Our review of Akira: 25th Anniversary Edition, published January 1st, 2014, is also available.
"I had a dream. Many people died, and we met Akira again."—Kiyoko
Combining Hollywood techniques with Japanese sensibilities, Katsuhiro Otomo burst on the scene in 1988 with the apocalyptic action film Akira. This hallmark of the cyberpunk movement changed the American attitude toward Japanese animation. But thirteen years later, does Otomo's vision of an urban future on the brink of chaos hold up, or has it gone out of fashion?
Facts of the Case
July 16, 1988. World War III is triggered by a silent flash, a ball of light, and then—a name fills the empty crater. Akira. It is a common name, like John in English. It might be anyone, at any time, in any place. Like the crater, Akira becomes empty space, a myth into which the disaffected masses of the future can fill their hopes and dreams.
Welcome to that future: Neo-Tokyo, 2019. Through a city filled with looming skyscrapers and garish hologram advertising stalks an embittered generation of teens, whose anger at the collapsing system is fueled by pills and motorcycles. Their nighttime rumbles are rarely interrupted by police, who are spread too thin to maintain order.
On this particular night, the police are hunting an escaped terrorist who drags a frightened, green-skinned boy through the streets. All attempts to restore order quickly result in chaos, as the terrorist is brutally slaughtered, a riot erupts, and the military moves in. Then, a chance intersection: an angry biker teen collides with the strange boy, injuring himself in the crash. Soldiers surround the teen, and while his fellow gang members look on helplessly, the military packs up the injured biker and spirits him away.
The teen's name is Tetsuo, but perhaps he could have been anyone, at any time, in any place. And before he is through, he will burn Neo-Tokyo to ashes.
Katsuhiro Otomo was a manga artist whose star rose quickly. After a few short works (most notably Domou, the tale of a psychic battle between a young girl and an old man), Otomo was entrusted with a sizable budget and the opportunity to adapt his then-unfinished epic Akira as a theatrical feature. The result was a smash hit that even made a dent in America through both a mediocre English dub and plenty of bootleg videos in its original Japanese. The success of Akira changed the marketing strategy for purveyors of Japanese animation in America: prior to the film, anime was mostly restricted to television, where its arcane plotting and cheap visuals alienated most viewers. But Akira was a "real" movie, with plenty of action (and a plot you could safely ignore when it got too pretentious) and slick animation. It was anime you could bring home to mother. Or at least, bring home to your drunk college buddies.
This is not to say that Akira is nothing but shallow violence, like say, Vampire Hunter D. Its cyberpunk wasteland echoed the American science-fiction of the '80s and '90s: that ambivalence towards both authority and technology that marked the literary (and philosophical) emergence of the cyborg. As Donna Haraway remarks in her seminal essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto," "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation" (150).
The cyborg is a border-creature, shifting identities strategically, as it moves among categories technical and organic (are we "spirited" subjects or "bodily" objects?), animal and human, material and virtual. Perhaps Japanese popular culture has always had a better feel for the problems of being-cyborg than even Americans. Always caught between a love and hate relationship with technology (the only nation even hit by atomic bombs, but rebuilt as a technocracy) and an acute identity crisis (the pressure of socialization which has long been a characteristic of Japanese culture), Japan knows too well the metamorphoses of cyborgs.
Tetsuo's many identities—as motorcycle brat, as second banana to his self-confident friend Kaneda, as government experiment, as psychic superman (he even dons a red cape), as voracious amoeba (his body out of control)—overlap as Tetsuo discovers the individual power locked within him. As a field of intensities, changing with each new encounter, the cyborg thwarts linear time, the path of destiny. As I note in my recent column discussing Akira (Approaching the Apocalypse 5: Fearing the Machine), Neo-Tokyo is a city with a future—or at least it believes so. The government plans for an upcoming Olympics; the Colonel plans his coup; the rebels plan their uprising. But none of these plans reach fruition as expected. The chance encounter upsets the forward momentum of time. As Kiyoko, who ironically has the power of precognition, states, "The future doesn't proceed along a single course. There ought to be a future we can choose." This choice, tempered as it must be by accession to chance, is at odds with the notion of judgment as articulated in the traditional apocalyptic narrative. When Akira finally arrives, it is not to pass judgment on Neo-Tokyo or on Tetsuo: it is to protect us from our own failure to control our potential power. As we are told, "Someday we'll be able to. It's already begun."
Until that time comes, we have Pioneer's impressive special edition of Otomo's classic Akira to keep us company. The print has been cleaned up and digitally enhanced for this new presentation. Indeed, it has been enhanced so much that the colors seem to pop out from the screen. Some may find the color palette too aggressive, like an op art painting threatening to push its way out of the screen. But this brightness—which admittedly does result in some haloing from time to time, particularly with the reds, garishly bursting like blood in a Dario Argento movie—is part of the overall aggressive tone of the film. Akira is not reality, but a muscular hyperreality in which everything goes completely over the top, as it should in a cinematic apocalypse.
The remastered audio boasts a bass-heavy 5.1 remix (the original Japanese audio track, presented here in 2.0 holds up pretty well, and is not as muted as on other recent anime releases) with a new English dub. Although I was never as pained by the old dub as some people—I actually liked the gravelly, world-weary tone of the old Colonel—I am glad to see that the new translation is more accurate and the names are pronounced correctly, which might make the one-on-one battle between Kaneda and Tetsuo less amusing than it used to be (my friends and I used to love to imitate the two of them shouting their names back and forth at one another), but it seems a fair trade. The voice casting is generally pretty solid, although again, I am sort of fond of the old Colonel's voice: I find this one (while closer to the Japanese original in timbre) a bit lacking in power.
