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Helen McCarthy examines Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark Akira, then and now

1988 in Japan: Yamaha Motors won the J-League but Nissan won the Cup. Western pop divas Bananarama, Kylie and Tiffany were on TV. Japanese real estate values climbed so high that the Imperial Palace garden was worth more than the State of California, and Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward had a higher market value than Canada. The Government signed the FIRST Basel Accord, triggering a crash that wiped out half Japan’s stock market. Katsuhiro Omoto’s movie Akira premiered on 16th July.

The film cost ¥1.1 billion, around $8 million or £5 million at late 80s exchange rates. That might not seem so much compared to the $70 million Disney spent that year on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or even the $13 million price tag on Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, but it was a huge budget for an anime movie

Almost a quarter of a century on, audiences are reaping the benefit of that epic spend as Akira goes to Blu-Ray. Not many cartoons can really cut it in high definition: this one looks as sharp and fierce as the day it first exploded onto a Tokyo cinema screen. Its range and richness takes full advantage of the best reproduction in sound and picture.

The animators used 327 colours, including 50 specially created for the film and 97 shades of red, and every one shines through. The fat, meaty soundtrack is as visceral now as on first hearing. With over 160,000 cels, Akira has smooth, convincing animation. A brief flirtation with computer graphics, still in their infancy in anime, is well integrated into the glossy package.

Directing and writing a movie based on his own manga gave Otomo free rein, but even he struggled to cram the epic scale of his original into a package that would fit cinema scheduling. At 124 minutes, Akira is longer than most of the anime movies of 1988 or since, although that year’s Gundam epic Char’s Counterattack matched it. To add to his problems, Otomo was trying to edit a work in progress for a medium that demands a complete package.

Akira the manga would not be completed until 1990. Hayao Miyazaki had the same problem four years earlier, struggling to make his ongoing manga Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds into a movie. Like Miyazaki before him, Otomo wove strands from the earlier part of his comic into a storyline that would be coherent for audiences who might never have picked up the original.

Unsurprisingly, the story is still dense and demanding. Instead of making it simpler to follow, Otomo adopted a driving pace that would power audiences through the movie and force them to leave any questions until later. This has been another major factor in Akira’s longevity; even after several viewings, there are still new elements to be found in shot after shot, line after line. And by foregrounding the enduring themes of disaffected youth and social inequity, Otomo also gave his creation a route into Western pop culture.

He and his wife had honeymooned in New York in the late 1970s, while he was still a rookie manga artist. The city made a big impression on him, and his memories of its concrete canyons and mirror-walls were a major ingredient in the creation of Neo-Tokyo. Back home in 1979, he  started, but never finished, a serial manga called Fireball, whose supercomputers, psychics and totalitarian politicians were revived on a grand scale three years later in Akira. But Otomo’s major concerns were never with science fiction. The scenery and props he creates might be right at home in Blade Runner or William Gibson’s novels, but the central characters of Akira come from the run-down suburbs and backstreets of Japan, and the themes are all from the twentieth century.

He serves notice of this in the opening sequence – the date that flashes on the screen is that of the movie’s premiere, and the image is one seared into Japanese consciousness: a nuclear explosion wiping out a major city. Three decades on, the reconstructed city looks glossy and prosperous, but it’s home to layabouts, wastrels, rioters and pill-popping teens with no respect for anything. They’re marching in the streets, challenging the social order. Welcome to Tokyo 2019, thirty years after World War III. Look beyond the shiny trappings and you may notice similarities to Tokyo thirty years after World War II.

The political and social chaos of the streets is reflected in the lives of Kaneda and his childhood friend Tetsuo. Both orphans, raised in institutions and dumped in a dead-end school, they spend their free time racing bikes and fighting rival gangs. Like most teenage boys, they are not searching for meaning in their meaningless lives: bikes, drugs and fights are enough for them. Their assumed machismo and genuine affection are in constant conflict, with Tetsuo harbouring a sidekick’s secret resentment of his smoother, more confident friend. The secret they accidentally run across threatens to blow their friendship, and the world, to pieces all over again.

Akira first hit the USA in 1989 and the UK in 1990, at convention and festival screenings. It acquired a cult following that propelled it into cinemas and onto video, paving the way for the growth of the English-language anime industry.  Critics in Japan and beyond lamented Akira’s overcrowded storyline. Audiences didn’t mind.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the spread of the global monoculture that Akira speaks so clearly to viewers all over the world. Or perhaps Otomo simply does a good job as director and writer. Akira remains, in my opinion, his best movie.  It’s half a dozen films in one: thriller, dystopian vision, political discourse, meditation on history, psychic adventure, sci-fi epic, teen rage flick, buddy movie, tale of personal growth and redemption. It’s an important movie, but more importantly, it’s a brilliant one, and it still looks hot.

Akira is out now on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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