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Andrew Osmond makes a bid for Freedom

The anime miniseries Freedom bears a very strong visual resemblance to the legendary film Akira. Both even start with teenage boys dueling on futuristic motorbikes, defying the repressive authorities. Akira author Katsuhiro Otomo supplied Freedom’s machinery and character designs, and effectively makes Freedom into an “authorised” homage to himself, much as J.J. Abrams’ live-action summer film Super 8 was a tribute to its producer Steven Spielberg. And yet, the surprising thing about Freedom (directed by Shuhei Morita, who also made the evocative spooky short Kakurenbo), is that its story is a very long way from Akira.

Whereas Otomo’s film was an angry piece of future shock, in which teenagers are turned into monsters by more monstrous grown-ups, Freedom is an old-school SF romance. A red-blooded boy travels thousands of miles through space, seeking a girl in a photo who might be from the officially “dead” planet Earth. Along the way of course, the hero must come of age and change the world (there’s a well-placed time-jump of a few years in the narrative to give the idea that the character matures, though he doesn’t actually change that much – this is a celebration of youth, and how the younger generation must pull humanity from its doldrums).

But while the story is set in the twenty-third century, when man has migrated to the moon, Freedom pays tribute to the twentieth-century history of the space programme, and to the Apollo missions in particular. Japan, like Britain, saw the space race between America and Russia from the outside. Brits and Japanese both fantasise about our own idiosyncratic conquests of space; Doctor Who put a London police box in orbit, and Space Battleship Yamato did the same for a fabled World War II vessel. (It’s also notable that one of the biggest space anime series, Macross, reworked as the opening segment of Robotech, shows Japanese characters going into space in a craft borrowed from aliens.)

Freedom, though, is concerned with celebrating the space programme as a collective achievement of mankind. In this way, it’s more in line with the landmark 1987 anime film The Wings of Honneamise, which culminates with the first astronaut in his capsule gazing down at the world, with all its evils and conflicts. He urges the audience, “Please give some thanks for mankind’s arrival here…” before the film segues into a sublime, impressionist montage of human history. Sadly the effect was adulterated in the American dub, which inserted some sub-Star Trek guff into the script about a universe without borders.

Other anime have crafted different poems about space travel. There are the magnificently lonely space probes that speak to the souls of lovelorn teens in Makoto Shinkai’s film 5 Centimeters per Second. Satoshi Kon’s fantastical romance Millennium Actress – which, like Freedom, has a character travelling vast distances in a search for a virtual stranger – revolves round the image of the first moon landing, perhaps because it changed our vision of the world forever. Contrast that with the rude treatment the space race got in the latest Hollywood Transformers film (Dark of the Moon), where we were asked to believe that the whole endeavour was sparked, not by human hubris or even military necessity, but by a close encounter with toy robots!

Freedom is out on UK DVD and Blu-Ray from Manga Entertainment.

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