most technically astounding animated features ever to emerge from Japan. 

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Akiras action moves not just across the screen, but in and out of it. Akira is constantly moving. The frame is always alive – nowhere more so than in the exhilarating motorcycle scene through night time Tokyo in the first act. At once a guided tour of Otomo’s dizzyingly vast future landscape, it’s also an introduction to his loveably screwed-up biker punk characters. Kaneda’s cocksure nature is summed up in his flashy (stolen) motorcycle, his crimson jacket, and his fearless approach to riding, while Tetsuo’s psychologically wounded character is made clear in his every awkward step and resentful expression.

Look, too, at how Otomo and his animators use color in this sequence and elsewhere. It’s something many modern filmmakers could learn from. The teal and orange of a legion summer movies is joined by acid greens, purples, impenetrable shadows, and blinding lights.

Akira is unusual, in that it features none of the exotically-hair-colored ladies or outlandish mecha commonly associated with anime. It’s also violent in a way most other animated pictures are not; less bloody and orgiastic than something like, say, Fist Of The North Star, it’s nevertheless utterly brutal – possibly one of the most brutal animated features ever made. Brutal, that is, in filmmaking terms: every bullet, punch, kick and explosion has weight and impact, imbued through beautifully-drawn animation, editing, and Tsutomu Ohashi’s stunning, percussive score.

There’s a moment where a prisoner’s beaten senseless by a group of cops. As if the punches themselves aren’t harsh enough, there’s an overhead shot of the figure lying face down on the floor. “Let’s finish this in private,” one of the cops says, as the body’s dragged across the floor by his feet. His face leaves behind it a streak of crimson and black blood on the floor.

Otomo repeatedly contrasts sounds and images to humorous or disturbing effect: cartoon dogs in a pet food commercial are intercut with the baying of vicious police sniffer dogs. The cute, shambling toys in Tetsuo’s bedroom hallucination are replaced by huge and terrifying giants. A terrorist attack is scored with a piece of jolly ragtime music.

Akira is the work of an artist who loves and understands cinema. More than any other piece of anime, it resembles something by Stanley Kubrick, and references – some subtle, some not – to the American auteur are all over the place: the amoral gangs of A Clockwork Orange, the ominous round table and lurching camera angles of Dr. Strangelove.

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But beneath all this technical brilliance, brutality, political intrigue and violence, there’s a human story. Strip everything else away, and you’re left with a quite touching tale about young kids trying to find their way into adulthood in a cruel and terrible city. Look how the film portrays those in any position of power: a teacher cleans his glasses indifferently while a gym coach brutally assaults his pupils. The police beat inmates to a pulp. Scientists experiment on children without remorse. Politicians and military leaders clash in a futile grab for control.

Adults are portrayed as grasping, cruel, incompetent, or all three. The youngsters in Akira are, like real-world youths, a product of the environment around them; each deals with their situation as best they can. Far from perfect, they’re simply trying to survive; although arrogant and vain, Kaneda’s basically a decent kid who truly cares for his friend Tetsuo, but is powerless to prevent the violent change occurring within him.

Tetsuo, meanwhile, is cursed by power. Kidnapped by the military, a bullied teenager suddenly finds himself in possession of the powers of a god – and in that situation, most of us would probably go a little nuts ourselves. Aside from these powers, he’s also driven to destroy by a question chipping away at his subconscious: who the hell is Akira? 

A more imminent presence in the original manga, Akira is the Harry Lime of Otomo’s movie. Constantly discussed and alluded to, the identity behind the name is only properly revealed in the final act: Akira was the military’s first test subject, whose own extraordinary powers resulted in the inadvertent destruction seen at the start of the film. Panicked by their creation, the scientists took the child’s body – whether he died naturally or was somehow killed isn’t made clear – and, having subjected it to test after test, sealed its constituent parts in test tubes and kept them in a sub-zero storage unit far below Tokyo’s streets.

It seems that Akira still has a way of communicating from beyond the grave, since Tetsuo feels compelled to seek out his resting place beneath the Olympic stadium and pull it out of the ground. As Tetsuo’s powers run dangerously out of control, and threaten to once again destroy Tokyo (and possibly the entire planet), the young Espers summon Akira, who appears briefly to whisk Tetsuo off to another dimension.

Akira is a meandering, perhaps even baffling film, full of digressions and shifts in perspective. The first half hour’s street-level point of view, relating the tribulations of Kaneda and Tetsuo, gives way to occasional scenes where we meet some of those at the other end of the conspiracy: glowering Colonel Shikishima and Doctor Onishi, who are trying to keep a lid on their experiments, Nezu, a rat-like politician who plans to seize control of government, and his terrorist cohort, Roy. Other characters from the manga are either conflated, reduced to cameos or dropped entirely. 

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In some ways, it anticipates the overstuffed plots of modern superhero movies and thrillers, which are often overflowing with a similar range of intersecting plotlines and characters – actually, there are quite a few parallels between Akiras structure and something like The Dark Knight Rises. But like those sorts of films, it’s also enough to simply sit back and let the film’s events wash over you. Cease to worry overly about the political intrigue and back story, and you’re free to appreciate the extraordinary quality of Akira’s music and imagery.

And what music and imagery there is. No other science fiction film looks quite so distinctive or detailed as Akira, and its depiction of a believable city makes it a clear relation to Metropolis and Blade Runner, and as artistically important as either. Although recognizably modelled on the Tokyo of the 1980s financial bubble, it’s also an entirely other place from Otomo’s imagination, full of walkways and suspended roads, searchlights and vast structures.

Twenty-five years on, and Akira still has the power to enthral and mesmerise. It’s telling that Otomo, although still working and producing great work, has never attempted to make anything on its scale again. And maybe that’s just as well. Unsullied by sequels or prequels – even the long-threatened US live-action remake hasn’t materialized at the time of writing – Akira stands alone as a unique piece of animated science fiction.

Nothing else looked like Akira in 1988 – and even today, that still holds true.

Akira returns to UK cinemas on the 21st September. You can see a full list of cinemas at Manga UK’s website.