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Andrew Osmond on some forgotten forerunners of Neo-Tokyo

In Akira’s opening moments, a sphere of white light appears from nowhere in the centre of Tokyo, and swells to obliterate the city. Many Western critics saw the image as a symbol of the Bomb, like the earlier Japanese pop-culture icon, Godzilla. But the designer apocalypse could be taken as Akira’s own mission statement – to be a new kind of entertainment, blowing away its peers and reshaping the cinema landscape.

Akira wasn’t the first SF/action animated film, nor the first Japanese cartoon to reach Britain. Marine Boy was the first anime TV show shown here, followed by the fondly remembered Battle of the Planets, an edited and reworked US version of the 1972 saga, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Even in crude 1970s TV animation, the images of battling titans seemed greater, more epic, than the screen could hold. But few kids knew that Battle of the Planets began in Japan, any more than they knew that cartoons such as Dogtanian and Ulysses 31 were Japanese-European team-ups.

Western animation was dominated by Disney and Hanna-Barbera – the latter also the home of Scooby-Doo, the famous cartoon character designed by Iwao Takamoto. Adult animated features in the US, however, started with the independent animator Ralph Bakshi directing the X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972).

Despite their differences, Fritz has basic parallels with Akira. Fritz was based on a cult comic, by the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The film presents a New York of brutal police and student “rebels.” Both Bakshi and Otomo share the joke that their protagonists Fritz and Kaneda are really horny hedonists, using revolutionary rhetoric to pick up girls. Later Bakshi films, such as Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, developed the idea of an “urban” animation, as opposed to the pastoral pictures of Disney.

In Britain, Bakshi was best known for his 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings, which opened the same year as a British cartoon, Watership Down. Whatever their shortcomings, both films extended British people’s ideas of what animation could do; Watership Down, for one, was shockingly gory for a cartoon about rabbits. They were followed by Canada’s Heavy Metal (1981). Directed by Gerald Potterton, it was based on the SF comic magazine of that name, itself based on France’s Métal Hurlant. The film’s selling points were its lurid sci-fi/fantasy imagery, and also its violence and nudity, with a sword-and-sorcery dominatrix heroine.

Heavy Metal, however, was a niche product, like When the Wind Blows (1986), a British cartoon by the Japanese-American director Jimmy Murakami, about a nuclear strike on Britain, based on the comic by Raymond Briggs. By now, Japan’s own studios were aiming animated films at the world market, often adapting Western sources. The Hello Kitty company Sanrio set up a Hollywood studio and an international crew to make the film Metamorphoses (1978, later re-edited as Winds of Change). It set Greek myths to pop music, but flopped.

Tokyo Movie Shinsha embarked on a similarly ambitious American co-production, based on Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips. It hired legends and legends-to-be, from Ray Bradbury to Hayao Miyazaki, but it was mired in delays and creative differences. When Nemo finally opened, around the time of Akira’s rollout, it drew little interest in Anglophone markets. The same was true of Miyazaki’s early films, with Castle of Cagliostro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky having relatively unnoticed Western screenings before Akira, including Laputa at the London Film Festival in 1987. Notoriously, Miyazaki’s Nausicaa was released to video in a cut-down form for kids, entitled Warriors of the Wind.

But it was to be another suggested co-production that foreshadowed Akira. In June 1981, the US trade paper Variety reported that the Japanese studio Toei was planning an “equal partnership coproduction” of animated TV series and feature films, based on three Marvel strips, Spider-Man, Hulk and Captain America. Toei had previously made a live-action Spider-Man for TV, where the web-slinger piloted a giant robot. The animations weren’t made, but Variety implied that both the Japanese and American sides realised comic strips were a shared language.

Seven years later, Marvel started publishing a translated edition of the Akira manga through its Epic Comics imprint. The editor Archie Goodwin observed, “Mr. Otomo’s story seemed to fit what I thought were the tastes of the American audience. He was dealing with science fiction themes which the American audiences like, but he was also dealing with beings with paranormal powers, which is a very popular theme in American comics and science fiction now.”

Rearrange the scenes from Tetsuo’s life in chronological order, and you see a weakling who is bullied as a child, who grows up in the shadow of a local hero, and eventually receives great power through an accident – had he not hit Takashi in the road, the military scientists would never have recognised his potential and fed him the powerful Level Seven drugs. In other words, a career path not unlike a number of superhero nemeses, from the Joker to the Green Goblin.

The mutant angle aligned Akira with Marvel heroes such as The X-Men. However, the scenes in the Akira film where Tetsuo goes on a city-destroying rampage could be taken as a superhero comic turned on its head. Richard Gehr made the link when he reviewed Akira in the New York paper Village Voice in 1990. He introduced the film: “As if Warner Brothers had let Dark Knight Returns creator Frank Miller fulfil his noirish superhero vision through an animated Batman.”

Otomo intended that “…any of the characters could be the lead of the story”– Akira is designed to work as an action movie starring Kaneda, a disaster movie starring the population of Neo-Tokyo, a tragic buddy-movie starring Kaneda and Tetsuo, or even an espionage thriller starring Kei. But if watched as an anti-heroic tale starring Tetsuo, we see his clothes first ripped and torn in the style of The Hulk. As he finally realises his true power, fighting with tanks in the streets of Tokyo, he tears a red piece of cloth from a destroyed store-front window and drapes it over his shoulders in a parody of Superman’s cape.

In this light, perhaps Akira’s true ancestor wasn’t Heavy Metal or Battle of the Planets but a series of spectacular American Superman cartoons made in the 1940s by the Fleischer Studios, best known for Popeye and Betty Boop. One of those films, The Mechanical Monsters (1941), featured elongated flying robots, which influenced the android design in a near-contemporary of Akira, Miyazaki’s anime Laputa. Moreover, some of the imagery in Otomo’s own later film Steamboy (2004) is strikingly close to Fleischer’s Superman.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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