Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: A Review
Looking Back at One of the Greatest Manga-Based Anime Ever Made
There is a box-set release of Akira whereupon the front cover can be read these words: “No Akira, No Matrix. It’s that important” (a quote from Empire magazine).
This statement, frankly, is an insult. It suggests that we should be thankful to Akira for helping to inspire the Matrix, and yet, as fantastic as the Matrix was, it is in no way intrinsically superior to Akira (especially when considering the Matrix sequels, which pale to the style and depth of this ‘mere’ animation).
Since released in 1988 it can be argued that only Mamoru Oshii’s sublime Ghost in the Shell (released in 1995 and also an inspiration to the Wachowski brothers) can rival Akira for it’s visual excellence and mature, intellectual conception.
Akira holds a near holy reputation among anime fans and rightly so.
Neo-Tokyo and the Akira Project
A quick summary is in order here: the year is 2019, 30 years after Tokyo was destroyed by a mysterious event that triggered World War III. The truth is that military scientists had unlocked the potential energy that exists in all life and all things which connect us to our cosmological beginnings, causing a human test subject, Akira, to manifest such power that he was responsible for the destruction of Tokyo.
In the modern day, Neo-Tokyo is on the brink of another such catastrophe, as a gang member called Tetsuo comes into contact with Takashi, a blue-skinned, prematurely aged test subject who has been temporarily liberated from the continuing Akira Project. When Takashi is re-captured, Tetsuo is also taken and initiated into the programme, leaving best friend Kaneda to unravel the mystery.
In the course of Kaneda’a search, he discovers an underground operation whose purpose is to expose the Akira project, while Tetsuo escapes his captors and begins to manifest powerful psionic abilities that are soon spiraling out of control.
The Enigma of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Masterpiece
It may very well be that no single film has covered as much ground in it’s storytelling as Akira covers in the course of it’s two hours.
From biker gangs who wage war in the streets while the education system stagnates, to a city on the verge of anarchy – ridden with social and economic unrest, to the corrupt and short-sighted politicians who try to manipulate events for personal gain, to a military enforced regime, to scientific experimentation at the frontier of the unknown and unknowable, to preternaturally gifted test subjects wielding terrifying power, and beyond, to a truly cosmic scale where physics no longer apply and universes are born. It’s all in Akira.
Tetsuo vs Kaneda as Cosmic Theories Unfold
Whereas younger viewers will undoubtedly think the motorbikes are cool (which, admittedly, they are) and the super-powered confrontations just an excuse for yet more cool stuff, older viewers – particularly those with a background in philosophy – might just see past all that at what’s really going on (and yes, it does go that deep).
You see, there’s a logic at work in Akira, a set of principles that the film never wavers from and re-enforces constantly through it’s characters, their actions and abilities (or lack thereof), and by the many tell-tale signs to be found in the visuals.
For example, the repeating image of the wind as a spiral – present at the death of a politician, the death of a scientist, and in Akira’s final departure from Neo-Tokyo – are not just random forms arbitrarily thrust into the story, but symbols of the forces at work.
Nor is Tetsuo’s mutation into an organic nightmare merely a dramatic device – it is a well-considered reaction to a power he cannot possibly control – while Akira himself represents the opposing end of the spectrum, able to exist as pure energy.
Tetsuo’s fate and, ultimately, the creation of a new universe is a perfect illustration of many religious beliefs that there can be no such thing as what we commonly perceive as death.
In the end, Akira is a story about friendship, as Kaneda tries conversely to help and confront the maniacal escalation of Tetsuo’s power and persona.
Katsuhiro Otomo achieves all this either by a knowledge of certain philosophical and theological beliefs or by incredibly astute observations into his own human intuition (the former seems more plausible, however, based on the very deliberate hints throughout the film).
When appreciating this near-literary level of storytelling, it soon becomes apparent that the likes of supposed ‘masters’, such as – oh, let’s say George Lucas – are actually little more than rank amateurs.
Yamashiro Shoji’s Score, English Translation & the Akira Re-make
Throughout the film we see every scene leading into the next with style and grace, using the eclectic music score by Yamashiro Shoji to good effect. The animation itself is clearly a labor of love, displaying an incredible level of detail.
It’s difficult to say which is preferable when watching Akira – the original Japanese with subtitles or the English translation – as anime works much better in English than does a live-action Asian film that is dubbed. The English reading in this case, while somewhat inaccurate in terms of a direct translation, is more emotive than the Japanese and certainly works well.
If you are interested, you can support this series by purchasing it at a reputable, legal anime seller or at amazon.