Let’s Talk About ‘Akira’ (1988)

There’s no better visual metaphor for what Akira did for not just anime but pop culture in general than its opening prologue. It’s ironic that this film starts with a massive atomic blast because that’s what it did to the industry. 1988 was the year anime broke into America and while My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, the other two monoliths that were released that year, are both incredible, neither had the same kind of impact.

Based on the 1982 Manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira is a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk action story involving a member of a street gang becoming a powerful and uncontrollable psychic that needs to be put down before he accidentally destroys Neo Tokyo.

Like most anime, it’s sprawling in its narrative and is more than a little convoluted. However, since it’s literally half of the source material, it gets a pass. As good as the movie is, it really only scratches the surface of what makes the manga great. The best comparison I can make is imagine someone trying to make a film out of Breaking Bad. Condensing Walter White’s arc down to two hours can be done and it could be great with an amazing editor but knowing what was removed for the sake of a manageable runtime would cause one to unfavorably compare the two, with most picking the manga as the better of the two.

While I think the story it’s based on is amazing and well worth hunting down, I think the film works a bit better by simplifying things. Which is about as a good a segue to the plot as you’re going to get.

Neo Tokyo is about to E X P L O D E

The year is 2019. Thirty one years has passed since the third world war destroyed Tokyo. Now named Neo Tokyo, the city is rife with corruption, anti-government protests, terrorism, and gang violence.

In the middle of this are two friends – Kaneda and Tetsuo, two young troublemakers who belong to a motorcycle gang called The Capsules. Their rival gang are the Clowns, a group of ultra violent punks.

While battling with them one night, Tetsuo accidentally crashes his motorcycle into an Esper (a powerful psychic), who had just escaped from a government facility and is on the run. When they finally catch up to him, they haul in Tetsuo for good measure. While he’s there, the scientists discover he’s as powerful as Akira — the psychic that caused that atomic blast from the beginning.

Knowing how powerful Akira is and how much of a potential threat he could become, the decision to kill him is shared within half the facility but before they can officially decide what to do, he escapes. And it’s at this point where the film and manga radically divulge.

In both versions, Tetsuo slowly becomes more unhinged with the powers driving him power hungry/insane. In the book, he becomes a full on super villain way before he merges with Akira and becomes a Kaiju fetus monster. He uses his psychic abilities to turn himself into the king of the slums, complete with a giant throne. While all of that is good, the decision to focus more on Kaneda, streamlines the story and actually makes Tetsuo more tragic. He’s not an uber monster with mental abilities; he’s a victim of abuse that immediately gets corrupted by the modicum of power he acquires.

After he leaves the facility, Tetsuo takes a backseat to Kaneda’s story which involves him trying to lay a freedom fighter. His arc is that of an immature horn dog that does nothing but ride around beating people up and trying to shoot some game who then turns into a hero by killing his friend for the greater good. It’s an insane Shakespeare level drama that just happens to involve a murderous cape wearing psychic who has a giant metal arm who then turns into a Godzilla sized fetus.

Again, this movie came out the same year as Oliver & Company. Americans weren’t ready for its level of insanity. I know I sure as hell wasn’t.

What Akira Means to Us

I must have been about 10 or 11 when I first saw it. I can’t remember the exact age or the specifics (I’m guessing there was a cool neighbor that was sightly older than me who had throwing stars and a camo wallet who showed it to me or my mom must’ve rented it by accident not knowing what it was) but I know I was old enough to know it wasn’t Disney and young enough to have no idea what the hell I was looking at.

Unlike Heavy Metal, another film I saw around that age, Akira isn’t for kids. Heavy Metal may be filled with excessive violence, drug use, sex and nudity but it’s clearly made for pre-teens. Anyone over the age of a dumb baby could follow that movie quite easily. Akira isn’t the easiest film to follow and its themes aren’t exactly Disney. And that’s why I’d argue it’s a perfect gateway film for anime, cyberpunk and more mature fare.

Watching this film at the time I did simultaneously felt like a revelation and a crime. It felt like I was getting away with something and that thing was a life changer. It introduced me to an entirely new world of cinema and helped foster my love for post-apocalyptic stories. My top twenty favorite films have changed multiple times over the years but two movies have been on every iteration: The Thing and Akira. Everything about this movie is within my wheelhouse. There may not be a score I’m more nostalgic for than this one. It’s not a perfect film but it was the perfect film for me to see at that age.
Good luck Taika Waititi, you’re going to need it.

Sailor Monsoon

Nothing had prepared me for Akira. Despite seeing a few “adult” animated films like Heavy Metal and watching a ton of Star Blazers as a kid. The artist in me was immediately taken in by the level of detail in the animation. It’ll sound stupid now, but just seeing multiple levels of the city moving at different rates in the background was amazing.

Then it was the music – the soundtrack by Shoji Yamashiro was minimalistic and powerful and like nothing I’d heard before. Then it was the horror – that moment in the hallway when Tetsuo obliterates the doctor and the two guards was as horrifying as anything I’d seen with Freddy or Jason. Maybe more so, as it was merely an aside, a throwaway instead of a set piece. Finally it was the story, the first cyberpunk narrative I’d ever seen. A tale of friendship and psychic powers and the apocalypse. (And maybe a bit too much about a teen trying to get laid.)

I was not, to be clear, the same person at the end of Akira that I was at the beginning. It opened up a new world of storytelling and created a fascination with anime and manga that continues to this day. (Definitely check out the original manga by Katsuhiro Otomo – the film stands on its own, but the full story is worth reading and the art is fantastic.) People coming to Akira now have no idea, just like people watching the original Star Wars or Night of the Living Dead or Frankenstein don’t really know how much impact they had, because they’ve seen a hundred things that were inspired by them. It was a pivotal and foundational film. I’ll argue that it is just as important in its own way as those other classics.

And as always, when I start thinking about Akira, I kinda want to watch it again.

Bob Cram

What are your fond memories of Akira? Do you prefer the manga or the film? Share your thoughts down in the comments below!

Author: Sailor Monsoon

I stab.