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Akira's Ancestors

Saturday 23rd July 2011

Andrew Osmond on some forgotten forerunners of Neo-Tokyo

AkiraIn 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). Fritz the CatDespite 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.

Little Nemo Adventures in SlumberlandTokyo 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.

Akira comic bookSeven 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.”

Tetsuo cape

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.


Akira Remastered Special Edition

was £19.99
Neo-Tokyo, 2019. The city is well on the way to rebuilding after World War III. The central characters, Kaneda and Tetsuo, two high school drop-outs, are members of a joy-riding motorcycle gang. In the opening scene, Kaneda and Tetsuo stumble upon a secret government project to develop telekinetic humans, apparently for use as weapons. Tetsuo learns of the existence of his 'peer' Akira, the project's most powerful subject, and determines to challenge him...



Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

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 Impact of Akira

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.

Akira 25th Anniversary Screenings

Your chance to see it in the cinema in the UK
Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E. Katsuhiro Otomo’s debut animated feature AKIRA had its Japanese premiere on 16th July 1988. We are very proud to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of what is undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time. Voted by Empire readers as one of the top 100 best films ever and cited by everyone from James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Daft Punk and Kanye West as a massive influence on their work, AKIRA kick-started the anime business all over the world, opening the doors for everything from Pokémon to Princess Mononoke.

The Art of Akira

Joe Peacock tracks down the original images from the anime classic
Watching Akira for the first time provokes a universal reaction of awe. And justifiably so: there’s often an overwhelming sense among audiences that this animated film is unlike any other they’ve ever seen. Casual viewers won’t be able to put their finger on it; they just know that Akira is visually striking. Art and illustration aficionados appreciate the intricacy of individual scenes, sometimes pausing the film to appreciate the detail in a particular frame.

Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira then and now

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.
Live-action remakes of classic anime titles are the subject of controversy and fan-rage in the anime community - Akira being a rather hot topic on that front, but could this be the saviour we’ve been looking for?


Chinese Zodiac

Jonathan Clements on Jackie Chan and the Garden of Gardens
Jackie Chan’s films have often smuggled in the odd political nudge and wink behind the tomfoolery, but Chinese Zodiac puts it all front and centre. Rather nobly, it shies away from issues of race or one-sided nationalism, making greed itself the great unifier – ensuring that Europeans and Chinese can be found on both sides of the battle.
Jordan and Fraser pick their favourite new shows from the summer anime season, what are yours?

Toshio Hirata 1938-2014

Remembering the anime master who shunned the limelight
Toshio Hirata, who died on 25th August, might be reasonably said to have avoided publicity. Over the course of his career, he did gather a number of credits for directing, as well as storyboards, key animation and lowlier tasks, but he often obscured his own achievements by using the pseudonym Sumiko Chiba. In some cases, such as for his work on Azuki-chan, he simply asked not to be credited at all, claiming that his contribution was not really worthy of recognition.

The Ninja Museum

Stephen Turnbull risks nine deaths in the eye of the ninja storm... or does he?
There is more to the ninja myth than meets the eye. By 1638 all wars had ceased under the police state of the Tokugawa family, yet within twenty years armchair generals were busily writing manuals of military theory, including speculations about sneak attacks, night-fighting and backstabbing.

John Lasseter on Animation

Pixar's producer on who killed the Catbus, spousal vetting and Big Hero 6
“Miyazaki’s reply was: I believe that if the American audience really wants to understand my films, they should all learn Japanese. I went: Thank you! but that’s not really going to help me with this. Then Miyazaki said: I trust you, do what’s right.”

Spyair: Back with the Best

Tom Smith on the return of one of anime's most popular rock bands
So where do the guys go from here? On their biggest domestic tour, that’s where! At least that was the plan, but halfway through the mostly soldout schedule, vocalist IKE suddenly takes to Twitter to make an announcement that would shock everyone, including his bandmates. The message simply stated; “I will leave SPYAIR”.

Ocean Waves

Andrew Osmond on a Studio Ghibli “obscurity”
Ocean Waves is the only feature anime by the world-famous Studio Ghibli which might be called obscure. It wasn’t made for cinemas but television, broadcast on Japan’s NTV network in 1993. And now it's playing as part of the BFI's Ghibli season...

Podcast: Speaking of Hugos and Gareths

More than one way to skin a catbus, in our 24th podcast
Jeremy Graves is joined by Jerome Mazandarani, Andrew Hewson and Jonathan Clements, for a series of rants and ill-informed commentary about anime, manga, the storm over the Hugo Awards, and your most awkward convention moment.
Check in for details on our replacement scheme for the faulty Naruto Shippuden Box Set 21.
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