When I started the Trap Door column a few years ago, I wanted to shine a spotlight on forgotten titles — titles that, maybe, deserve another look. Along the way, I’ve rediscovered some gems and uncovered some manure. But in this installment, I want to celebrate a title that is evergreen, that every fan knows, and yet we seem to have forgotten how we came to see, the context in which we saw it, and our feelings about the title. As part of our Akira Yearbook project, I’ll be contributing an interpretation piece. But here, I just want to give a review (if such a thing is possible) of the massively influential, often copied, but never equalled: Akira.
Please be advised: a spoiler warning is now in effect.
Set in the year 2019, 31 years after the destruction of Tokyo in an explosion and 30-plus years after the start of World War III, our story takes place in the rebuilt "Neo-Tokyo." The city lurches along, growing and expanding like a futuristic city should. There’s the usual strife that goes with that, but as the moment, there’s a particular problem with bōsōzoku gangs: gangs of young turks causing mayhem and destruction while fighting for their turf. The Capsules are led by Shotaro Kaneda, and they rule their roost. The gang also includes Tetsuo Shima, Kaneda’s buddy and childhood friend. One night while racing through the streets, they cross swords with the Clowns in a bloody encounter. In the melee, Tetsuo is injured while swerving to avoid Takashi, an escapee from a government lab. The military turns up, recaptures Takashi, and brings Tetsuo to one of their hospitals. The whole gang gets arrested. This might have been the end of it, and everyone would have been bailed out the next day, if not for the fact that the military doctors discover that Tetsuo has latent psychic powers similar to another of their previous test subjects. This sets off a conflict that will kill hundreds of people, rewrite reality, and drive two best friends apart. It's also one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
Part of the appeal of Akira after 25 years of English-speaking fans knowing of it is that it transcends cultural barriers while concurrently encompassing Japanese concepts like karmic retribution, buddhist resurrection theory, and Shinto equilibrium with the forces of nature. There is no other film that can dump that much theory on you and still hold your attention with the possible exception of the original Matrix (The Wachowski’s have both said Akira was an inspiration to them making The Matrix). It sets out to be the best head trip possible while still hefting a fairly heavy action hammer. Of course, it doesn’t seem like that when the film first starts. The world itself that Kaneda and Tetsuo comes from is all spit and attitude. Kaneda sits atop his Honda bike while draped in the red leather armour of his biker forebearers, snarling at society and daring it to bark back. He and Tetsuo are the forgotten children of the post-atomic age, and they don’t want the world that the adults say they should have to carry. It’s the adults’ world, so it’s their problem. But like every group of outcasts, the world in which they live is the world on which they must depend. When it gets threatened, even the most standoffish of punks will consider their options.
After some necessary exposition in the beginning and hints of a bigger mystery, director Katsuhiro Otomo builds on his original manga and starts digging out the plot. He changes his lead character from an anti-social punk into a warrior soldier for the people, one that will save them from the hellfire of oblivion that walks in the wake of his out-of-control and powerful best friend. Otomo fuses the mad science of Frankenstein with the Japanese pathological fear of nuclear fire. Tetsuo, awakened to his powers, becomes an analogue to the bombing of Japan in WWII. While cursed with this power, its awesome energy is slowly driving him insane. And when he thinks that the remains of the previous test subject who achieved Godhood (the titular Akira) are being kept from him, he goes on a rampage. In his mind, not realising that Akira became non-corporeal before he left his remains behind, the military are stopping him from being complete. While trying to free his friend from the military’s experiments, Tetsuo crosses a line and kills some of the old gang. Kaneda realises Tetsuo isn’t sick, that he’s gone mad, and teams up with the General (who despite being part of the experiment that created Tetsuo doesn’t want another Akira to happen) to try and stop his old friend. There’s a tragic element to that, knowing that the next time you see your friend, you’re going to have to kill him. Again, I can’t help but feel the parallel of war here, mirroring the insanity of killing your fellow brother or sister because opposing forces will it so.
Another great aspect of the film is that there’s no concrete notion as to what happened to Akira, the previous subject, despite there being multiple explanations (some of which are fairly accurate). While the other children became espers, their powers remained localized. None of them came close to Akira’s level, and we are left with scant information as to what he became. Did he move to a higher plane of existence? Did he move into another dimension? Was he, for all intents and purposes, a God? We’re not told about that, but we are told that he regards his old friends with affection and aids them in their quest to save the world from Tetsuo’s rampage. While the last vestiges of humanity are still there, they are enough to make Akira intervene while Tetsuo still craves human frailties like power and respect. These questions push the audience to consider what exactly is the nature of the thing we call reality? Is it just the daily struggle to survive and carry on the rat race of life, or can we really evolve to see the universe with new, less petty eyes? If reality is just what we see, hear, touch and feel, then what is the place where Akira resides and where Tetsuo wants to be actually made of? “I think, therefore I am” presupposes that reality is only there because you can fathom it. Holding to that truth, is there any difference to our version of reality and Akira’s reality?
