Over the years, many anime have come out that have helped define the genre. Fullmetal Alchemist will often appear in the number one spot on any top-ten anime list you come across. There are the classics from the 90’s such as Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Neon Genesis Evangelion. And who could ever forget the big three: Bleach, Naruto and One Piece? Many of us became interested in anime because of their influence. Still, although these names have left their mark on the history of anime, one stands above them all. That anime is the true masterpiece Akira.
Akira is considered a landmark in Japanese film, as well as one of the most influential animated movies of all time. Not only has it influenced much of the illustrators in the manga industry, it also helped to open a gateway to anime for those outside Japan. Now, I don’t think Akira is a masterpiece just because it’s old and influential. The presence of Akira was initially what drew me to watching it, and I can assure you it is worthy of the huge cult following it has garnered since its release.
Akira takes place in the year 2019 in a city called Neo-Tokyo. Thirty years prior there was a nuclear explosion that demolished Tokyo and sparked WWIII, and Neo-Tokyo was built from Tokyo’s ashes. If you want more than that, read the synopsis, although I would recommend you don’t as you’ll spoil a few things and still be confused. The story of Akira is one of the most complex I’ve ever seen. From what I can see, the main thing that turns people off about Akira is just how convoluted it actually is. The writer of the source material (who was also the writer of the movie) still hadn’t finished the story, and even so there was tons of material to fit in one movie. I read about a third of the first volume of the manga and could tell right away that the writer had to change a lot of things and cut a lot of corners to make the movie possible. All things considered, Akira’s adaptation was spectacular, and I think its complexity works for it, as the movie has a lot of re-watch value. The story is good but not great; it starts strong and loses sight of where it’s heading after a while, but then it picks back up near the end, a problem that can likely be attributed to a six-volume manga being adapted into a two-hour film. The story gets the job done but I feel that it could have used a bit more tweaking.
The art and animation are gorgeous; this is where Akira truly shines. This film came out in 1988 and is mostly hand drawn with cell animation, with CGI used in very few spots. The action scenes move smoothly and look awesome, and the backgrounds are detailed and help to build the gritty world we’re shown. This movie also uses its lighting to great effect in every scene, setting the tone almost immediately, whether the characters are in a dingy bar or a laboratory or even a sewer. The sound is also great. I’m not one who ever remembers music from movies and it’s no different here. I don’t find myself humming these tunes – not that they’re the sort of pieces you’d hum anyway – but they fit the various scenarios well. The sound effects work is amazing. The hum of the motorcycles, the loud sounds of gunshots, the explosions going off; it all sounds great. Your blood begins to boil as the song “Kaneda” starts playing while the biker gang moves out, leaving behind a trail of light. You quake in fear as a helicopter is thrown down a street. Suspense hangs in the air when an unstoppable foe crushes a tank with sheer power of will as a crowd cheers, screams, and wails. I watched the original English dub from, I believe, 1989, and it’s good. Like many older anime it has some lip syncing issues, but I like the voice actors and I feel they fit the characters; none stood out to me as being bad.
The characters are good. Shotaro Kaneda, our hero, is interesting and realistic. He seems to care about another one of our leads, Tetsuo Shima, though Tetsuo feels like he’s being looked down upon, which leads to the film’s main conflict. The only lead I feel is a bit weak is Kei. She’s fine, if not necessary, but then near the end she suddenly becomes important with no explanation. The “villains” are also good. They feel like real people with reasons for what they’re doing.
Akira is a very complex movie. There’s a lot of stuff happening at once and it uses symbolic imagery to tell its story. You’ll probably have to re-watch it a couple of times before it starts to make sense. But that’s kind of what I like about Akira – it isn’t a simple, linear story; it’s more of a jigsaw puzzle that you have to solve yourself. Each time you re-watch it, you’ll start to notice tiny details that probably flew over your head the first. After a while the pieces will start to fit together, and you’ll finally understand the meaning behind the story. I won’t talk about all the individual themes present in this movie for two reasons: It’s already been talked about multiple times in the past, so I’d just end up repeating what other people have already said, and the thing I found most enjoyable about the movie was trying to figure out the meaning behind the story, and I want people who haven’t seen it to have the same experience. I will, however, talk about some of the more basic elements of Akira’s story. One thing I really like is how there isn’t one single protagonist. While the story mainly focuses on Kaneda and Tetsuo, it’s also sometimes shown from the point of view of several other characters. This gives the story a huge scope and also lets you see the social issues of Neo-Tokyo from different perspectives. The strong message behind Akira, and its way of telling a story by simply being natural (as sadistic, as graphic and as fluent as it wants to be) and sincere, is probably what is most important about it.
The Village Voice is quoted as calling it “a fever dream masterpiece.” That is undoubtedly one of the best descriptions of the movie I’ve heard. The things that happen in Akira are absurd, awesome, and beautiful. If the brotherhood between Kaneda and Tetsuo doesn’t make you cry, you’re messed up in the head. For an anime from 1988, Akira has aged wondrously, and as you can already tell, I enjoyed it a ton. When I look at this film, I see a timeless classic. In fact, whether you like it or not, that is what it is. Even if just to appreciate its impact on anime, it is certainly worth your time. Akira is a landmark in anime, movies and entertainment.