Wednesday, February 26, 2014


AKIRA (1988)

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Screenplay: Katsuhiro Otomo based on his graphic novel first published by “Young Magazine,” Kodansha, Ltd.

A seminal work in Japanese Anime, and an undeniable essential for fans and even novices of the genre, somewhere between David Lynch and “2001…” is “Akira,” arguably the best and certainly the most important of Anime films. Along with Miyazaki’s films, “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Akira,” is the movie that brought what was then known as Japanimation, later renamed Anime, to the American shores. 

Unlike Miyazaki and Takahata, “Akira,” is closer in tone to the typical images one thinks of when they think of Japanese animation. The first time I heard of the movie, it was in the mid-nineties on an informercial which was selling Akira, as the first in a monthly collection of Japanese animated films. They were advertised and criticized correctly for their excessive violence, striking sexual images, nudity, and just randomly disturbing imagery in general. It was also heavily suspected these were marketed towards children, which may or may not have been the case, but it found cult audiences of all ages, and “Akira,” more than many of the other films would have a reach beyond the typical Anime fans market. 

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, which he made from his own graphic novel, it was way over-budget and delayed. The movie used over 300 different colors, a record for an animated film; fifty of the colors were created specifically for the film. While he has directed since “Akira,” only a few times have been feature-length films like “Steamboy,” and he has become more prolific in Anime as a writer, including “Metropolis”. “Akira,” still remains a visual marvel; arguably the best film made using cell animation. 

The film itself is an intricate and complicated sci-fi tale involving members of a motorcycle gang, an Army Colonel, three sickly dwarf-like characters that drift in and out almost without explanation, and someone or something called Akira, that may or may not be at the center of all this. Taking place outside of Neo Tokyo, a city west of Tokyo that has been built in the years after the original was engulfed in some kind of WWIII bomb, Kaneda and Tetsuo are members of a motorcycle gang. Kaneda rides on a Japanese Kawasaki bike that’s excessively red, matching his jacket, and his gang symbol, which looks like a pill capsule. Tetsuo is strangely kidnapped after an unusual gangfight, and Kaneda tries to find and then rescue him, only to find Tetsuo suddenly blessed or cursed with telekinetic powers that makes Carrie look like an amateur.

Three strange dwarf-like creatures seem to have an explanation, one even plays an oracle-like role, warning of danger. An oddly intelligent and thoughtful Army Colonel, feels this war and a battle coming on, tries to either kill or at least capture Tetsuo, but this task is particularly impossible considering how easily Tetsuo escapes. He can also apparently reshape entire structures to bend to his will if he wanted to, and his will is destruction. All these and other forces eventually collide into a confusing and elaborate ending that resembles the visually-enthralling ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in both visuals and scope. I’ll be damned if I can come up with an exact explanation of how a second rate gang member becomes a, -… well he becomes a lot of different things. This shapeshifting mythology that’s deeply imbedded in Japanese culture, and is particularly prevalent in Anime is used to full disturbing and grotesque effect here, as well as the most strikingly beautiful. The movie’s ending is as beautiful as it is confusing. That’s not a bad thing. I’m okay with not completely understanding every little detail of this film’s plot and story. Sometimes I can't even be sure if I’m looking at someone or something that’s real of a figment of a character’s imagination, or possibly even a humanoid stand-in for another character, and most of the time, the other characters aren’t going to know either. The way it plays in fact, it’s almost a complete coincidence when any of the characters are aware of any of the others and their intentions, and often they can do very little anyway. 

I have a feeling were not supposed to understand everything about “Akira,” anyway. It’s the kind of movie that’s going to be ever-evolving upon each viewing. How can often can you say that about an animated film?

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