RETRO REVIEW – ‘Akira’

Katsuhiro Otomo's outstanding anime still holds up after almost 30 years!

Review J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: July 16, 1988
DIRECTOR: Katsuhiro Otomo
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Katsuji Misawa
WRITERS: Izo Hashimoto
MUSIC: Shoji Yamashiro

The story for “Akira” started off as a manga from writer Katsuhiro Otomo. Eventually, Japanese film studios wanted to make an animated adaptation of Otomo’s work. At first, Otomo wanted to have nothing to do with an adaptation, but he said he would be interested as long as he had complete creative control over the project.

Otomo did not cut any corners with the animation in “Akira” and this was one of the major reasons that the film caught on with audiences. When the film was released in America, it helped spread the popularity of Japanese anime across the country. Now that the film is almost 30 years old, it’s time to see how it holds up.

For the purposes of this review, I watched the 2001 version that contained a new English dub. I forgot how bad the original 1989 dub sounded until I watched a comparison video. All I can say is that the 2001 cast did a much better job if you’re wanting to watch the film with an English speaking track.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I’ve always loved it more as a visual masterpiece. Almost 30 years have gone by and the animation is smooth and it still rivals most animated films that have come out since its release. It’s very easy to see how this film inspired not just later animated films, but also live-action films such as “The Matrix” and “Chronicle”.

Another great aspect of the movie is its soundtrack by Tsutomu Ōhashi. It is distinctly Japanese and captures both the dreadful tone inherent in the story and the cinematic scale of some of the movie’s bigger scenes. At the end of the movie, I think anyone would find it hard to get the haunting score out of their minds.

The story itself centers around Neo-Tokyo, a megacity that was built after a supposed nuclear attack destroyed the original city. The new city is overcrowded, ran by corrupt and/or inept politicians, looked over by an overpowered military, and the motorcycle gangs. One of these gangs is ran by Kaneda and one of the members is also his best friend from childhood, Tetsuo.

While chasing down another gang, Tetsuo runs across a mysterious and odd looking little boy that is trying to escape from the military. Once captured, Tetsuo begins to exhibit strong psychic powers and he appears to be linked to a much more powerful entity known only as Akira. Eventually, we learn that this is the power that destroyed Neo Tokyo and not a nuclear bomb.

Once Tetsuo discovers what he can do with his powers, however, he chooses to do very unkind things to those around him. Tetsuo is a boy that has been oppressed and put down his whole life and he has often looked to Kaneda to fix things for him. Unfortunately, now that Tetsuo has all the power, he doesn’t know how to use it except to be cruel to those who have been cruel to him.

The movie’s fantastical story is surrounded by very real themes from the real world. There is still the nuclear allegory, which is not surprising considering that Japan is the only nation to have ever been attacked by this devastating power. This also explains the movie’s fear of a military whose power could exceed the government at any moment.

Another theme includes friendship, specifically the one being shared by Kaneda and Tetsuo who end up becoming tragic enemies when it is all said and done. There is also the ambitious scientist that may be a little too concerned with controlling the power of Akira. Finally, there is a government that is too damned pre-occupied with their bickering to get anything of any real value done. Sadly, these themes still resonate today even more than they did when the movie was created.

“Akira” is a film that demands to be re-watched again and again due to the fact that you’ll always find something new when you re-watch it. That is the true definition of art and I can say confidently that “Akira” still holds up today better than ever.

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