Writer: Katsuhiro Otomo
In my nearly three years as The People’s Critic, I have only reviewed two films that were not new releases. The first was for the film Nashville because I simply could not believe how much I liked it, and the second was Marie-Antoinette by request from my cousin after we had visited the Palace of Versailles in France. My lack of “vintage” reviews is by no means intentional, but there is only so much time, and reviews of current films seem to be the best way to gain and keep an audience of readers. However, I have recently started up a Movie Club for students at the high school where I teach as a way to use a shared interest to encourage social interaction. While the kids do pick the films, I do steer the club towards films I think will have an impact on them (a link to our club website page can be found here). However, when one of our members asked me if I would write up a review of the 1988 Japanese animated film Akira, I saw an opportunity for them to impact me. Now, I had never seen Akira and I must admit that the anime genre altogether has never been my kind of thing, but I decided to check Akira out, so Justin, this one’s for you!
The film opens in 1988 when a nuclear explosion levels Tokyo and sets off World War III. 31 years later in the year 2019, World War III has ended and Tokyo, now known as Neo Tokyo, is a bleak, crime-ridden city home to numerous gangs including a bike gang led by a tough kid named Kaneda. After a night of debaucherous bike racing through the streets of Neo Tokyo, Kaneda’s close friend Tetsuo is put in the hospital where it is discovered that he has possible psychic abilities. Think a male version of Carrie.
Tetsuo becomes consumed with his new powers and quickly turns hostile, forcing Kaneda along with Colonel Shikishima to try to contain him before he lays waste to Neo Tokyo or even the world.
This is far from the most coherent narrative I’ve ever seen. There are peculiar details that somehow must be taken for granted like the origin of these paranormal powers as well as the history of this trio of weird ghost children who are apparently previous test subjects experimented on by the government in the hopes of harnessing their psychic power. Cinematically, the film is a quintessential anime film. The action is unrelenting, the dubbing is bizarre, the violence is extreme, and the tone is unbalanced with humor and tragedy coexisting within sequences in abrupt ways. Many films of this genre possess these characteristics. For a 1988 film, the animation is remarkably fluid and the film has some real beauty, but what Akira has in style it lacks in substance. Gratuity aside, Akira is complicated and it attempts to tell a contained story with global, perhaps universal, implications that are never explored. Furthermore, the subtextual conflict between greedy political ambition, class warfare, and military hubris is too thinly executed to be successful satire. Still, Akira is tremendously imaginative. This film contains perhaps the “trippiest” hallucination scene I’ve ever seen along with perhaps the most disgusting climactic event I’ve ever seen, so the danger and scariness is occasionally pulse pounding. Additionally, the dystopian mood is nicely achieved through quality direction. I’m not sure Akira did much in terms of encouraging me to pursue future anime films, but it did not turn me away from the genre entirely either. C
Akira is rated R and has a running time of two hours and five minutes.