Man, did people know how to anime shit blowing up in the 80’s.
In what’s fast becoming the “stuff I watched as a kid” review series, today I’m looking at the 1988 animated classic Akira. If you aren’t an anime fan and know the name of an anime movie, chances are good it’s this one, but I probably need to give a quick overview of the plot anyway.
Based on a sprawling comic series of the same name, Akira is set in a post-World War 3 Neo Tokyo attempting to rebuild itself after a massive explosion of unknown origin leveled the city 30 years ago (*cough*). A group of government scientists conducting experiments on children- seemingly just for the lulz- involving psychic powers cross paths with a teenage biker gang among the squalid city slums, leading to one of the gang members being kidnapped for nefarious purposes. What follows is a story of science gone wrong, rebellion and technology. And things exploding.
So basically it’s every cyber-punk trope you’ve ever seen rolled into one. I’m not going to claim Akira was stunningly original even for the time, and it’s been ripped off six ways from Sunday in the decades since, but does it execute a familiar formula well? Yes and no.
First a little context. I became interested in graduating from Pokemon and Dragonball Z to more mature anime just before the early-2000’s boom made anime DVDs affordable and available, and I didn’t have access to Internet shopping as a 13 year old so I relied on the rare occasions when something would show up in a shop or rental store. One day at a large shopping center I used to go to with my family I spotted a rack of VHS copies of Akira, retailing for the at the time ludicrous price of 25 euro or so. I knew about the movie’s reputation but had no real idea of what it was about. I didn’t care. I wanted it.
Eventually I used some birthday cash to buy a copy and let me tell you- my naive little teenage mind was blown. I watched it twice and then brought it to all my friends so they could see it too. I must have seen it ten times in the space of a few months. Looking back now I can’t really remember what about the movie gripped me so much, but I suspect it was the film’s visuals more than its story. In the ten year span in which I haven’t gone back to it most of the details of the film’s plot have seeped out of my brain, while much of the more striking visual elements stand out clearly.
For this review I revisited the movie on Blu-Ray (which looks gorgeous, by the way). To get my verdict out of the way up front I enjoyed it a lot, but also noticed some serious flaws that slipped by me as a fourteen year old.
Like I said earlier, this is an adaptation of a very long manga- 2200 pages in some prints- and even taking into account how much was removed or truncated it’s obvious the move is trying to pack a lot of material into a small space. The first 15 minutes or so are packed with clunky exposition and the plot often seems to be jumping from story point to story point with very little rhyme or reason. I also get the sense that a lot of crucial back-story was skipped over, as character motivations often aren’t very clear.
The evil scientist cabal really do seem to be running an illegal, unethical, extremely dangerous experiment just for the hell of it and the rebellion sub-plot is barely sketched out. This becomes particularly problematic when we’re asked to root for members of the resistance in spite of their apparently indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.
Speaking of rooting for characters….. Yeah. Akira’s cast isn’t very easy to get behind. In a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film the movie begins with our heroes the teenage bikers going on a violent rampage that kills several bystanders. They’re violent, amoral hedonists who fight the government conspiracy for entirely selfish reasons. Now it’s true that they’re also product of an extremely messed up environment, but by the time that’s driven home to the player it’s too little, too late. Sure these characters are cool and they get to have awesome psychic battles, but that doesn’t make me care whether they live or die.
Oh wait, I should say that some characters get to have awesome battles. The characters with Y chromosomes. Akira features a whopping three women, one of whom seems to exist solely to be victimized, often by the protagonists.
The other two get rescued by men a lot. I know that’s kind of a given for action movies, but we’re talking about a hardened and apparently combat-trained resistance fighter being saved by a dumb-as-as-a-bag-of-hammers biker hooligan, or a powerful psychic girl being rescued multiple times by…. other psychics, whose abilities she supposedly shares. I guess having ovaries hinders telekinetic powers or something. Make no mistake, Akira is a Manly film for Manly Men and it reflects this by treating its female characters like shit.
That sounds like there’s a lot wrong with the movie’s script and, yeah, there is. But something about Akira obviously grabbed people. What made- and continues to make- the movie so appealling?
Well, there’s the action. I feel like it’s a sorry state of affairs when I have to praise an action movie for the fact that you can see what’s going on during its battle scenes, but with the way the genre has been going in live action lately I feel compelled to do just that. In fact the framing and scene composition of the movie in general resemble live action quite a bit. Maybe that’s why so much of it sticks in my mind.
The psychic battles and lazers and EXPLODE might get all of the surface-level attention, but it’s the subtle undercurrent of eerie surrealism that really grabbed me on the re-watch. The off-kilter, unconventional musical score and- perhaps more importantly- the fact that the movie knows when to use silence effectively.
It’s always interesting to see what people in previous decades thought the future would be like. Today sci-fi trends toward sleek, Apple-inspired iCities, but in the 80s it was all dirty, sprawling cyberpunk. Akira’s Neo Tokyo fully dives into this trope, taking the form of an endless urban sprawl over-grown with factories and cybernetics, a place where towering office blocks literally block out the sky. I can’t say I’m longing for a return to the days when that was the norm for sci-fi, but it’s an interesting enough milieu to visit for two hours.
That’s really all I’ve got to say on Akira. It’s a fantastic action movie that’s not exactly intelligent but at the very least artfully shot and capable of building an interesting atmosphere. It also has some serious writing problems and is pretty damn unpleasant when you get down to it. Does this movie deserve the decades-spanning pedestal it’s been placed upon? No, probably not. Does it deserve to be seen by someone who’s never experienced it before? I’m going to say yes. You could do much worse.