Janus Film Review Presents: Akira (1988)

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: Blu-Ray/Manga Entertainment (2017).

Cyberpunk: social disorder juxtaposed with unprecedented advancements in technology. Sounds like a recipe for rebellion. In the world of Akira, such disorder and rebellion permeates every beautifully crafted animated frame. Akira begins ominously as a nuclear cataclysm destroys Tokyo. 30 years later, post-World War III ‘Neo-Tokyo’ is in dystopian chaos, evoking the neo-noir vibes of Blade Runner. It is a place where paranoia and violence go hand in hand. Bike gangs chase each other through the cheerless streets. Tetsuo, a member of one such gang, the Capsules (led by defiant main protagonist Shotaro Kaneda), unwittingly crashes into a boy with mysterious psychic abilities. He is Takashi, designated Number 26 who, along with Kiyoko (Number 25) and others, is a subject of a secretive government parapsychology experiment to weaponise telekinetic humans. Kiyoko has premonitions about Neo-Tokyo's impending destruction. Tetsuo ends up in hospital, his friends end up in a correctional facility. An increasingly devastating telekinetic power is unleashed in Tetsuo. It is feared that his power might equal that of the eponymous Akira (designated Number 28), the cause of the cataclysmic events of 30 years prior, and the most powerful and enigmatic result of the government project. Following me so far? Ultimately, reawakening the destructive capabilities of Akira is the only way to stop the otherwise unassailable Tetsuo. And kaboom! – the science-fiction sub-genre ‘cyberpunk’ reaches its cultural zenith and a phenomenon is born.

Akira manages to engagingly juggle several converging plot points: Tetsuo's burgeoning powers; stand-offs between military men, scientists and government officials, resulting in a coup d'état; politicians trying to keep a lid on the secret experimentation and the dangers of Akira; and the efforts of Kaneda and his companions, Kei and Kaori, to uncover what has happened to Tetsuo and discover the true nature of Akira.

The imagery is often violent but never less than highly original. As Tetsuo starts to realise the extent of his powers, he experiences a surreal nightmare where toys in his bedroom come to life, growing in both size and menace. It was as unsettling to me, a grown man, as Winnie the Pooh's nightmarish visions of heffalumps and woozles were as a child. You had to be there. The film also presents an instance of life imitating art, as within the narrative and in reality, the Tokyo Olympics are due to take place in 2020 - a plot point of almost supernatural prescience on the part of director Katsuhiro Otomo, worthy of Akira himself.

Akira is a film where I found myself admiring the visuals, the compelling story and the supremely confident storytelling, only to remain emotionally detached. Frustratingly, things begin to unravel slightly towards the end of the film, which takes a decidedly philosophical turn that does not quite have the clarity of the rest of the film. I am not suggesting Akira is the kind of film that should be tied up in a neat little bow, but this comes as a surprise, particularly as the writing team of Katsuhiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto started with the conclusion of the story and worked backwards. Perhaps the inter-dimensional scope of the story became too unwieldy? It is possible, but also a shame; potentially a consequence of the daunting task of adapting a long-running Manga comic book series into a two hour film.

I am not well-versed in Manga, the historic Japanese comic book art form with a hugely faithful, obsessive and dedicated worldwide following. It is clear, however, that Akira is unrivalled in putting anime on the global map and changing the West’s perception of Japanese pop culture. Akira is a magnificent spectacle in terms of scope, ambition and film-making prowess. It more than earns its reputation as both a landmark in animation, and as a seminal slice of mature science-fiction. To discuss at length its legacy and lasting influence on modern science-fiction, particularly in Hollywood, would be an unenviable and potentially foolhardy task. A viewing of the film reveals that much of Hollywood’s science-fiction output in recent years amounts to a game of ‘spot the Akira Easter Eggs!’ However, the likes of Cid in Rian Johnson’s Looper and the onscreen portrayal of the Precogs in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report would likely not exist in their current form without Akira. Equally, outside of science-fiction, there are motorbike chases that are reimagined as high-octane live action equivalents in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Notably, the design of Neo-Tokyo prefigures the murky underworld of Gotham City as realised in Christopher Nolan's ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. And that’s without even mentioning The Matrix. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is a testament to Akira’s reverberating aftershocks that it manages, in two hours, to achieve what Hollywood has spent the subsequent 30 years trying to emulate. Did I mention it has a confusing ending, though?

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