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Akira: a retrospective

Groundbreaking anime flick turns 30.
Photo courtesy of IMPA Awards

The American localization of the popular paradigm-shifting anime drama Akira has now reached its 30-year anniversary. With a tv series reboot in the works, it’s time to look back on the original film, which still holds up as an unearthly futuristic saga depicting complex post-war anxieties, socio-political relationships, and technologies in a well-tempered and timeless art style.  

The story takes place, coincidentally, in 2019 in the wake of a post-world war III Neo-Tokyo. It follows the journey of Shotaro Kaneda  and his teenage motorcycle gang as they stumble into a military conspiracy to artificially develop the next stage of human evolution. One of the members of the gang, Tetsuo Shima, crashes his bike into an escaped test subject named Takashi, giving him unrestrained and uncontrollable psychic abilities that give him the power to overtake the government and become the chaotic quasi-ruler of Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda and a freedom fighter named Kei, along with the child test subjects called Espers, then try to stop Tetsuo from growing too powerful and creating a calamity like the one that destroyed Tokyo and triggered the third world war.  

For those unfamiliar with Akira, it provides an experience unlike any other anime, or film of any kind for that matter. The colors are bold and punch through every major scene, from the reds of the title card and Kaneda’s bike and jumpsuit to the unnatural blue lights in the Doctor and Colonel’s testing facilities. The shots themselves are so well-structured that nearly every major set piece is recollect-able from even a single viewing, giving the audience a striking image of an artificial Neo-Tokyo with crowded and riotous streets, decrepit building interiors, and entirely abandoned stadiums and districts.  

Perhaps the most exciting part of Akira is the music developed by the Japanese musical collective Genioh Yamashirogumi. Featuring a wide variety of percussion instruments hailing from Indonesian gamelan music, the score is rhythmic and mountainous, reinforcing the foreboding and ominous tones utilized throughout the film.  

Despite being hailed as a cyberpunk classic for its tight narrative and ominous thematic material, much of the original plot failed to make the jump from manga to anime. Both were developed almost entirely by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was given full creative control and one of the largest anime production budgets ever for the film. Fans of the manga will find about halfway through the movie that the story takes an entirely different route.  

Many characters, like Chiyoko and Lady Miyako, a supporting character in the resistance and a test subject respectively, either have reduced roles or do not appear at all. Still, both manga and anime pretty much end up in the same place, and even as a stripped-down version of the original narrative, the film relays the same ideas of youth, alienation, and technological disparity that defined the original work.  

As a newer, likely more detailed retelling of Akira is set to release as a tv series, its first adaptation will in any case be remembered as a historical and significant part of film history.

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