by Allan Fish
(Japan 1988 124m) DVD1/2
p Ryohei Suzuki, Shunzo Kato d Katsuhiro Otomo w Katsuhiro Otomo, Izo Hashimoto comic Katsuhiro Otomo ph Katsuji Misawa ed Takeshi Setama m Shoji Yamashiro art Toshiharu Mizutani
VOICES BY:- Mitsuo Iwata (Shotaro Kaneda), Nozomo Sazaki (Tetsuo Shima), Mami Koyama (Kei), Tessho Genda (Ryusaku), Hiroshi Otake (Nezu), Koichi Kitamura (Miyako), Michihiro Ikemizu (Inspector, Council I), Yuriko Fuchizaki (Kaori), Masaki Okura (Yamagata),
It’s now two decades since Akira first burst into the western consciousness. Up until its arrival, animation – that is to say feature length animation – was monopolised by the increasingly soporific output by Disney. Now we can perhaps see the impact of what it lead to, most famously the popularity of traditional non-manga based anime, led by the ever fantastic Hayao Miyazaki, but also a proliferation of a brand of animation tailored specifically towards adults – even though it was with adolescents they proved most popular. Manga promised them violence, blood, profanity and also a great deal of sex, often involving huge-tentacled demons with a lust that can be best described as insatiable. There have been other important manga works, from Ghost in the Shell and Wings of the Honnemise to the work of Satoshi Kon, from Perfect Blue to Tokyo Godfathers to Paprika. When it arrived, it was as if a new culture had been shown to us; the world of animation would never be the same again.
It begins with a Terminator-like opening caption, telling us the date; 16th July 1988. We see a huge explosion, which could be mistaken for a nuclear bomb, were it not so quiet. We cut forward then to 2019 (surely a reference to Blade Runner), 31 years after the end of World War III, in what is now called Neo Tokyo. Two youths are part of a motorcycle gang roaming the streets in confrontation with both the forces of the law and other more violent gangs. One of them, Tetsuo, is increasingly irritated by the fact that his friend and leader, Kaneda, always seems to get him out of scrapes. While Kaneda is sidetracked by his love for a young underground activist, Kei, Tetsuo comes under the influence of a group of prematurely aged children with special psychic powers. Meanwhile, the military and the government are trying to deal with these ‘children’ in their own way, including the almost-mythical Akira, who may or may not have been the cause of World War III himself.
Otomo’s film, based on his own comic book series, is also influenced by many previous works, from Metropolis and Blade Runner to Tron and even, in its gang culture, A Clockwork Orange, and in its finale, 2001. Many complained at the extreme violence and the very complex plot, which later gives way to its own form of mythological coda. In truth, watched now, it seems like nothing compared to the mythologies weaved into the plots of later manga outputs. Visually, it’s astounding, especially in the surrealist and nightmarish visions Tetsuo has – from his insides dropping out of him, an earthquake which causes him to disintegrate before his very eyes, and particularly an unforgettable sequence in a hospital bed, where he finds himself being attacked by a giant toy bear and bunny, only to have the room flood with milk after he finds his room is made out of giant lego bricks.
What’s perhaps most impressive, however, is the design, a truly unforgettable patchwork which is reminiscent of Blade Runner but hugely individual for all that. He also manages to conclude the film with a sequence in its own way equally as impressive as 2001’s stargate, as we are witness to flashbacks and forwards, including to the birth of the universe. There are even sequences of student riots that eerily look forward barely a year later to events in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The minority who already knew of manga before Akira hit the west must have smiled satisfactorily when people announced a new age in animation; simply, to quote the film, “because it had already begun.”