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Brutally violent, beautifully animated, Akira is a masterpiece of science fiction cinema.

 

This review is the lead off of my Top Ten Anime movies you should check out. To be honest, this is not necessarily going to be a Top 10 Best of list, as the majority of that list would be taken up by one director, Hayao Miyazaki, and one studio, Studio Ghibli. As such, movies from those two will be limited. I also wanted to include different sub-genres on the list, so not all will be action, suspense, etc. I am sticking to single films and not films set in a series to recap a series. So movies like Neon Genesis, Evangelion 1.0, You Are (Not) Alone, or Mobile Suit Gundam III will not be featured. Also, it needs to be disclosed that most of these will not be suitable for kids (NSFK). For those who are unfamiliar with anime, many of these films are not like the cute Disney or Dreamworks films released. They deal with adult themes and many feature adult language and imagery. Hopefully, some people who have never seen a good anime film will be turned on to these and become fans of anime. As the great Roger Ebert once wrote regarding Japanese animation, “To watch these titles is to understand that animation is not an art form limited to cute little animals and dancing teacups. It releases the imagination so fully that it can enhance any story, and it can show sights that cannot possibly exist in the real world.”

The first film up is 1988’s Akira. This film is NSFK. It contains graphic violence, nudity, attempted rape, and disturbing imagery.

Akira was written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also the author of the manga (Japanese comic) from with the movie is based. When approached to direct the adaptation for the big screen, Otomo responded by agreeing only if he had total creative control of the film. He knew it needed to be ambitious and, at the time, was the costliest anime ever. Thank goodness the studio agreed because what he directed is a sci-fi anime that is a masterpiece. No, not just a great sci-fi anime, but a great sci-fi film that deserves to be on any 25 greatest sci-fi film lists.

Akira is special in that it may be the single most important anime for the spread of the art form across the world. Prior, there had been very little exported out of Japan that made any waves. Without the success of this film, it is possible that few of the animated gems that have graced the American screens would have been seen. There definitely would never have been an Oscar awarded to an animated Japanese import.

Akira takes place in the near-future, post-apocalyptic, Neo-Tokyo in 2019. It occurs 30 years following the end of World War III after an explosive, cataclysmic event. Neo-Tokyo is filled with neon lights, glittering sky scrapers, and bright lights. From the distance it looks like a shining city. But on the ground, it is a dirty, disparate city with biker gangs running rampant and civil unrest abounding. Graffiti is everywhere. Buildings are damp and dirty. Beneath the shiny façade is a city run by corrupt, fascist politicians. Civil unrest grows as terrorist/independence fighters carry out guerilla attacks on the city in response to the Police’s brutal use of force and the crack down on freedom speech and press.

Growing up in this mess are two teens. Kaneda is the outspoken, cocksure, charismatic leader of the Capsules, a small biker gang unafraid of mixing it up on the streets. Tetsuo is Kaneda’s friend and is also a member of the Capsules. Unlike his friend, Tetsuo is unsure of himself and feels he is often picked on. Both are orphans, growing up together in the same orphanage. Their bond is strengthened by the fact they arrived around the same time. It is as if their fate was interlinked before time began.

The Capsules appear to be in a perpetual battle with another gang known as the Clowns. It is during one of their skirmishes where Tetsuo encounters a subject of human experimentation on a highway during a high speed chase. This encounter unlocks a hidden power within Tetsuo and sets in motion events that will forever effect all they know.

The government takes Tetsuo after this close encounter and begin monitoring him and putting him through all sorts of tests and scans. He is said to have the potential of containing a great yet incredibly dangerous power. During this time, Kaneda searches for his friend and meets Kei, a female freedom fighter who catches his eye.

