Akira Again

Its animation looks outdated, and its story is a mess. So, what makes Akira a classic anime?

The 1988 animated opus Akira begins with the end of everything, a massive detonation of white light that slowly engulfs Tokyo, launches a world war, and lights a match to civilization. This, too, is the sort of effect the film had, becoming the first Japanese anime to go global, essentially founding an American subculture devoted to the art form. More than a decade later, on July 24, the story of drug-crazy biker thugs and powerfully psychic children finally gets the two-disc DVD treatment it deserves, an overdue tribute to a now legendary, though overly glorified work. Indeed, loyalists sometimes compare the film to its title character, a child channeling the supreme power of the universe, but the allegory is almost too obvious—Akira is God, Akira is God—and, in the end, it’s not quite right.

{{ Akira_VId#112144 }}Set in Neo-Tokyo 38 years after a mysterious cataclysm—the place is teeming with gangs, fascists, and idealistic rebels— Akira tells of orphaned teens who get their kicks on superfast motorcycles and stumble onto a government experiment meant to unleash the full power of the human mind (or something like that). Enter 100-year-old children, a mysterious deity, and a young biker, Tetsuo, who’s developed psychic abilities and a massive headache. The powers-that-be built around science and politics collide with the underground they created, the lost children and drug dens, {{ BladeRunner_VID#112146 }} and the effect is rich, confusing, and just plain cool. The animation, too, bounds years ahead of its time, with backgrounds as finely detailed as anything in Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi noir, Blade Runner (1982). (Compare the look of Akira_VId - Video Only scene from Akira with Blade Runner’s BladeRunner_VID - Video Only.) But the story is a jumbled mess of metaphysical-cyberpunk standards, and the animation has long since been surpassed. It’s a good movie, yes, but what’s the big deal?

More than anything, the cult of Akira is about timing. In 1989, during the film’s art-house release here, America was starving for animation with bite. Comic books had just experienced a major psychological breakthrough, with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen baring the stained, bloody soul of the untouchable superhero. Meanwhile, Disney was still squeezing out happy pap like The Rescuers Down Under.

In Japan, artist-writer Katsuhiro Otomo had built a dedicated following for his manga (comics), especially Domu: A Child’s Dream, a two-year serial inspired by suicides in a housing project outside Tokyo. He followed this with Akira, a serial comic that ran in Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990, logging 2,000 pages. (Dark Horse Comics is now reprinting the entire thing in fat trade paperbacks.) Otomo’s film adaptation, while a jumbled edit of the original epic, torched the Japanese box office and then took its style global.

Akira was, then, the first anime that many in the United States saw, a bloody beauty that redefined what science fiction and animation could do together. With its glitzy chase scenes, haunting drums, and spiritual overtones it was, essentially, another Star Wars: a soul-drenching experience that changes the path of a fan’s life. Anyone who heard about it had to see it. Those who saw it had to tell their friends about it. Early distribution problems only added to the mythology, the scramble to get a copy, no matter how fuzzy the tape. A limited big-screen run and bad English dubbing fueled demand for Japanese bootlegs and homebrewed subtitles, a major catalyst for the mini-industry of subterranean importing that built the U.S. anime fan base throughout the ‘90s.

{{ Starblazers_VID#112149 }}Before the film hit, the typical U.S. view of anime consisted of TV shows about spaceships that turned into robots— Transformers and Robotech, and the corny space melodrama Starblazers. (Starblazers_VID - Video Only clip from the show’s opening montage shoots for the feeling of epic adventure, but it lacks the style and production standards to pull it off.) A decade after Akira, these shows are considered kitsch, but their progeny have become mainstream kiddie fare, with Pokémon and Dragonballs crouching around every corner.

{{ GhostInShell_VID#112147 }}And, thanks to Akira, serious sci-fi and drama from Japan has only gotten better and easier to find, a major market just below the popular radar. Ghost in the Shell, for example, a 1995 classic about thinking machines, outdid Akira in animation, action, and solid science-fiction storytelling. (In GhostInShell_VID - Video Only scene from Ghost in the Shell, watch how much more “real” the characters are, how much more “Hollywood” the action is.) Perfect Blue (1997) tells of a disturbed pop music star stalked by ghosts, fans, and regrets, and it captures the melancholy textures of everyday life. (It may seem trivial, but details such as how a man enjoys a smoke, like in PerfectBlue_VID - Video Only clip from PerfectBlue_VID Perfect Blue, bring alive the story’s tension and emotion.) It’s a subtle feat of animation, making the film’s real-world violence far more powerful than, say, Akira’s Tetsuo getting his arm blasted off by a satellite.(Otomo oversaw the project, but did not direct.)

Yet while Akira allowed more animation to cross the Pacific, it did nothing to ease America’s intolerance for grown-up cartoons. For all its success, anime has yet to draw a mass adult audience. Sure, Perfect Blue, like much anime these days, is easy to get, but who outside the anime underground has seen it? Two years ago, the pastoral fantasy Princess Mononoke was supposed to break grown-up anime big with a national Miramax release. It certainly made more cash than Akira’s art-house run, but it had nothing close to the impact, the slow explosion that trashed the known world. As American animation has become technically astounding though bland (Atlantis), derivative, and self-satisfied (Shrek), anime may have reached a popular stasis in this country: The stuff is for kids and geeks. It’s time for another Akira, another balls-out tale of terror and spirits to knock cartoons on their ass, just as those fuzzy dubs did 13 years ago, igniting a grand explosion, an end, a beginning.