Judge Michael Nazarewycz needs training wheels for his motorcycle.
Our review of Akira: Special Edition, published August 20th, 2001, is also available.
Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.
My first exposure to Japanese-based animation was when I was a kid in the 1970s. In addition to traditional American fare (Bugs Bunny and the like), my afternoons had guaranteed slots for Asian imports Marine Boy and Speed Racer. Despite their marked stylistic differences from American animation, I still called them cartoons. My interest in them continued into the 1980s and my teen years with such titles as Star Blazers (appointment TV for sure), Bubblegum Crisis, and Robotech, to name just a few. The production values were superior to those older efforts, and by then I was calling the form Japanimation.
Then 1988 came along and it brought with it a new moniker—anime—and a new gold standard: Akira. Adapting it from his own manga, director Katsuhiro Otomo Steamboy gives us the Citizen Kane of anime, with a visual and narrative style that still influences the anime of today.
Facts of the Case
In 1988, World War III wipes out Tokyo. Thirty years later, Neo-Tokyo is every bit as twinkling as its predecessor, but its streets are overrun with warring motorcycle gangs. One of those gangs is led by Kaneda. One particular night, when Kaneda's gang gets into a high-speed battle with rival gang The Clowns, Kaneda's best friend, Tetsuo, nearly crashes into a mysterious young boy whose face looks like that of an old man. The accident leaves Tetsuo badly injured, but before Kaneda can assist, a government group takes Tetsuo and the other boy away in a helicopter.
It turns out that Tetsuo has psychokinetic abilities that greatly interest the government, but as Tetsuo's abilities become stronger, so too does the teen's desire to recklessly wield that power. When the government loses control of him, it's up to Kaneda to prevent Neo-Tokyo from suffering the same fate as Tokyo 1.0.
It's difficult to summarize what Akira is because Akira is many things.
Foremost, I suppose, Akira is a film. As such, it is one heavy in its themes of social uprising, political distrust, military superiority, spirituality, and technology, all with the underlying hum of nuclear fear that was so prevalent in 1980s sci-fi, wrapped nicely in classic Japanese cinematic themes of friendship, duty, and honor. The textures of this film are deep and intricate.
With such heavy themes, Akira is not something that would appeal to very young viewers (this isn't your grandpa's animated film), which is probably a good thing, because the film is also intensely and graphically violent, which would not bode well for the kiddies. Still, it is impossible to look away from.
That's where Akira's next wonder appears: it's a moving work of art. This is old-school cel animation at its absolute finest. Each of the 160,000-plus hand-drawn frames is crammed with so much rich detail that there are too many pause-worthy images to mention. This animation, this art, is not unlike the art of Disney's early animated works: so wonderfully done as art first and commerce second that it stands the test of time and never feels dated, despite whatever styles are popular at the moment of viewing.
Akira's third classification is that of historical cinematic milestone. Until the film's release, animation—even that coming out of Japan from the likes of legend Hayao Miyazaki—never dealt with such themes in such a raw, graphic, and stylistic way. It opened the door for other animators to break away from the standard animated rules that had been in place for so long. From anime found on television today to major motion pictures like The Matrix, Akira's influence has crossed genres and spanned generations, a true testament to its greatness.
The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is excellent. There is a lot of sound in this film—dialogue, violence, a beautiful score (that really holds up twenty-five years later)—and of course those glorious speeding motorcycles. All of it is clear and discernible throughout the film. The anamorphic video, on the other hand, is a problem.
The review copy Funimation provided us is the DVD version, not the Blu-ray, and it shows. For as gorgeous as the imagery is, there are scenes that look like no improvement efforts have been made (harkening back to the days of needing head-cleaners). I know this is not the case for this film based on previous home video releases. It only makes me that much more eager to see the film on Blu-ray.
The extras should be judged based on what you know of them already, as several have appeared on previous home video releases. In addition to the obligatory trailers and commercials, there is an interesting 29-minute interview with director Otomo that was originally on the 1993 LaserDisc release; and an 11-minute video from the 2001 Special Edition DVD about the restoration process, where various technicians, including Chief Engineer Howard Lukk, dive into the geek-speak.
Rounding out the bonus features are 19 minutes of sound clips from the film (including behind-the-scenes footage); a clever eight-slide show that translates graffiti found on the walls throughout the film; a ninety-eight-term glossary which is all text; and perhaps my favorite, a collection of 369 slides (!) showing a pair of storyboards on each slide. If you are a fan of the art of manga, this is a real gem, and as an added bonus, it is set to the film's score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Upon first viewing, Akira has moments that are difficult to follow. I normally scoff at this; I'm one whose rule is that if a film cannot be clear on one viewing then something must be wrong with the film. Akira is my exception. The film is based on (a loose term at best) Otomo's original 2,000-plus page manga, making a consolidation to a two-hour film a remarkable challenge, even when the director of the film is the author of the source material. Given this, combined with its groundbreaking style, discoveries and understandings borne of subsequent viewings complement its first-viewing complexities (and thus will only enhance the overall experience of repeat viewings).
It's impossible to overstate Akira's importance in the world of anime and the history of film. The biggest compliment I can pay is to say that Akira is the film you give to someone who wants to begin their journey into the world of anime, and on the short list of films for someone who wants to study animation.
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