The history of Akira on home video turns out to encapsulate the history of anime on home video in the United States as well. The success of the film in Japan led to the first VHS releases in the early 1990’s, in both dubbed and subtitled versions as well as in full-frame and letterboxed releases. The success of the film on VHS ultimately led to the creation of Manga Entertainment, and was one mark of the rise of anime fandom outside of the comic book shops and specialty video stores where it had been a niche industry. Anime was also disproportionately represented on laserdisc, with Akira getting multiple releases on that format as well (including one from the Criterion Collection that remains the only fully animated feature ever released by that label to date). There have been numerous DVD releases through a succession of American anime distributors, including Pioneer (which commissioned a second English dub of the film in 2001) and then Bandai Entertainment, which released a Blu-ray in 2009. When Bandai announced it was shuttering operations in 2012, I don’t think anybody expected this title to stay unlicensed for long, so it was no surprise when FUNimation announced Akira‘s acquisition. Now the remaining giant of the American anime industry has released a 25th anniversary Akira Blu-ray/DVD combo disc, which is a nicely definitive home video release of this seminal animated classic.
Akira is set in Neo Tokyo in 2019, 31 years after a mysterious incident destroyed Tokyo and triggered World War III. The giant, glittering metropolis hides a rotten core, as governmental corruption and incompetence has led to civil unrest and an active resistance movement, and law-and-order is strained enough that teenaged biker gangs can run wild in the streets. The brash and arrogant Kaneda leads one of these gangs on his souped-up custom motorcycle, with his longtime friend Tetsuo struggling to earn his respect and the respect of his peers. An explosive accident with a mysterious gray-skinned, white-haired little boy in the ruins of the old city leads to a run-in with the Army, who take away both the mysterious boy and the critically injured Tetsuo. The accident seems to unlock latent psychic ability in Tetsuo, who finds himself in the clutches of a top-secret government research project led by a stern military ramrod known only as the Colonel. Meanwhile, Kaneda finds himself involved with a girl named Kei, one of a group of resistance fighters engaging in escalating attacks on the government, which engineered the mysterious boy’s escape from the government’s labs. Tetsuo’s power grows with dramatic speed, but also slowly drives him insane, turning the bullied into a bully out for payback and ready to take it out on Neo Tokyo and all its inhabitants. Before long, he is on a massively destructive rampage through Neo Tokyo, triggering open civil revolt, religious cultists fanning apocalyptic fervor, and martial law, with everyone tied together by the mysterious “Akira” and the secrets he holds to the destruction of Tokyo three decades earlier.
If nothing else, Akira deserves its pedestal in animation history on technical merit alone. Even now, 25 years after its initial release, the animation is astounding and unmatched, from its explosive opening motorcycle chases to the apocalyptic destruction of its extended climax. The best of its contemporaries included Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro and Disney’s Oliver and Company (with The Little Mermaid still a year away from release), but Akira‘s bustling, busy Neo Tokyo is a quantum leap beyond any of those titles in terms of sheer technical complexity. There are countless scenes that require multiple viewings or frequent pauses to catch everything happening in frame, and several scenes (including some of the more graphic of Tetsuo’s hallucinations and the body horror nightmare that threatens to consume him at the end of the movie) have a seamlessness that can still only be achieved in animation. It’s astonishing to realize that everything in the movie is hand-drawn and composited, especially when nearly all hand-drawn animation today has gone to digital workflows and CGI for vehicles. Akira‘s rightly-famed motorcycle combat scenes can still best all challengers, especially when paired to the film’s percussive, primal score. I would also argue that the scenes of wanton destruction throughout the movie’s final third still possess more power than any dozen similar scenes in more-recent CGI extravaganzas, both due to the strength of the animation and the emotional power of the imagery. By the time the movie reaches this point, it has achieved the level of Greek tragedy, as all the players seem doomed to march towards a dark fate that few of them desire but none of them can avoid.
