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Anime Info

Creator: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izo Hashimoto
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Length: Movie (2:04)
Purchase: Here

Summary

+ Beautiful hand drawn animation
+ A thoughtful, intelligent story
+ Doesn't get bogged down in its own philosophy
+/– Depictions of graphic violence
+/– Ending is a bit of a head scratcher

Overview

Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is a groundbreaking animated film. It is a showcase for what can be done when solid animation and a strong screenplay come together. The animation may seem dated compared to today's films but considering it was all hand drawn it is amazing.

The story is deep, intelligent, and literate but unlike some other films, it doesn't get bogged down in its own philosophy. The dialogue contains harsh language and there are scenes of graphic violence, it is definitely not for viewers younger than twelve.

Public Rating

Our Rating

Score of 5 out of 5
5 out of 5 · An Unequivocal Recommendation

Akira Movie Review

Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 10/27/2006

Introduction

In 1945, the Second World War came to an end when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. It could be argued that that event lead to an apocalyptical obsession in Japanese culture. That obsession plays itself out across the spectrum of Japanese popular culture. From Godzilla to Kairo (remade as Pulse) there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of horror and science fiction movies that deal in whole or in part with the end of the world or at least the destruction of Japan.

Originally released in 1988 and released in the United States in 1989, Akira hit with the force of an atomic punch to the gut. In telling the story of a futuristic Neo-Tokyo dominated by civil strife and violent teenage motorcycle gangs, Akira broke with most of the conventions associated with anime (at least in the west). Gone were the limited animation where nothing moves but the character's mouths, the syntho-pop soundtracks, and simplistic stories about cute kids fighting robots. Akira is an adult, intense science fiction thriller on par with such films as Blade Runner, the Road Warrior series, and even in some moments 2001: A Space Odyssey. It tells the story of a group of friends as they deal with the aftermath of one of them having a bizarre encounter with psychically gifted "young people" who are part of a government plan to harness immense power.

Review

Part cautionary tale part action-adventure, Akira opens in near silence as a massive, blinding explosion spreads across the city of Tokyo. Years later, the city of Neo-Tokyo has risen phoenix like from the ashes. Yet all is not well. Economic reforms have failed, the city is wracked by civil strife, a militant rebel movement is spreading, motorcycle gangs wage nightly wars on the streets and highways, and hundreds if not thousands of the city's citizens wait ominously for the return of Akira, a figure shrouded in myths and urban legends.

Among the biker gangs, two of the most prominent are the Clowns and their rivals the Capsules lead by the handsome, charismatic Kaneda. Kaneda's best friend since elementary school has been Tetsuo, a shy, sensitive young man who try's too hard be fit in with the tough crowd.

Tetsuo is one of three figures whose story will be following for the rest of the film. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, he envies Kaneda's motorcycle - symbol of power and authority in their world but also resents Kaneda for being constantly rescuing him from scrapes and tight spots. Part of the plot will eventually follow Testuo's quest to gain power and independence for himself.

We are introduced to these characters in an intense opening fight/chase scene that rages across the city to an impressive musical score built up of percussion, chanting, engines noises, and primal screams. While the animation may feel dated at the times compared to recent films such as Appleseed, Steamboy, or Metropolis, when it is remembered that in 1988 animated films were still entirely hand drawn, the detailed background painting and kinetic action are all the more impressive. As the Capsules and the Clowns battle it out on the highways, government forces are closing in on a psychic "child" who has been released from a government research project by a member of the rebel underground. Trigger happy riot police gun the rebel down and the other rebels are prevented from taking the child when anti-government protests become riotous. The scared psychic emits a glass shattering scream and disappears.

The psychic reappears in the middle of the highway a short time later - he's right in the path of the blood lusting Tetsuo. The child uses his powers to destroy Tetsuo's motorcycle and prevent Tetsuo from running him over. When the army shows up, Kaneda and his gang find themselves in reform school while Tetsuo is taken away to a government lab. It seems that his encounter with the psychic may have awakened Tetsuo's own latent powers.

