JFR 018 | Akira (1988)
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
Cyberpunk: social disorder juxtaposed with unprecedented advancements in technology. Sounds like a recipe for rebellion. In the world of Akira (1988), 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 (1982).
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. At the time of writing, 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 worthy of Akira himself, on the part of director Katushiro Ôtomo.
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 Ôtomo and Izô 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 (2012) and the onscreen portrayal of the Precogs in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) 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 (1996) 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 (1999). 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?
Akira holds significant personal value to me, both as a motion picture and cultural icon, and as something deeper and infinitely more personal. It has been a fixture in my life since I originally discovered it on VHS, many moons ago, in the late 1990s. The film was already approaching its tenth birthday, and its reputation preceded it. Though still largely representative of an underground movement, Japanese manga adaptations were growing in popularity, and Akira - the cinematic magnum opus of director Katsuhiro Ôtomo (creator of the original voluminous manga) - was spoken of with passion and reverence. The film was considered to be the foremost example of avant-garde animation, with a mature and complex story, and an unrelenting visual power and scale. To many, Akira was the undisputed pinnacle of a medium, and watching it equated to a transcendental experience. Viewing the film during my formative years added to this impression. At a time when conscious rebellion was as desirable as one’s next breath, this dark and unspoken epic held enormous appeal.
These memories are rewarding, if more than a little rose-tinted. I can confirm that watching the film did not empower me to traverse new levels of existence. I had beheld a remarkable feat of creativity, intermingled with the emotional impact of being young and driven to discovery. As I’ve grown older and steadily more cynical, Akira has remained with me; a constant companion, striving always to stimulate my emotional and intellectual curiosity. It is a film of immense ambition, with every frame a vivid exhibition of kinetic energy, painstakingly nurtured and hand wrought. Its central questions remain as relevant today as they did thirty years ago. Central to this is the Faustian contention of power: To what lengths is the human race - collectively and individually - prepared to go in order to obtain power, and how far is too far, when it comes to the knowledge such power brings?
Akira is set in a dystopian vision of Japan, within the rebuilt (and rechristened) city of Neo-Tokyo. After emerging from the ashes of a devastating nuclear cataclysm, society re-established itself, but by the year 2019 all hope and trust has waned, and the foundations are once again dissolving. The scientific experiments that engendered the original disaster continue in secret, whilst the root cause of the destruction - an enigmatic child with extraordinary psychic and telekinetic abilities (the eponymous Akira) - has become the focus of both anti-governmental conspiracies and renewed religious fervour.
The film displays a healthy mistrust of collective ideals, be they scientific, religious or political in nature. The scientists within the film are depicted as capricious and amoral; the various cults venerating ‘Lord Akira’ are naive and when a charlatan emerges, easily swayed. The government is weak, bureaucratic and corrupt, whilst the political revolutionaries are undermined by self-interest and paranoia. This is why much of the film is witnessed from the perspective of Colonel Shikishima. He is the city’s de-facto military commander, and he looks on contemptuously at the factions vying for the soul of Neo-Tokyo. He is loyal to his men (and protective of the children in his care), yet he is compelled by an almost nihilistic fear. He senses before time the likely fate of Neo-Tokyo. His reaction is that of a typical soldier - aggressively reactive and inflexible - but he remains steadfast, and is one of Akira’s more sympathetic characters.
The (classically Japanese) conundrum of young people, and their place within society, is a central theme of Akira. The film is ultimately the story of young men and women willing to act, and the strength and legitimacy of their feelings is a major source of hope within the narrative. There is Kei, tempered by conscience and possessed of idealism matched only by her consistent bravery. The unfortunate Kaori suffers repeatedly (and definitively) for her earnestness. The ‘nursery’ children - Masaru (No. 27), Kiyoko (No. 25) and Takashi (No. 26) - are contemporaries of Akira (No. 28), and have spent their lives as living monuments to scientific excess, granting them a stunted, perpetual youth. They seek to prevent the inevitable disaster, and when the time comes they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives in the hopes of saving others. Finally, there are two boys: Biker gang leader Shōtarō Kaneda, and his subordinate Tetsuo Shima. At its heart, Akira is their story. They are both monuments to the reckless energy of youth, be it Kaneda’s cockiness and urchin-like resourcefulness, or Tetsuo’s covetousness and potent sense of determination.
