Being a good three years or so since I last watched Akira it was with fresh eyes that I approached Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark anime, resulting in a viewing experience which proved familiar but also differed from my former recollections. The film is ostensibly cyberpunk according to its themes and presentation however the main reason I was compelled to include it in my research is down to its setting, scenery and mechanical design.
While the era stylings and cel animation are immediately identifiable it’s a testament to its high production values and meticulous attention to detail that Akira remains visually astounding to this day even by modern standards. Being made before digital animation became common practice makes it all the more impressive; characters and machinery are almost always in motion, brought to life by uncannily fluid animation while the backgrounds are complex and frequently baffling in scale.
Outside the quality of the production though, what really surprised me was how well the design work holds up. Bygone date of World War III aside the movie presents a future that’s remarkable but maintains an odd sense of believability thanks to some of the restraint shown in its concepts. True to cyberpunk’s tendency of presenting familiar real world elements in warped ways there’s something of modern skyscraper design evident in the buildings, the difference arising from their terrifying scale, pan up shots revealing them to effectively block out most of the skyline. Special mention should go to the range of locations presented too with neon glitz and sterile labs juxtaposed against seedy bars and rundown streets. The world portrayed is clearly advanced but suffers from the same problems any major city would today.
The colour palette also caught my eye as being remarkably rich thanks to much of the film being set at night with coloured light sources atmospherically illuminating scenes. Eschewing the uniformly bright colour schemes many would associate with ‘cartoons’ lighting swings between harsh oranges and reds against deep blues, purples and browns for shadowing. In effect it emphasises the film’s dark mood during the opening bike chase while making the neon cityscape and bikes themselves contrastingly pop out within the compositions.
Akira’s unsettlingly gritty sense of realism is not just down to design or colour though. Certainly much of the later content surrounding Tetsuo’s powers steps outside of this considerably but I found much of the background activity a great deal more disturbing than on my previous viewing. Incidental moments of violence don’t pull any punches in what’s shown while the near continuous anti-government rioting (and its merciless suppression) are worrying in their resemblance to real life news footage. It shocks and gives the film an aggressive political undertone while also enforcing the sense of a world extending beyond the main characters, with wider implications to the disasters taking place. The opening and ending scenes of Neo Tokyo’s destruction carry all the more weight thanks to parallels with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (while uncomfortably calling the recent earthquake and tsunami devastation to mind); the carnage is never mindless or unfeeling as a result. Essentially, by establishing a credible universe the viewer is tricked into caring through comparison with genuine catastrophes.
Considering the film’s main thread, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand we have the broader political and philosophical implications of power out of control while on the other there’s a more focused personal tale underpinning the bigger picture. The experimentation on Tetsuo by the government and development of his psionic powers represent a larger theme regarding mankind’s irrepressible hunger for advancement and understanding, both he and the foregone Akira being grasps towards what is best described as ‘godhood’. While this pushes over into a realm perhaps more fantastical in nature than typical sci-fi the connection with technology is clearly affirmed throughout. The mechanical arm Tetsuo attaches in place of his missing one leans towards cyborg concepts while the continual barrage of ineffectual countermeasures the army unleashes both revels in and dismisses civilisations accomplishments.
What makes this more than a soulless disaster movie though is the running conflict between Tetsuo and his childhood friend Kaneda: the former being driven to supplant the eponymous Akira out of a deep seated sense inferiority, the latter out for revenge against his former friend over the death of a fellow biker. Both characters transform over the course of the movie with Kaneda changing from arrogant biker to something of a hero figure while Tetsuo gradually becomes more and more of a monster – as much through his own anger as by the experiments of the government conducted on him, metaphorically and visually.
I must admit that the ending formerly baffled me and to some degree still does with even Otomo allegedly admitting he was forced to scale back and compromise. However approaching it again with an open mind I found it to be more satisfying than I remembered, being comparable perhaps to 2001: A Space Odyssey with the suggestion of some form of ascension or rebirth taking place and a surreal light tunnel sequence recalling the one in Kubrick’s film. This theme of rebirth is given further weight by Tetsuo’s final grotesque mutation, seeing him become a swelling blob akin in some respects to a gigantic baby, a horrifying demonstration of uncontrollable power, the resurrection of Akira meanwhile fulfilling a role which draws parallels to the resurrection of Jesus in Christian theology.
In conclusion: Akira represents much of Japanese animation’s strengths and weaknesses, a visual feast packed with ideas and political charge which can also be alienating due to its more brutal moments and high ambiguity. Regardless, taken aside from the hype and misguided preconceptions it lives up to the legend as a landmark in animation paving the way for the likes of Ghost in the Shell and a great deal of ensuing cyberpunk.