Akira (1988) is a dark animated film from manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo. And it’s the stuff of absolute legends.
It’s a post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk affair with dark themes of nuclear war, making it one of the shining examples of animation for adult audiences.
Set in 2019 (yes, that seemed ages off back in 1988), Otomo and Izo Hashimoto adapted the story from the former’s 1982 eponymous manga work.
There’s a singularity in 1988. The event is enough to raze Tokyo.
Three decades later, the the rebuilt city is now called Neo-Tokyo.
It’s a tumultuous time, with corruption, protests, terrorist acts, and uncontrollable gang violence dominating the era.
Shōtarō Kaneda is our anti-hero. He’s a vigilante as part of a bōsōzoku gang (that means customised bikes, which are a big youth subculture thing in Japan). He’s part of the Capsules and they’re rivals with the Clowns.
Kaneda’s good mate Tetsuo Shima almost slams into a strange looking old man/child hybrid.
This turns out to be an esper (a government sciene test subject with extrasensory perception).
The Japan Self-Defense Forces soon turn up after Shima shows signs of formerly dormant physic powers. He’s arrested and taken off for tests, whilst Kaneda also ends up in the slammer.
Scientists discover Shima is extremely powerful, along the levels of the esper Akira that led to the demise of Tokyo.
Panic-stricken authorities decide to kill him, but he’s able to escape in brutal fashion.
The plot unfolds with Shima losing control of his abilities, which (if you’re looking for media interpretion) suggests humanity can’t quite grasp its powerful opportunities and responsibilities.
We’ll limit the plot discussion there as this is a film that should be enjoyed without spoilers. None are below! Just a slice of the Japanese original.
Akira is stylish beyond belief—highly impressive given it’s over three decades old. Otomo had no plans to turn his comic into a film, but was intrigued by requests to do so.
And it was something of a success, making about the equivalent of $12 million in Japan off of a $9 million budget. Worldwide it raked in $49 million, ensuring it broke even.
Whilst Studio Ghibli’s more famous films revel in life-affirming colours and kawaii culture, Akira is brooding and dark—monstrous in the approach to its bleak subject matter.
Whilst it’s now revered, we can’t say we place it above Studio Ghibli’s output. Some scenes from Akira are incredible, but on the whole (for us, anyway) it didn’t live up to its reputation.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t watch it. The artistic integrity was astonishing for the time and really stands up to this day.
Akira has become a legend. The atomic draw is there. It’s impressive in its considerations and values.
But if you’re new to Japanese animation, we can recommend Princess Mononoke for a masterpiece that’s accessible yet complex and contemplative.
One of the most revered film from out of Japan, Akira is subject to ongoing theorising and critiquing. The excellent Nerdwriter on YouTube offers one of the best examples above.
There are various themes at play here. Perhaps the most obvious is nuclear war. Akira was released just over 40 years aftet two atom bombs landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Such an astonishing occurrence – and the dreadful aftermath (try Hiroshima by Johh Hersey) buried itself into the national psyche in the decades after 1945.
Asides from the obvious, there concept of youth and its powers are on display here. Not just in hedonism, but through its positive drive. Friendship is also a core part of the story.
The loss of humanity is also a central theme, as well as a godless world where society appears on the brink of collapse.