Tetsuo craves acknowledgement in his own right, having long relied on Kaneda for protection, whilst Kaneda, in his role as leader of the biker gang, browbeats and overlooks Tetsuo in favour of others. Their once-affectionate friendship has fallen prey to hubris and jealousy. After an accident involving Takashi, Tetsuo is detained and subjected to experimentation, and begins to manifest powers akin to those associated with Akira. Kaneda repeatedly refuses to accept Tetsuo’s abduction and seeks to rescue him, thus revealing the true extent of his loyalty. Kaneda isn’t altruistic; he is an egotistical pillock, and engages in a little ‘skirt chasing’ on the side, but he continuously seeks ways to search for his friend, eventually abandoning the remainder of his gang in the process.
Tetsuo’s feelings revolve around obsession. From the first moment we meet the character he fixates brattishly on Kaneda’s custom motorcycle. As he begins to realise the extent of his post-accident transformation he becomes violent, murdering numerous soldiers and scientists, as well as Kaneda’s gang lieutenant, Yamagata, and bitterly disavowing the aforementioned motorcycle. Even as his body begins to fail under the strain of his powers, Tetsuo revels in provoking, taunting and humiliating Kaneda. There is something oddly charming about a superpowered boy in a cape, falsely labelled as a god and with the power to crush tanks, shatter bridges and destroy a satellite, petulantly directing his ire at a friend-come-nemesis; all as the city around them crumbles into dust. If nothing else, it demonstrates an altogether amusing lack of perspective!
Much emphasis has been placed on the film’s supposedly impenetrable ending. It is very much open to interpretation, and is admittedly difficult to reconcile with conventional notions of logic. However in this instance, the devil is not in the detail: the broader vision is more important. There is a parabolic quality to Akira. The titular character is reborn only at the proper moment. All those who have been touched or corrupted by the unfathomable power of the divine, such as Tetsuo and the nursery children, are lost, and it is unclear precisely what fate befalls them. Kei - who helps to guide Kaneda back from the abyss - survives, and the Colonel, for all his folly and unyieldingness, is spared by Kiyoko’s enduring gratitude and affection.
Kaneda’s survival is more ambiguous, and there is something desperately sad in the manner of his and Tetsuo’s final parting. As Tetsuo finally loses control of his powers - in one of the most gruesome and monstrous spectacles ever envisaged - he desperately screams for Kaneda; succeeding only in dragging him into Akira’s wake. Here, in this unknowable purgatory, we see the origins of their friendship. Kaneda defended an abandoned and lonely child, and Tetsuo found himself a big brother. They were always there for each other. At its climax, the film presents a powerful and moving juxtaposition of the straightforward necessity of friendship, and the almighty power of a god.
Akira is a boiling menagerie of sound, style, theme and visual splendour. Yet if one looks deeper, they will find a proud heart beating beneath the grandeur. Humanity and friendship is as powerful (and necessary) as any notion of science or divinity. Rapacious Hollywood jackals have been fluttering there eyelids in the film’s direction for years, in the hope of creating a Tinseltown version of Akira. This is a ghastly notion. Quite aside from the inevitable budgetary constraints, the film’s tonal and philosophical qualities are unlikely to be faithfully reproduced. So to Hollywood, I say this: Leave well enough alone. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is a mesmerising feat of unparalleled worth, and should be forever enjoyed, considered and honoured. It is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest animated film ever made, and one of the most unique, influential and important motion pictures - full stop - in the history of cinema.