It felt like a million years since I last watched Akira. It was one of the films that got me into anime (which goes for a lot of people my age I guess), but as I found better and crazier films out there, I somehow lost sight of Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece. I'm still not entirely sure how that happened, needless to say I was quite excited to revisit Otomo's breakthrough film. And it didn't disappoint, not in the least. Akira may be nearing its 30th birthday, it's still a stunner from start to finish, and it still managed to conjure up awe as if I was watching it for the first time.
There is no lack of landmark films when talking anime, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that pinpointing the most influential or crucial of them all is no easy task. Is it Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell or do you favor Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies? If you take global exposure into account, there's no way around Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, but if fandom is your primary criterion then Hideaki Anno's insanely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion would probably end up on top. Personally though, I'd argue no anime film or series was more critical than Akira. It's really the first time that the world looked at anime as a viable, mature addition to the cinematic canon. I feel that without it, others would've had a much tougher time building up the following they enjoy today.
Akira is a film adaptation of Otomo's own manga. It's easy enough to forget Akira (the anime) is not an original work, though purists will tell you the manga is actually better than the film. I read through part of it and I can say with a comfortable level of certainty that I'm not part of that group, then again I'm a hardcore cinema buff, so your mileage may vary. The film version "suffers" from the typical ails of adaptations, most notably it's severely edited down for brevity. Personally I welcome the stricter pace. It makes for a more overwhelming experience, though if you love backstories and narrative depth than the manga is definitely preferred.
The plot lines are still pretty much the same though. We follow Kaneda, a bike gang leader who gets caught up in a secret government project. Tetsuo is part of Kaneda's gang and is eager to prove himself, but his frail posture and somewhat timid presentation put him at a disadvantage. When Tetsuo bumps into a peculiar kid sporting supernatural powers, he is taken hostage by the government, and he becomes part of their experiments. Little do they know they awaked an extraordinary force that's set on destroying the world as we know it. Meanwhile, Kaneda is tracking down Tetsuo in an ultimate attempt to stop him from causing global mayhem.
Akira is 80s anime and it shows. The art style, the use of color and the first minor, subtle steps into the world of CG animation betray its age. But don't let that fool you into thinking that there's nothing to look at. I was positively surprised by the lush animation and how it still trumps many modern-day anime films. There is so much movement and all of it is done with such impressive detail that the film never feels old or dated. And just when you feel like you've gotten used to the high level of animation quality, Otomo finds something to one-up himself. That's pretty impressive for a 120-minute film. On top of that, Otomo's unique design aesthetic is a blessing. The strong blend of steampunk and science-fiction makes for a singular and intriguing setting that goes a long way into defining the overall atmosphere of the film.
What's a good landmark film without a proper, memorable score? Anime features have an above average track record when it comes to strong musical support, but even within its niche Akira is a stand-out. It takes just a few notes of the main Akira theme to conjure up the atmosphere of the film. It's dark, daunting and somewhat alien, but at the same time also very tribal and humane. A perfect mood for a post-apocalyptic setting heading towards a second apocalypse. This being one of the most famous anime films means there's an English dub available. For once, I'm not going to burn it to the ground, but that's only because of some weird rave/anime cross-over album that sampled royally from English anime dubs, including Akira's. If you're watching the film though, just go for the Japanese dub. It's way better and more in line with the personality of the characters.
Akira has a lot going for it, from the magnificent animation to its lively setting and the superb score. Add to that some properly explored themes and a cast of loveable characters, and you have all the ingredients for a proper classic. But to get to that landmark spot, Otomo went all in on the film's insane finale. A mind-bendingly grotesque and over-the-top celebration of both genre cinema and overwrought philosophy, it made Akira into a film that anime fans could fully embrace and use as a defense when people were bringing up words like "cartoons" and "tentacle porn". The combination of strong genre influences with a detailed setting and a somewhat puzzling finale turned Akira into a film that could leave a mark beyond its own niche.
If Hollywood has anything to worry about (they're in the process of remaking this film, moving the setting from Tokyo to New York) it's adapting that finale to something that can be shown to a broader audience without impacting the overpowering feel of the original. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of discussion about whether the whitewashing is warranted, but making the film succeed artistically will pretty much come down to doing justice to that sprawling finale. And that's going to be a pretty tough thing to accomplish in modern-day Hollywood.
Akira is nearing its 30th birthday, but it's still a marvel of a film. While the 80s feel is definitely there, it doesn't feel like it aged a lot. The animation is top-notch, the soundtrack is memorable, its universe feels alive and lived in, and the film goes out with a bang. Literally. It's not up there with my absolute favorite anime features, but it's an undeniable landmark that worked hard to earn its place in film history. It's a must-see for everyone with only the slightest interest in animation, though to fully appreciate its splendour you need to be able to deal with its strong genre influences.