AKIRA

Japan; Science Fiction; 125 minutes; Produced by Ryōhei Suzuki, Shunzō Katō; Based on the graphic Novel by Katsuhiro Otomo; Written and Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

The year was 2007, I was close to ending my first year in film school, and I hated anime. I didn’t just dislike anime, or was merely uninterested in anime, I had a burning hatred toward any Japanese animated product I had ever seen. Sure, I was into the Digimon merchandise back as a kid, but never saw any of the shows. And after seeing other stupid Japanese shows like Yu-Gi-Oh and Dinosaur King, I never wanted to. To my naïve brain, this is all Japanese animation was about: 30 minute time slots for poorly written merchandise commercials.

That is until I met this guy while volunteering for various stage drama activities. He seemed rather knowledgeable about film, so we got along very well. Then I found out he liked anime. I was dumbfounded. How can someone so smart enjoy watching such crap? Upon my inquiry he merely responded, “Oh, you just need to see good filmmaking.” I never told him but I spend the next couple days muttering the likes of “What does he know? I’m in film school. I know more about good filmmaking than he’d ever wish to know.”

He had mentioned several anime features, but the name that mysteriously stuck in my head was AKIRA. So when I saw the film on DVD at the school library I decided I’d watch it and tell off this otaku about the difference between good filmmaking and Japanese cartoons. I also picked up Koyaanisqatsi and Russian Ark that day just so I could build up a good arsenal of examples of what good filmmaking actually is.

I was blown away by this film. Back during the 1980’s, Japan must have gotten this sudden rush of animation studios feeling the need to make films with animation as crisp and clean as American animation. The most notable film from that period was a film called AKIRA, based off of the Japanese graphic novel of the same name. The film featured better animation that any other film of it’s country, and a more brutal form of story-telling than other animated films of it’s country. The only problem was that many Japanese animated works hadn’t gone over to foreign shores yet, which meant that Japan’s main source of revenue back in the 80’s was it’s own country, which is roughly the size of the state of California. And, despite AKIRA selling the most tickets in Japanese film history (both live-action and animated films), it still wasn’t able to financially break even on the film’s opening day. The movie became the most watched and enjoyed box-office flop ever seen in Japanese film history. Which is a real shame since the film itself is one of the best animated features to ever come out of Japan.

The film is set in the year 2019 in the post-war city Neo Tokyo, and focuses on Tetsuo (voiced by Nozomu Sasaki) and Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), two young male student at a vocational school, as Tetsuo goes through the usual angst of a teenager wanting to break away from the protection of his friend, Kaneda, and face head-on those who would otherwise bully him. But he’s severely injured in a motorcycle wreak by the mysterious powers of young child who’s physical appearance resembles that of a man in his senior years. The military comes to haul Tetsuo and the wrinkled boy off to a secret government facility where he is placed with other physically worn children, each with mysterious super powers.

Other people seem to be interested in the government’s secret project, as a Japanese terrorist group, spear-headed by Kei (Mami Koyama) and Ryûsaku (Tesshō Genda), seek out and attack the government base to find the mysterious young boy named Akira, who’s terrifying powers were supposed to have brought on the Apocalypse which triggered World War III several years ago. Back at the Government facility scientists poke and probe Tetsuo’s body and mind in an attempt to unleash the same powers they did with the young boy Akira.

Neo-Tokyo

The gritty designs and stylized lighting really breath life into the fictitious cities of AKIRA.

The animation in the film is superb and beyond anything previously attempted in Japanese animation. Even the lip-sync of the characters matches with the Japanese dialogue. And the clean animation of brutal motorcycle fights and the stylistic lighting and gritty environment designs makes the fictitious world on Neo-Tokyo feel very visceral.

The music of the film also presents various styles and interaction with the visuals, ranging from ethnically rich, 80’s pop, and 50’s swing jazz, sometimes even at times providing cognitive dissonance during a terrorist bombing scene.

The character interactions between Kaneda and Tetsuo explore the feelings of a boy who wants to be a man too early. And as Tetsuo begins to feel the effects of the scientists’ probing of his brain, Kaneda is forced to make several life-altering decisions. This character development is seamlessly worked into the fight scenes between Kaneda and Tetsuo, and the powers of the other children only continue to boggle the viewer as they start to take part in that battles that pave the way for the film to explore psychologically disturbing visuals and the horrific physical consequences of the scientific experimentation on children. The film continues to build euphoric mystery upon this nightmarish horror as the film draws near to it’s unbelievably terrifying climax.

AKIRA is a testament to the human spirit and explores the idea that the human spirit can not only be a source of good intentions, but also the breeding ground of ultimate destruction, a concept not always equated with the human spirit in film story-telling. The animation still surpasses the expectations of modern audiences who have grown accustomed to Computer Graphic assistance in animated films, and in a way it can be seen as an argument for Computer Graphic assistance in modern cel animation, seeing as how the detailed hand-drawn animation featured in the film is what caused the film to financially reap less than what it had sown. But regardless, those of us who are fans of the hand-drawn animation techniques (or those of us who have become fans of the technique because of this film) are still very glad that director Otomo spent so much time and effort into the visuals of this movie. It truly is remarkable. I’m glad I was shown this film and introduced to the wide world of Japanese animation through it, or I would never have had an escape from the inane monotony that is becoming the modern summer Hollywood blockbuster other than to re-watch all of the older American films I had already studied.

The scientific experimentation done on Tetsuo builds to it's horrifying climax.

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About Stefan D. Byerley
Stefan D. Byerley is an independent filmmaker and freelance visual artist currently residing in North Carolina. He likes detailed storytelling, intriguing imagery, massive bloody violence, crying at the movies, and long walks in the park during the Autumn season.

One Response to AKIRA

  1. Jon Stout says:

    Where were you able to find the information about the film’s box office revenue upon its release in Japan? Most online records show it making about 6 billion in Japan, presumably from its initial release — so was it really a flop? I’ve seen it described as both a huge box office success and a box office flop and I’m trying to get to the bottom this!

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