Despite its reputation, I have to admit that I didn’t really appreciate Akira as a film on nearly all of my previous viewings. I first encountered the film through one of those early VHS releases (which was also the first letterboxed VHS tape I had ever seen), and while I thought the animation was amazing, I found the story nearly incoherent. The feeling did not change on periodic re-watches throughout the years until I caught bits and pieces of the 2001 redub on cable, when the new version seemed more nuanced and mature than what I remembered. However, even after grabbing one of the 2001 Pioneer DVDs, I didn’t feel compelled enough to sit through the entire movie again until now; I must also admit this is the first time I’ve ever watched the entire film in the original Japanese. The result is a 180-degree turnaround in my opinion of the movie: I now think Akira is rightly heralded as a masterpiece of a film, and whatever dissatisfaction I had with it initially can be laid at the feet of the original dub script, which strips the movie of much-needed nuance and subtlety and changes enough plot elements to keep the entire thing from coming together properly. The original dub is included on this Blu-ray, but I can only recommend it for the hardcore fans seeking to recreate the nostalgic thrill of discovering the movie in the early part of the 1990’s. For everyone else, the newer dub and the original Japanese are the way to go; the similarity between the dub dialogue track and the subtitles make me believe this translation is far more accurate, while the differences between the two make me think that the subtitles aren’t just taken from the newer dub script. Perhaps the best way to express my change of heart in the film is to say that after subconsciously avoiding the movie for years, I watched it in full at least four times since receiving FUNimation’s screener copy, with some parts getting re-watched even more than that.
It would be a surprise if FUNimation released a bad Blu-ray of Akira, and thankfully this release is exceptionally good. Video quality is top-notch, with bright, clear colors and linework and none of the underscanning from Bandai’s 2009 Blu-ray release. I also appreciate that the restoration didn’t go to the lengths Disney does in scrubbing the video of every bit of film grain; the animation can speak well enough to modern audiences without stripping out those traces of the process. This is still a reference-quality Blu-ray disc worth breaking out when you need to impress the neighbors with your home video setup. It also includes three different soundtracks: the remastered 2009 Japanese soundtrack and the 2001 Pioneer English dub in 5.1 TrueHD, along with the original 1988 English dub in 2.0 TrueHD. For fans of the film, it will not be much of a surprise to learn that the 5.1 soundtracks will give your sound system a terrific workout. Bonus features end up being something of a good news/bad news joke. The bad news is that there are no new bonus features included for this anniversary edition, and apparently a handful of bonuses on earlier releases (specifically Pioneer’s 2001 special edition DVD and possibly even the Criterion laserdisc) don’t appear on this release. The good news is that there are still a good number of quality bonus features included, with the lengthiest and most worthwhile being a 30-minute interview with director Katsuhiro Otomo, the “Akira Sound Clip” featurette on the music (it’s a kick to watch the super-high tech music of the 80’s being edited on original-sized Macintosh computers), and a featurette on the restoration of the film, which covers video and audio as well as the new dub. There are also a collection of storyboards, original trailers and commercials, an extremely brief feature on the graffiti on the walls, a glossary of terms in the movie (including what looks like information taken from the source manga, judging by the depth and detail and specifics not mentioned out loud in the movie), and an array of FUNimation trailers. The combo pack also includes a 2-disc DVD set, with the movie on one disc and the extras on the other.
If you’ve been holding out on getting Akira on home video, this new release from FUNimation is easily worth the investment. Audio and video quality are unparalleled, which easily makes any absent bonus features a distant secondary concern. My re-evaulation of the movie is akin to the one I experienced for Howl’s Moving Castle, where I almost cannot understand how I didn’t appreciate this movie before now (at least until comparisons between the original dub and the subtitle soundtrack made it pretty clear where the signal loss occurred). Akira easily earns every bit of hype it’s ever acquired over the years, and a quarter-century has done nothing to diminish its cinematic achievement.