Kaneda is reunited with his friend briefly before the Army takes Tetsuo back, but in that short time Kaneda senses something is wrong with Tetsuo. The unlocked power is destroying his mind, causing him to suffer horrific hallucinations, such as all of his internal organs becoming disemboweled and trying to put his guts back into himself. This wounded orphan begins to tap into his god like powers while his mind erodes with madness and hatred to everyone for picking on him his whole life. Tetsuo rampages through the city intoxicated on this unlocked power. Kaneda and Tetsuo’s paths take a turn in which best friends become best enemies, while the mysterious Akira is sought out. What follows is a battle with the lives of millions at stake.

Akira is beautiful in its detailed backgrounds and breathtaking animation. The amount of detail in the facial expressions, especially the lips and jaw moving in a lifelike manner, was revolutionary at the time for anime. There were no CGI short-cuts (so to speak). No, the frames were meticulously hand drawn with only a few CGI effects inserted later. The vulgar background graffiti is readable, and real world product placements show up where they would in the real world. Not ham-fisted in like in Jurassic World, but lovingly placed like the “Citizen” sticker on Kaneda’s bike. The contrast of colors and textures make this animated world become real. Rust and peeled paint are recreated with a precision rarely seen and are often placed in contrast to bright neon colors. The brutal violence is, dare I say, beautiful in the attention to detail. Maggot-filled, dead sewer rats get the same attention as a dismembered limb or bullet to the head.  And David Cronenberg himself would be proud of artwork in some of the scenes. The action scenes convey a great sense of kinetic energy. The bikes speed through the city at breakneck speed. Various projectiles move with a sense of mass. Explosions are forceful in a natural, if not slightly exaggerated way. It all adds up to a visual feast.

Of equal importance is the soundtrack. It took months for the soundtrack to be composed and was completed before the first frame was drawn. Much like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, many of the characters have specific styles of music that signals their presence on screen. And the music is beautiful, haunting, energetic, foreboding. The tracks perfectly compliment the scene for which they were chosen. Or another way to put it is the scene was drawn around the track. Percussion, world, and electronic are just a few of the styles incorporated that drive the film. Background sounds are lifelike. The hum and click of a flickering florescent light, the conversations to the side, and the sounds of military vehicles are all faithfully recreated. Gunfire has a natural pop and decay, avoiding the hyper excited sound used in too many action films. It just adds to the immersion into the film

The voice acting is also top notch, whether the subtitled Japanese or English-dubbed version are watched. There are many instances where the dubbed version is woefully executed, lacking the energy and soul of the original. Not so here. The dubbed version feels just as right as the original subbed. The only small drawback is sometimes the mouth of the character doesn’t quite sync up with the voice in the dubbed version, but it is fairly subtle and avoids being distracting. So either can be fully enjoyed.

On a psychological level, the film deals with many different themes. It explores how living in a totalitarian state effects the growth of the teenagers. How these kids who have no hope try to cope with a police state where it doesn’t matter what they pursue as they will be contained in their slums with extreme prejudice. It touches on how the violence inherent in the system begets violence in the population. Akira challenges one to think about the various governmental entities involved who controls the power. In fact, that exploration on the control (or lack thereof) of power is core to the film.

Akira is masterpiece of sci-fi cinema, able to stand on the mantle with such classics as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The plot is strong and engaging while also being thought provoking. The visuals are gorgeous, even in the disturbing violence that marks Neo-Tokyo. The sound track flawlessly accentuates every important moment. Characters are alive. Akira is a must watch not just for anime fans, but for sci-fi fans period.

 

 

Directed By: Katsuhiro Otomo

Produced By: Ryohei Suzuki, Shunzo Kato

Written By: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izo Hashimoto

Voice Actors: Kaneda- Mitsuo Iwata (Jp), Cam Clarke (En)

Tetsuo- Nozomu Sasaki (Jp), Jan Rabson (En)

Kei- Mami Koyama (Jp), Lara Cody (En)

Distributed By: Streamline Pictures

Release Date: July 16, 1988 (Japan), December 25, 1989 (N. America)

Run Time: 121 minutes

Rating: R

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