I have been staring at my computer screen for what seems a decade, trying to sum up what Akira feels like to watch - after a considerable period of hesitation, I offer the following graceless suggestion: think Ghibli on acid. Although relentlessly brutal and disturbing, Akira remains strictly philosophical at heart with its exploration of human evolution set against a backdrop of human decay. As such, it has that energising creativity to be found in Ghibli productions; and yet, due to the level of bizarre savagery, it also makes me feel like I'm experiencing a rather bad hallucinatory trip.
Opening with a stark ‘beginning of the end' setting reminiscent of many parts of the world even today, Akira quickly establishes a dark, unnerving mood. Rather than alien invaders or malfunctioning supercomputers, Neo-Tokyo suffers from good old-fashioned social disintegration; the city is a place where violent demonstrations and wannabe messiahs sprout like weeds, and all the while the authorities are struggling to hold onto power. Being a fan of cynical portrayals of humanity, I immediately connected with Akira's world and found myself easily swept away despite some of its plot-related lapses.
Moreover, Akira's individual scenes are brilliantly directed. First and foremost, it offers plenty of action sequences with fluid, fast-paced stunts and gory violence. Squeamish viewers will probably not appreciate such detail but I find the violence is rarely gratuitous and actually enhances the story's emotional impact; specifically, the explosive psychic battles provide the plot with some valuable momentum. However, even the ordinary non-action scenes are wholly gripping due to the tense characterisation and world detail. For example, Kaori at the laundrette remains one of my favourite moments for no other reason than the disheartening features of the room and the realistic touch of the girl on the telephone in the background.
As hinted above, not all is perfect, and at least one qualification is in order; cramming in six manga volumes of politics, metaphysics and the end of the world, it probably comes as no surprise to say Akira's plot progression is far from seamless. For instance, after waking up to find himself in a strange hospital, Tetsuo stumbles to his escape, turning up at his girlfriend's place a couple of scenes later without explanation of how he got there. Granted, these ‘gaps' are rare and, being absorbed by the milieu, I get the impression that I have not missed much, but they are inelegant nonetheless.
Akira's only ‘imperfection' animation-wise is its age, although, in more important respects - colour scheme, character design, motion etc - not one thing needs amending. With detailed hand-drawn images and such a high quality concept, this movie doesn't come off bad at all in comparison to more recent features.
For anyone suspicious of 1980s interpretations of the future, fear not: far from having a cheesy concept where bad hair and even worse clothes dominate the scene, Akira opts for a timeless gritty feel. On the one hand, the character designs are simplistic; Kei the terrorist, for example, is difficult to recognise as a female at first because of her rather androgynous design, and, apart from a couple of too-short trousers, the clothes could belong to any futuristic era.
The details of the city environments, on the other hand, are remarkable; everything from the use of shadow to the weird skin tones in neon lighting helps to give Akira a manic depressive appeal. As mentioned before, this attention to detail also extends to the blood and gore used liberally throughout.
Both the Japanese and the English dubs are of a high calibre in terms of drama, but the Americans outperform the Japanese in terms of suitability. Kaneda's Japanese voice, as an example, just seems too reedy for a street-wise leader of his age.
Complementing the twisted mood of the movie is a unique experimental soundtrack which mostly involves percussion music and spooky chanting. This one is worth owning if you like your music a bit ‘out there'; for example, the high-octane bike chase is accompanied by a breathy piece with dramatic power drums and some of Tetsuo's crazy scenes use a rather discordant but chilling choral theme.
Unsurprisingly, Akira leaves absolutely no room for kind-hearted altruists. Most of the characters are either acting for explicitly non-ideal reasons or their motivations are left unsaid, so warming to any of them is a pointless exercise at best. However, a cast does not have to be likeable to be good, and despite each character being rarely more than one-dimensional, the cast as a whole makes for a believable mix of creepy villains, antiheroes, and tragic victims. Still, only the three centremost characters, Kaneda, Tetsuo, and the Colonel, are actually memorable in their own right.
Kaneda is a street-wise brat who knows how to handle himself, but what strikes me the most about him is his sense of humour; he is genuinely amusing when he talks back to police officers and his flippant remarks help alleviate the tension at all the right times. Still, while he is admirable in that delinquent way, he is not the kind of person you necessarily want to spend more than ninety minutes with.
His best friend, Tetsuo, on the other hand, gives the impression of a victim frustrated by the lack of control in his life. The traumas and transformations he faces as a result of his godlike development make for some of the best scenes of the entire film.
Arguably the most complex character is the Colonel because, in the midst of all this madness, he is the only one willing to make pragmatic, commonsensical decisions. Interestingly, this does not make him the good guy in any strict sense because his uncompromising methods leave a lot to be desired, and, as with many of the other characters, I am undecided whether to cheer him on or not.
Akira is an action fest kind of movie with an unexpected philosophical and sociological depth; sure, plot progression is disjointed on occasion and the cast is not phenomenally sympathetic, but I could offer Akira nothing less than a high score. As a thrilling sci-fi with a unique ‘brink of madness' approach, it makes a powerful and lasting impression.
Following the disaster wrought upon the world by a mysterious being called ‘Akira’, Neo Tokyo is now in social and economic turmoil. In such a decaying city, feisty Kaneda and his shy friend Tetsuo survive by running around in a biker gang, chasing local rivals and generally evading the police. Everything changes, however, when Tetsuo crashes into a strange-looking boy during a bike chase and the military ends up taking him away. When he eventually returns to his friends, he’s no longer the same weak little boy they always knew – in fact, a military experiment has turned him into something beyond human imagination. While the military is intent on reclaiming its specimen at any cost, Tetsuo is sick of being bullied around and is about to show everyone, including his friend Kaneda, exactly who is boss.
I'll review anything as long as there are words in the dictionary to describe it. Disagree with me? Want to leave feedback? Please do, but take a look at my personal rating scale first.