In the mid-80s, the pop culture apocalypse was back in fashion. Previous decades had already seen sci-fi and fantasy reactions to the threat of nuclear war in both the East and the West - Japan favoured giant irradiated behemoths on screen such as Godzilla (1954-2004), America had incredible shrinking men and scientists with insect heads, and both countries had alien visitors warning us about the danger of ultimate war. By the 1960s comics got in on the act, with masterpieces of Japanese manga such as Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix: Future, predicting a machine-driven apocalypse in the 35th century, while Marvel Comics became a force to be reckoned with in Stan Lee’s indelible wave of irradiated teenagers with superpowers in the pages of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk and many others.
However, these two aspects of post-(modern) apocalypse - the irradiated teenager and the irradiated environment - didn’t combine notably until the 1980s in comic books, and later in their cinematic adaptations. Again, Japanese and Western takes on this combination differ wildly. Japan has never taken to costumed heroes with the same enthusiasm as the West. In Japan, supernatural powers were more common than super-powers in late-80s print manga, most notably in Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, where telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world.
Based on Otomo’s serialised comic, which ran for over 2,000 pages between 1982 and 1990, the film of Akira necessarily condenses the plot of the manga to fit it in a running time of just over two hours, and is mainly based on the first third of the comic books. Akira is set in 2019, 31 years after explosions have devastated 20th-century Tokyo for a second time, now renamed Neo Tokyo. Violent street gangs terrorise the city on motorbikes, with the police and the teenagers’ educators having little influence on their behaviour. In the middle of one three-way fight between two gangs and the police, a scientist and his young ward, apparently suffering from progeria, escape from a research facility into the melee before the former is killed and the latter fades before our eyes. Witness to this are two of the gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, and Kaneda’s interaction with the mysterious child awakens his psychic powers, leading to the creation of another potential weapon of mass destruction, while an apocalypse cult pray for the return of Lord Akira. In Akira, the apocalypse has a human face as first, lead character Tetsuo, and then the resurrected Akira himself, have the power of a nuclear explosion at their fingertips, something the military and government want to curtail. But it is only the interaction of the super-powered with ordinary, albeit anarchist, humans that stops the (complete) destruction of Tokyo for a third time.
Several enjoyable scenes struck me on re-watching the film: the corrupt rat-faced politician who seems to have wandered in from another movie, the attack of giant patchwork demonic toys with skin that’s bleeding milkshakes, a chase through the sewers that is a mixture of the climactic scene of The Third Man (1949) and the opening credits of Batman: The Movie (1966), Tetsuo’s Superman-inspired red cape (particularly in long shot, punching a space station) and the Warner Bros-style animated slapstick as Kaneda dodges falling boulders prior to the arrival of Akira from below. Akira the film, like Akira the character, is a form of rebirth, reconstituted from the elements of what went before; it’s not quite as cinematic as later animé - except a terrific close-up on Kaneda at the start of the film’s final battle - but the skill and dedication of the animators in bringing an unwieldy epic to the screen shines through. It’s a shame that in both subtitles and dubbing, even the more recent translation is still lacking, including such Pythonesque gems as: ‘He’s a false messiah! This isn’t the rapture!’ and ‘That’s Mr. Kaneda to you, punk’, a line that only Clint Eastwood or Sydney Poitier could get away with.
Akira is a smorgasbord of influences and references: Fritz Lang had his protagonists in Metropolis (1927) witness prophetic visions and have psychic links with their dopplegängers as did the subterranean mutants in Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); and Akira’s imagery of childhood toys battling with technology had first appeared in Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland in the first two decades of the 20th century. But Akira combines so many disparate elements from comic books and films that the resulting collage results in something startling and new. While the renowned English-language comic books of the time had to mainly resort to superheroes to narrate their tales (Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Watchmen), Akira didn’t exist in isolation: in Europe, the absence of capes led to a similar mix of science fiction, satire, psychic powers, false messiahs and apocalypse in Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’s comic book The Incal, which ran concurrently with Akira in the 1980s (Jodorowsky even supposedly advised Otomo on the ending of his manga).
On its release in 1988 (Japan) / 1991 (UK), Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film as it presented concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation, and even then there were only a few live-action films that captured a similar neon-lit world, including Blade Runner (1982) half a decade earlier. Animé broadcast in the UK had previously been restricted to TV series that were international co-productions with France (Ulysses 31 / The Mysterious Cities of Gold), Spain (Around the World with Willy Fog) or America (Transformers / Thundercats). In the 80s and early 90s, little of Hayao Miyazaki’s charming fantasy animation was available in translation other than the odd episode of Sherlock Hound and his unremarkable debut film The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the arrival of Akira seemed like the birth of an entirely new art form, and it was unfortunate that post-Akira, distributors didn’t look for the finest examples of the medium they could bring to the West - i.e. Miyazaki’s films - but rather brought other movies similar in tone, which led to a deluge of violent, undemanding animated manga that gave the word a bad name. Akira does contain many of the clichés of bad manga - ultra-violence, techno organic tentacles and bucolic flashbacks - but it was one of the first to include these elements. It started a sub-genre that includes the work of Mamoru Oshii - particularly his Patlabor (1988-1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995-2008) animé franchises - and Satoshi Kon - Paprika (2006) - who worked as an assistant to both Otomo and Oshii.
Otomo has the distinction of being involved in two of the finest Japanese animated films of the last quarter-century, Akira and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 2001), which both share a brilliantly rendered futuristic city, which is a terrific example of the retro-(fitted) futurism as seen in Blade Runner. Both films also use the entire palette of the animator’s (digital) paint supply, with lurid reds on clothes and motorbikes contrasting with the pallid green/grey skin of the aged psychic children. As with Blade Runner‘s iconic Vangelis score, this retro-futuristic (apparently, 1980s sweatbands and Hawaiian prints are still big in 2019) city is also accompanied by a terrific soundtrack: Tsutomu Ôhashi’s mixture of Gamelan percussion and woodwind instruments, added to an eclectic voice work that includes a male choir whispering the names of the characters and Noh-style chanting. Otomo only wrote the screenplay of Metropolis (which is a loose adaptation of both Lang’s film and a 1949 manga of the same name) but did not direct it, and his other two feature-length animated films - Roujin Z (1991) and Steamboy (2004) - while fun, don’t live up to his urban cyberpunk classic.
While some aspects of Akira have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art.