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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.

Animation experts will go one step further with their wonderment, noting that Akira was a rarity in the Japanese animation industry, where even claims of “full” animation usually meant a mere 12 new frames per second. Swamped by Disney cartoons, themselves made with a guarantee of a much larger audience and hence a much higher budget, Japanese animators had previously retrenched into a style that emphasised not the replication of reality but in the words of Osamu Tezuka: “its exaggeration and omission.” With the exception of a few artists at Studio Ghibli, the attitude of most Japanese animators pre-Akira followed Tezuka’s principle – that the art of animation was born from what was left out of an image, and that the recreation of reality had no place in a cartoon. Katsuhiro Otomo’s animators fought this trend with all their abilities, adding artificial lens flares and afterimages, and accomplished tracking shots in three dimensions. In the years after Akira, the likes of Mamoru Oshii would refine this style even further, utilising contrazooms, artificial camera shake and even static in their new attitude towards creating the real, instead of the unreal.

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In a business that had concentrated for two decades on “limited” animation, even in cinema features, Akira used an unprecedented 172,000 frames of animation in the film, some in scenes utilised as many as nine cel layers at any given time – it was, and still is, usually considered counter-productive and costly to use more than four or five.

Akira was truly a watershed moment in the animation world, with a technical detail far surpassing any Japanese cartoon before it. And almost 25 years after the film’s production, it has been referenced in film and animation schools as a pinnacle of hand-painted animation, before the advent of computer animation changed the game forever. The individual cels and production art are now highly sought-after collectors’ items, with pieces hanging in animation museums and anime aficionados’ galleries the world over.

But this artistic afterlife is actually a fluke. Cels and backgrounds were often regarded by animators much the same as a carpenter regards sawdust – merely the by-product of creating the final masterpiece, the film. As was normal for animated cels in the 1980s, the vast majority of the original Akira production material was warehoused and ready to be incinerated.

Enter Streamline, a tiny distribution house based in Los Angeles, California. Founders Jerry Beck and Carl Macek had plenty of experience bringing Japanese animation to the western world. While president of Harmony Gold USA, Carl Macek introduced the west to Robotech – a heavily edited recreation of the Macross and Southern Cross cartoon series. Jerry Beck was an animation historian who worked in distribution for Orion Entertainment, with a hobby-turned-career of staging animation festivals.

By the time they acquired the rights to distribute Akira, the company had a successful track record of releasing films such as Twilight of the Cockroaches, Lensman, and Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. With each film they released, a few animation cels would be sent as gifts to the Americans who were fighting an uphill battle to convince audiences that animated feature films weren’t just “kids’ stuff.”

When Akira was released, Beck decided to ask the publishing company Kodansha, principle stakeholder in the Akira Production Committee, for a few cels to hang in his office. He found out that the entire stock of Akira production art, save a few thousand pieces kept as souvenirs by the production staff, were in a warehouse ready to be destroyed.

Thinking quickly, Beck asked what it would take to acquire the entire stock. He had no idea how many cels there were, or what the condition and quality of the material would be. According to Beck, it was merely a whim that he even asked. A price of a few thousand dollars was agreed on – to Kodansha, this was actually a blessing, as ecologically friendly cel disposal was quite costly. The company welcomed the opportunity to take money to be rid of something that was already regarded as a waste product.

To save money, the cels were shipped by sea from Japan. The process took months. In fact, Beck even jokes that he forgot they were coming. “It was always in the back of my mind,” he remembers. “But really, we just forgot all about them until one particularly hot day, a huge truck showed up with at least fifty gigantic boxes of animation cels!”

The process of unpacking the cels was like Christmas morning for Beck. “It was astounding. You’d open one box, and there were stacks and stacks of cels with just a hand moving. Then you’d open another and there were full scenes that the box of hands went with!” Putting the cels together with their mates was “the biggest jigsaw puzzle I ever worked on.” The greatest shock was that some of the astoundingly beautiful, painstakingly crafted backgrounds were actually rolled up, wadded or wrapped around the cels to safeguard them during shipment. “Some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in my life was used as packing material.”

Then came the challenge of what to do with all this material. “Carl had a brilliant idea,” Beck remembers. “We decided to use the cels as incentives to get people to order the VHS and Laserdisc of Akira.” In 1992, when Akira was distributed in America on video, it had unofficially become one of the most bootlegged films in history. Every comic book and animation convention had illegal copies of Akira for sale, copied on VCRs in basements.

Macek and Beck decided to use the original production art as a unique selling point. People re-purchased the legitimately distributed film and, depending on where they bought it, often received an original animation cel from the film as part of the deal. As years went by, the massive collection of cels began to spread out and disappear. Some of the boxes of cels never made it to their intended destinations. Some shops even conveniently “forgot” Streamline’s policy and simply priced up the cels as artefacts in their own right.

Meanwhile, Streamline sold cels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, or via mail order through Macek’s Art of Akira catalogue. When Streamline eventually folded, Macek offered the cels to buyers through private sale and auction. One buyer, Dave Kramer, bought the vast majority of what remained. He eventually offered some of the cels through his retail shop, Nichibei Anime. In some other cases, entire boxes of cels went missing from Streamline’s offices due to theft or mislabelled shipments.

As auction sites such as eBay and Yahoo! Auctions came online, Akira cels and backgrounds made their way into the hands of individual collectors at ever-increasing prices. The market surged as each re-release of Akira came to market. These days, Akira ranks among the most sought-after cels from the golden age of anime in the West. But oddly enough, the cels and backgrounds are almost impossible to find in Japan. The only pieces known to exist there are in the private collections of Otomo and other Kodansha staff, and have been documented in The Akira Animation Archives (2003).

There’s no clear way to determine what percentage of the full collection of production art still exists, much less where it all is. The rough count of cels that made it to Streamline is around 50,000 – and that’s a very rough estimate. Not even Jerry Beck is able to confirm exactly how many cels were in the original shipment. Of those, several boxes were damaged beyond recovery during the long boat trip from Japan. Anecdotal accounts place at least another three thousand cels lost during California’s mudslide catastrophes in 2006 and 2007 when a private collector’s house slid down a hill and into oblivion. The largest collection of Akira art in the world is believed to be in the hands of Joe Peacock [Hang on, that’s you – Ed.], a collector in the United States who boasts of over 17,000 pieces. David Kramer, Ian Cox, and several other notable collectors account for at least another 5000 — leaving 20,000 more cels out in general circulation outside Japan, often in ones and twos. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess where the artefacts of the world’s greatest animation achievement reside.

Akira gets a 25th Anniversary screening all over the UK, today. Or if you think your TV can handle it, you can always get the Blu-ray.

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