The animation on display builds a world unlike any before it: the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo in all its wonder and horror. From the glass towers to the streets overrun with biker gangs below, the city is alive and pulses with its own heartbeat. It’s a science fiction fan’s earnest dream. Massive towers of concrete and glass, filled with all kinds of technological wonder, tapering down to district-sized undergrounds and mezzanines connected by hundreds of concrete veins along which cars and goods move. Everyone is connected to the network and everyone believes in the network. All around, this is the shiny and squalid future that we’re all going to get, because that’s progress dammit. So many stories have been crafted on the back of Neo-Tokyo and its fatal cycle of death and rebirth since the film’s release that it’s hard to think further back and realise that Metropolis by Fritz Lang promised the same kind of future. Is it just me or do we seem destined to dream the future as this vast, monolithic landscape of oneness and conformity? It’s almost as if we know this is the best kind of future we can craft, because nobody’s going to accept either a utopia or a complete dystopia? The citizens of the city live in this future because this is the one they inherited and are either too blind or too apathetic to change it. But Neo-Tokyo is built on a lie and possibly multiple lies. If people knew that the military were still trying to perfect the process that led to the first city’s destruction, would they be so complacent? The revolutionary group that freed Takashi and is trying to stop the military know but they don’t want to tell people. That makes them as complicit as the people they oppose by reason of not wanting to cause a panic. If that was their game, then by freeing the esper from his captivity, they triggered the very thing they were trying to prevent. Otomo shines in the script showing that the only people who are not doomed by their fate are the espers who can stand outside the fight between man and superman and see the bigger picture. They seem like they’re prisoners, but that is not the truth — just a version of the truth. When they connect with Tetsuo, they can see the maelstrom at his centre; they know this can only end one way.
For a film theory fan, another great thing to consider about Akira is the timelessness of the story and its characters. Harking back to part of Campbell’s hero of a thousand faces theory, a young boy craves acceptance from his peers and society. In a horrible moment, he is used by a group of power mad sorcerers to tap into an unlimited power. He cannot control the power and begins to lose all grip on reality. After much sacrifice on the side of the people of the land, one person stands up to defeat the boy. Our hero, a former friend of the boy, acquires ancient knowledge from a group of wizards and goes to storm the antagonists lair with this knowledge. At the same time, behind the scenes, the wizards band together and call onto a higher power to intercede. By levelling the playing field, the hero and the antagonist square off in combat and while the hero stands his ground, the day is won by the manifestation of the power calling the boy back and calming the waters around the land. The day is saved, and the sorcerers are destroyed in the process, leaving the evil in the ground until it can be safely used for good.
And you thought it was just a good sci-fi movie, huh?
The dubs from Akira over the years have extended its longevity. Older fans (for the most part) like the Streamline dub, and younger fans like the Animaze dub that Geneon used in their releases in North America and that Funimation and Manga UK currently use. (For the record, the Funimation disc has both dubs and the original Japanese to choose from.) I love Mitsuo Iwata as Kaneda and Nozomu Sasaki as Tetsuo as they shout, roar, scream and smirk their way through the destruction of Neo-Tokyo. To this day, I just have to mock shout “KANEDA!!!” and my older brother will retort with “TETSUO!!!” This film is that engrained in our shared pop culture experience. The English dubs have their pluses and minuses, but both have lent toward the spread of the film on mainstream TV over the years, helping to push the film beyond the realm of anime fans’ consciousnesses alone. The fact that hollywood has been trying to make a live action Akira for over 13 consecutive years is met with both admiration and derision by fans. No other project, other than the long awaited Ghost in the Shell live action film, has tested American studios in their quest in its adaption for English speaking markets. They can’t get it wrong, because the only core audience that they can bank on right now are the fans of the original. But the same fans claim that no studio can hope to get it right, so the original still retains its luster for a little while longer. I should also mention that you can complement your Akira experience with the English language versions of Otomo’s original manga, which can be found in all good retailers.
Akira is a title that rises above the banner of “Anime you need to see before you die.” It’s a title that needs to be seen before you die if you’re a fan of films. Period. The crowning achievement of Otomo’s career, Akira sets the standard by which all other claimants to the throne must pass. Every English-speaking anime company forever chases “the next Akira,” much like Kaneda on his bike chasing his enemies. Unlike Kaneda, however, anime companies will continue the chase not knowing that there is only one Akira and there will only ever be one.