I’ll never forget the first time I saw the 1988 animated feature film Akira. It was Saturday morning on the Sci-Fi Channel, back in the ’90s when that was their timeslot for Japanese anime. While I had somewhat enjoyed my samplings of anime to that point, Akira really impressed and intrigued me. Here was a movie so radically different from my own country’s animation that it was almost … alien. But the good kind of alien—the fascinating kind, like the ones in Close Encounters, not the kind that try to eat your face. While the movie had obviously been edited for content and time, it was still a cool experience and probably one of the reasons I’m an anime fan today.
Why did I enjoy Akira, and why do I still enjoy it? Well let’s get a huge reason out of the way right now: the artwork. Holy. Cow. Some people stereotype anime as a lot of cheap work, featuring characters sliding into the frame, reused animation sequences, and generic open-and-close lip-flaps that poorly match even the native language. Not in Akira. It’s got full animation most of the time, rivaling Walt Disney. Characters’ mouths actually form specific shapes depending on the sentence. (And, oddly, it doesn’t look too awkward even when matched with English words!) A great amount of care is put into character movements, yet they’re given some distinct personality so that it doesn’t look cheaply rotoscoped. The backgrounds are gorgeous, detailed, and dynamically lit. The film uses parallax scrolling to give the illusion of depth, which can be seen in the movie’s famous opening with the numerous high rise buildings and highways. And, perhaps best of all, debris from explosions are intricately animated to show every little particle. Bottom line: Akira is a sight to behold, even twenty years later.
Now obviously this would all be for naught if the story was bland or uninteresting. Luckily, Akira has an engaging premise to go along with the pretty exterior. In a nutshell, a motorcycle gang of high schoolers roams the streets of Neo Tokyo in 2019. One night, Tetsuo, one of the members of the gang, has a motorcycle accident by avoiding a freaky-looking kid on the freeway. He’s taken into a hospital for experimentation, and it turns out he harbors a dangerous mental ability similar to “Akira,” the mysterious being who caused the destruction of Tokyo in 1988. Tetsuo tries to keep his newly-discovered power under control at first, but is unsuccessful and goes on a killing rampage.
His friend and fellow gang member Kaneda is trying to rescue Tetsuo, but is rejected by Tetsuo, who realizes that with his new power he can protect himself and no longer needs Kaneda’s help. Of course, he goes too far and nearly causes the second destruction of Tokyo in the process. Throughout this, a character known as the Colonel is dealing with the scientist that let the Akira experiment go too far, as well as city politics that won’t let him stop this ticking time bomb; despite an arrest warrant, he is desperate to protect the city at all costs.
If it wasn’t already clear, Akira owes its storyline to Japan’s own horrific experiences in the atomic bomb blasts of 1945. From its famous opening scene of the destruction of Tokyo to the apocalyptic visions of the end, Akira plays out as a cautionary tale about tampering with science to the point where complete human annihilation becomes a real and constant possibility—a theme that has been present in many Japanese works for decades. The only difference is that Akira showcases a personification of this destruction in the form of a human being in Tetsuo. Personally, I found this to be a more interesting approach than if it was just some one-dimensional foreign enemy trying to bomb Japan. The vision of an average teen who holds the power of life and death and can’t control it is a powerful metaphor for science run amok.
Any classic film has a multitude of memorable scenes, and Akira is no exception. I already mentioned the motorcycle dueling scene, with its jungle drums bringing a primitive, chaotic nature to what is supposed to be a civilized futuristic society. In addition, there is the scene where Tetsuo hallucinates a teddy bear, a toy race car, and a stuffed rabbit growing giant and crushing his hospital room, all while a creepy minimalist choir chants in the background. There’s a scene when Tetsuo is able to skyrocket himself to a satellite orbiting Earth that is trying to shoot him and control it from there. (I especially like that they don’t have sound in space! What a concept!) Even the brief bits of comic relief are memorable, like when the biker gang is brought in for questioning by the police, and some random thug’s grenade fails to go off, causing the police to beat him mercilessly for being such an idiot.
Some may scoff that the film doesn’t go as in-depth as the manga, but it’s best not to look at the film as an inferior, incomplete version of the manga, but as part of the overall franchise. If you see Akira and love it, you may be inclined to check out its source material, where apparently many storylines are more fleshed out. This abridging of the source material doesn’t make the film itself bad, though. Far from it.
The Akira Blu-ray is a mixed bag. Let’s discuss the positives first. The audio and video quality is top notch. Granted, I only recently got a Blu-ray player, so I’m still wowed by the video quality over DVDs, but even taking that into account, I was constantly impressed by Akira. The picture is crystal clear, with well-defined and bright (though not overpowering) colors. If it weren’t for a few random specks of grain, you would swear this movie was brand new. That’s how crisp and clean it looks.
Sound is also impressive, with a fine TrueHD sound mix that does the film justice and offers no discernible compression, drop-outs, or muffled moments. This release, as with the previous Geneon offerings, comes with the Animaze dub as opposed to the Streamline dub. Having not heard the Streamline version outside of a few snippets, I can’t definitely say which version I like better, but I will say that the Animaze version has always been an effective English dialog track. Johnny Yong Bosch, whom you may know from more recent roles like Ichigo (Bleach) or Lelouch (Code Geass) may seem familiar due to his wealth of roles now, but he is perfect for the part of Kaneda, especially in the second half, when he tries to get through to the tortured Tetsuo. Speaking of Tetsuo, Joshua Seth is effective in the role, hitting all the right dramatic notes.
But while the presentation is a solid showcase for Blu-ray’s abilities, the extras are lacking. All we get are some trailers and commercials. No material from the fancy two-disc DVD from a few years back appears here, which is a shame, as I haven’t seen any of it; I bought the bare bones version back then. The set redeems itself a tad with a 32-page booklet that contains staff interviews accompanied by production and finished art. I always appreciate when anime companies include this sort of thing, but sadly it seems to be turning into a luxury in this recession.
Over twenty years later, Akira still holds up as a fine achievement in the field of Japanese animation. I’ve watched it numerous times now, and each time I watch it I enjoy it just as much, and marvel at the craft it took to make. And even at two hours, the film surprisingly doesn’t drag too much either. The Blu-ray disc displays superior graphics and sound, but loses some points for the slim extras. However, if you’ve never had the pleasure of owning Akira, you might as well buy the Blu-ray version despite the lack of extras, as that DVD special edition is getting hard to find and won’t look as good.
Click on any thumbnail image to see sample high-definition images from the Blu-ray disc. All images ©1988 MASHROOM / AKIRA COMMITTEE All Rights Reserved.
Based on the graphic novel Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. First published by Young Magazine, Kodansha, Ltd.The thread view count is 263