Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Genre: Animation / Science Fiction
Otomo’s movie – a mere snapshot of his sprawling manga series – is to this day a cornerstone of Japanese animation. A landmark movie of its kind. Yet for me it is more than just an impressive artistic feat. It is part of the vital connective tissue of my youth.
I have all sorts of nostalgic feelings surrounding Akira. So much so that the very name conjures up a maelstrom of images and sounds. Like one of Testuo’s drug-addled flashes, as his psychic abilities overwhelm him, I am flooded with different information. So if the words that follow seem cluttered, scattered or over-stimulated, it is only because the source material provokes such a response in me.
I ‘discovered’ manga and anime through exposure to Akira. In the UK in the early to mid-nineties this meant either reading its serialisation in the now-defunct Manga Mania, or getting hold of a VHS copy of this movie. I found myself doing both; playing catch-up with the paper version by hunting out back issues of the magazine and getting hold of the video before I was technically supposed to be doing so. But even on poor, grainy old VHS, there was a dangerous vibrancy about Akira.
Of course it’s cyberpunk interpretation of the tumultuous changes brought on by puberty resonated with me at the time, even if they did so subconsciously, but aside from that there was something I hadn’t experienced before; hand-drawn stories for grown-ups. There was blood, violence, swearing, drugs and ideas. Seriously big ideas. I was never drawn to comics or superhero stories before, but this? This was different. It was angry and vast. I felt like I was entering a larger world of knowledge. There were stories out there like this that had, in some way, been kept from me. The bemused, vague disapproval from my parents only confirmed I was on the right track. I was discovering something.
Cyberpunk is a term that is overused, and frequently misused. But Akira virtually defines it. Disruption. Revolution. Rebellion. They are built into the story’s DNA. From the biker gangs to the political power struggles, the explosive acts of terrorism to the frequent bucking of authority. Akira stands up and proudly shouts “Fuck you”, encouraging you to do the same. Civil disobedience bubbles under every surface, ready to mutate out of control.
Watching Akira last year also showed just how vital it is today as it was in the 80s. London and other major British cities were troubled by rioters. Revolt was in the air. A re-released print of Akira played to packed cinema screenings. It felt timely, pertinent. The nation was restless, and Akira was back to remind us that such agitation is not only universal but timeless.
It’s worth noting also that this film is at its most powerful on the big screen. This is a gigantic, ambitious animated feature. At home, it’s impressive. In the cinema it’s something else. A glorious explosion of colour and sound. Speaking of sound, a word about the score. Geinoh Yamashrogumi’s soundtrack to the film is amongst the most awesome ever produced for a feature, animated or otherwise. This becomes apparent when wrought loud and large. If you ever have the opportunity, please, see this film on as vast a canvas as can be mustered. The last half hour especially presents an epic visual experience to rival Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And whilst we’re on the subject of the great monoliths of science fiction, Akira is up there with the best of them. It still resonates through the genre. And of the material produced in the 80s – a decade that embraced and celebrated sci-fi and fantasy – only Blade Runner and possibly The Terminator remain more influential. Earlier this year the film Chronicle turned heads with a plot that lifts some basic elements from Akira’s model. Then of course there’s Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Testuo (1989), his titular character’s fusing of mechanical and biological reminiscent of Otomo’s Tetsuo. Even Scott Pilgrim vs The World contains at least two knowing winks to Akira. These are just a few examples off the top of my head.
There have been repeated threats of a Hollywood version. The oft-rumoured live action US remake is, thankfully, still stuck in the mire of development hell. Good. I’m open to the idea of revolution and reimagining in most instances (if not wholly approving), but Akira can only fail in a system that relies on focus groups and mass market agendas. The story simply isn’t wired that way. Not to mention the questionable results of further Westernising what resonates best as a Japanese tale. The ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki loom large over this tale. Anyone who feels this can be argued against can direct their attention to the movie’s opening image.
But for me it still comes down to personal nostalgia, and obsessive fandom. When Akira was re-issued in six glorious, hefty volumes I snapped up all of them, revelling in being able to hold the whole story in my hands (even diehard fans of Otomo’s movie will concede that the story is awkwardly truncated for a two-hour running time). I have action figures – one of Kaneda and ‘his’ iconic bike, one of Tetsuo with his arm mutating. I have a full-size film poster, art-books, Geinoh Yamashrogumi’s aforementioned soundtrack. In terms of the geeky amassing of crap, only My Neighbour Totoro has inspired a comparable level of indulgence in me.
Fittingly, Akira always takes me back to my adolescence. Glorious memories of this montage: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xGiDAJVqtY and afternoons after school in my room, pouring over Otomo’s exquisitely drawn panels. Anyone else remember when the English language dub of the movie featured members of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles voice cast? THOSE WERE THE DAYS!
I look forward to the next time Japan hosts the Olympics. I for one will be hoping for a section of the opening – or, more fittingly, closing – ceremony dedicated to an elaborate reconstruction of some of Akira’s iconic, climactic moments.
Perhaps not too closely reconstructed, mind.