A clever feature included on the disc (admittedly similar to the "white rabbit" feature on The Matrix DVD) is "Capsule Mode," which allows the viewer to pull up translations of onscreen text. The feature is selectable from the main menu, but cannot be switched on or off during the film itself.
Disc two is reserved for a strong selection of extra material, much of which used to be available separately in Japan (but distributed in America, like the original film, on scratchy bootlegs for years). The "Akira Production Report" is a 48-minute featurette (with optional subtitles) targeted toward kids (odd, considering the film's adult level of violence). Walking us through the stages of the film's development, the featurette also includes a brief interview with Otomo (who fields questions like "Why don't you draw cute girls?"). Much is made of the use of "prescoring" in the film (recording the voices before filming the animation), a technique unheard of in Japanese animation prior to Akira, although commonly done in American animation. The clips from the film included here are from a particularly poor print, but the featurette itself seems in good shape, considering it was produced as a throwaway promotional piece.
"Akira Sound Clip" is a promotional piece for Geinoh Yamashiro, the film's iconoclastic composer, and is presented with optional English narration to translate the on-screen text exposition. Known for his experimental fusions of traditional Asian instruments, choral arrangements, and synthesizers, Yamashiro is a real character, spouting off about how 16-beat native rhythms are programmed into our DNA and how his "sound module method" of composition is more "rational" than traditional scoring. In spite of this, his score for Akira is one of the most memorable in movie history (and we hear long segments of it played over film clips). All my friends own the soundtrack on CD.
A section on the film's digital restoration is quite elaborate (much more so that those brief Criterion side-by-side displays), covering details about the restoration technology and interviews with the crews responsible for restoring both picture and sound (including the ubiquitous Les Claypool). Interviews with the new American voice-over cast reveals that most are long-time fans of the film. An extensive "Production Materials" section shows off storyboards, layouts (many labeled in English), and tons of artwork, organized alongside the disc chapters from disc one. A section of unused material shows off an extended opening battle against Akira that was never filmed. Character design sheets, manga covers, promotional materials, and merchandising photos—it all adds up to over 4,000 pictures. Unfortunately, once you begin scrolling through a section, there is no direct way to return to the menu without having to work your way through the whole section. A text-based glossary of terms from the film (and manga) fills in the convoluted backstory, including character birthdays and even bloodtypes (considered a gauge of personality in Japan, much like astrological signs in the west). Some expository detail is peculiar to the manga, like the mention that Tetsuo's power is generic (that is, everyone has it), but genetic, inherited from his grandfather. Five trailers (two previews, two theatrical trailers, and a TV spot) are intriguing for their differences from American trailers: Japanese trailers tend to be more text-heavy and hyperbolic ("Martial law declared! Exploding energy!"), like old Hollywood trailers of the 1940s.
A 1988 interview with Otomo (with optional subtitles) shows the director crediting Vietnam-era "rebel" movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider with inspiring his comic book career. He shows off his notes for the comic book version, which was at that point quite unfinished (this is not unusual—Miyazaki made a film of Nausicaa years before finished the manga, which eventually departed wildly from what he had done on screen). Although in this interview Otomo claims an interest in innovative techniques (at the time, this included computer graphics, synthesized sound effects, and vocal prescoring) and a strong desire to grow as an artist, his small output of work since Akira (including writing the black comedy Roujin Z, developing the pretty but shallow anthology film Memories, and producing an adaptation of the popular manga Spriggan, which repeats a little too much from Akira) has not lived up to his promises. Does Otomo have another blockbuster like Akira left in him?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although my analysis of the film both here and in my Deep Focus column may make this film seem pretty cerebral, it really is not so much about philosophy as it is about blowing stuff up. This is far from a criticism of the film: it sets out to thrill and entirely succeeds. Since the film rarely stops to take stock of its overcomplicated story (complete with political counterplots and a largely unexplored backstory), things can get a little confusing at times. I recall that, years ago, it took me several viewings to figure things out (and I used to be pretty good in those days at figuring out the plots of anime films, especially since my friends and I were watching most of them in Japanese with no subtitles). Part of this is a pacing problem: Otomo clearly has too much story (including developing an entire future culture) for a two-hour film, as he tries to compress an enormous amount of information onto the screen. The result: the film tosses in philosophical pronouncements almost as an afterthought. Akira contains spectacular pyrotechnics, culminating in the complete leveling of a major city. Enjoy it for its strengths. If you are looking for thematic coherence in your cyberpunk anime, follow up with Oshii's Ghost in the Shell.
Even if you have a hard time finding the limited-run metal case edition (some stores still carry it, and I lucked out and received one from an online retailer who was supposed to be out of them), this limited edition is well worth the price for fans of action films. Akira has always been the sort of film that you could show to your friends who "don't like Disney movies," and in terms of technical accomplishment and thematic depth, it has held up well over the years.
Is Tetsuo responsible for the monster he becomes? Is the decaying society that created him at fault? Is it the corrupt government that treated him as an experiment? This court suspends judgment, as the film ultimately suspends its judgment against the whole human race.
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Scales of Justice
• Capsule Option (for text translations)
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