Andrew Osmond reviews the reviews from 20 years ago.
On its explosive arrival in the West, Akira crossed the Pacific to catch the generation that grew up on the films of Spielberg and Lucas; it was also the generation that read adult superhero strips such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Akira, though, offered the shock-and-awe widescreen violence akin to that of enfant terrible live-action director, Paul Verhoeven. For example, both Akira and Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) have a gory money-shot scene in their early minutes, in which a luckless bit-part player is graphically torn apart by a hail of bullets. Unsurprisingly, such imagery excited reviewers.
“Otomo’s animation resembles Disney like Peter Greenaway reflects John Hughes,” wrote Angus Wolfe Murray in the weekend supplement of The Scotsman. “His imagery is so violent that it chokes the expectations of little children and drives teenage fantasies to the edge of ecstasy. Blind men at the British Board of Film Classification have awarded his two-hour apocalypse cartoon a 12 certificate [in cinemas], which is the equivalent of trailing Driller Killer on Junior Screen Test… Otomo’s imagination is like a cluster bomb. Visual shockwaves crash against the eye.”
There were exceptions to this line, including a probing analysis of Akira by Tony Rayns in Britain’s Monthly Film Bulletin. Rayns acknowledged Akira’s visceral power, noting, for example, that the finale where Tetsuo mutates in the Olympic stadium was close to David Cronenberg’s “new flesh” body-horror in the likes of The Fly. But Rayns also argued that, “Akira’s centre is still and quiet… Akira manages to express a particular kind of adolescent confusion and despair, locating it precisely between a disturbing vision of childhood and a sense that adult ‘maturity’ is a sham. Its sensibility is closer to Nicholas Ray [Rebel Without a Cause] than Ralph Bakshi, let alone the dozens of also-rans in Japanese animation.”
New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin agreed, celebrating Akira’s aesthetics beyond its violence. “The drawings of Neo-Tokyo by night are so intricately detailed,” she wrote, “that all the individual windows of huge skyscrapers appear distinct. And these night scenes glow with subtle, vibrant colour. Never resorting to the gaudiness of much ordinary animation, Mr. Otomo uses a wide range of colours in thoughtful, interesting ways… When its characters hurtle through space, they do it with breathtaking energy... Violent as it is on the surface, Akira is tranquil at its core. The sanest characters plead for the wise use of mankind’s frightening new powers, lending the whole film the feeling of a cautionary tale.”
It was Akira’s violent spectacle, though, which defined its lasting image. In America, it became a midnight movie, the 1990s equivalent of El Topo or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Harry Knowles, the co-founder of the Ain’t It Cool News website, remembered, “College theatres got hold of that film and just played it over and over and over.” In Britain, Akira was seen by Andy Frain of the company Island Visual Arts. Its founder, Chris Blackwell, had already conceived the notion of an “audio-visual record label,” which would not be limited to music. “I started thinking this was more than a great film,” Frain recalled. “This might be a phenomenon. Were there more films like this in Japan? If so, we could treat them in music terms like Def Jam, a genre in itself.”
In December 1993, Kim Newman surveyed the burgeoning anime brand in Empire magazine. “Anime showed that the astonishing visuals of the best comics, impossible to duplicate in live-action film, could be duplicated in an animated move,” he wrote. “A typical title will feature demon mutants as tall as skyscrapers levelling city blocks, bizarre metamorphoses as tentacles explode out of unwitting human hosts, planets being torn apart by gargantuan spaceships, spunky junior characters who discover they have the power to destroy galaxies, physically impossible martial arts bouts, schoolgirls in sailor suits and 2001-style conceptual breakthroughs.” In one odd case of coals-to-Newcastle, the Japanese themselves were roped into this stereotype, commissioned by a foreign beer company to pastiche the "cliches" of post-Akira anime.
There were, inevitably, backlashes to a brand predicated on action, spectacle and violence. British tabloids ran headlines such as “Snuff Out These Sick Cartoons” in a 1993 Daily Star, provoked not by Akira but by the sex-horror film Legend of the Overfiend. In 1997, Fred Patten of the US anime label Streamline, which released Akira in America, lamented the trend. He claimed that anime’s violent image “made an artificial barrier that has made (anime) difficult to sell to television… If you try to sell television a delightful children’s movie and it’s from Japan, they say, ‘Oh, it must be full of sex and violence and we can’t sell that to the children.’” In 1998, a representative for Buena Vista even claimed its latest property, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, was “not anime”, because it was not “effect-driven or violence-driven.”‘
Then again, Akira’s success led directly to Ghost in the Shell. Akira’s comic publisher Kodansha and Frain’s new British label Manga Entertainment both sought another world hit, finding it in Mamoru Oshii’s melancholy cyberpunk drama. Ghost in the Shell had vastly different pacing, narration and sensibilities from Akira, but the brand accommodated both. Interestingly, there were more echoes of Ghost in the Shell than Akira in the Matrix films, Hollywood’s most anime-flavoured franchise to date. Most obviously, the Trinity character played by Carrie-Anne Moss recalls Ghost in the Shell’s glowering cyborg, Major Kusanagi. It was also Ghost in the Shell’s studio, Production IG, that later made the animation in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1. While Katsuhiro Otomo has continued working on anime spectaculars, his work can seem subsumed in the brand he helped start, which now accommodates child-friendly anime in Britain: for example, Pokémon, Spirited Away and Naruto.
And yet, the technical and artistic virtues perceived by Rayns and Maslin in Akira mean that the film still stands out as one of the best-made anime in the medium, as striking and pungent as it was in 1988. So far, its Western homages have been small-scale; they include the Kanye West/Daft Punk music video for “Stronger” (where West plays Tetsuo) and the 2000 animated film, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, where the characters are chased by an Akira-style weapons satellite raining fire, drawn by the original Akira animator, Hiroyuki Aoyama.
But then, there also remains the prospect of a live-action Hollywood Akira. The first suggestion of a real-world Akira came in 2002, when a Hollywood Reporter article pointed to Stephen Norrington, director of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Blade, as the helmsman of movie adaptation written by James Robinson. Most recently, however, the big-name buzz shifted to Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, with Harry Potter scriptwriter Steve Kloves mooted as the screenwriter. And then it bounced around again and fizzled out. Such scuttlebutt, already creating film-world static for almost a decade, may never come to anything, but rumours persist that Akira will soon live in an altogether different style, reportedly with a location moved to New York, and with the contending protagonists re-imagined as squabbling siblings. Fans and filmmakers alike might feel frustrated at the constant whispers and counter-claims, but should they ever feel discouraged, they might draw inspiration from the anime’s closing dialogue. “Someday we ought to be able to… because it has already begun.”
Akira is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.