The government, we learn, is not a cohesive whole. It is divided into many factions including a military/security faction headed by the strong willed Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is in command of the project that originally inadvertently destroyed Tokyo when a test subject named Akira lost control of his powers causing the massive explosion that opens the film. The ability to control power is a central theme of the film. Akira appears at key moments throughout the story as a benevolently smiling child; feared by some and worshipped by others he is a symbol of the power that humanity has aspired to while stumbling through the upward climb of history. Like an atomic bomb he contains more destructive power than one nation or even group of nations can control. At the same time great good can be made of Akira's power just as great good can come from atomic energy. The Colonel tells the scientist studying Tetsuo's transformation that a repeat of the Akira incident can not be allowed - Shikishima warns the scientist that he must destroy Tetsuo immediately if his power appears to be too much to control.

Tetsuo briefly escapes the government lab and attempts to take his girlfriend for a ride on Kaneda's advanced motorcycle. It proves too much for him to handle and he breaks down on the side of the road where he is ambushed by the clowns. As he has in the past, Kaneda, like the cavalry in a Western, shows up at the last moment to rescue Tetsuo. Kaneda's rescue fills Tetsuo with rage and resentment. He would have much rather handled the situation on his own and won't admit that he had gotten into a bad situation on his own or that he was in over his head. Surging with emotions, Tetsuo has his first psychic visions. When they register on the computers, Tetsuo is again taken away by government agents.

Show More Later, having lost access to their bikes, the Capsules are hanging out downtown when rebels attack a shopping arcade. Kaneda has a crush on Kei, a female rebel that he had earlier helped out of jail; he follows her as the rebels make their way back to their secret base. Although Kaneda has no political affiliations or ideals he agrees to help the rebels break into a government facility when he realizes it may be his chance to rescue Tetsuo. However, it is unclear why Kaneda wants anything more to do with an ungrateful ass like Tetsuo. Perhaps Kaneda is thinking with his loins and more interested in seducing Kei than helping his friend.

Meanwhile, Tetsuo is being held in a government lab. His powers are growing. Number 25, one of the psychics, has had precognitive dreams about the return of Akira and the destruction of the city. She warns the Colonel not to allow Tetsuo to leave the facility; his power is becoming too great. The Colonel is a package of contradiction. He denounces scientists for being romantics yet he hates the citizens of the city for turning their backs on science and construction - he denounces the people as hedonistic fools, yet he will do what he can to prevent the city's destruction.

At the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum from the Colonel are the city's politicians. While the Colonel is too eager to take action without having all the facts, the politicians do nothing but study and debate facts without taking any actions. The previous administration's tax reforms have caused economic unrest throughout the city. The deadlocked politicians are too busy bickering and maneuvering to take the necessary actions to alleviate tension and growing civil unrest. As tensions grow within the city, the parliament is increasingly locked in endless debates about economic reform, terrorist activity, and the meaning of Akira. One these men, Mr. Nezu is a mole who's been secretly ferreting information to the rebel cell Kei belongs to, perhaps for his own nefarious purposes, although this is never made clear. He also may be the source of information about Akira that the cult like Akira World Renewal Movement has built its faith on. Meeting with rebel leader Ryu, Nezu compares the city to an overripe fruit - at the core of the fruit however is the seed of change. It is Nezu's hope that the wind of change is coming in the form of Akira, although what Nezu plan's to replace the current government with is left ambiguous and just a touch sinister.

Show More
The many strands of the story begin to converge as Tetsuo, mad with power, overcomes all attempts to subdue him and escapes from the government. This scene is a dramatic showcase for the animators as the psychics use illusions in an attempt to control Tetsuo. Toys marching across Tetsuo's bed and later the appearance of giant stuffed animals could be achieved in live action films only through the use advanced computers at great cost. In animation the only limits are ink, paint, pencils, and the flexibility of the animators' wrists. Filled with rage and hatred towards the government, towards Kaneda, towards any one he has perceived as in his way, Tetsuo rampages across the city towards the Olympic Stadium where Akira has been hidden. Meanwhile military police arrive with orders from government to place the Colonel under arrest. In a classic dramatic reversal, the Colonel instigates a coup d'etat and orders the arrest of the government. His mission to protect the city at all costs is more important to him than the will of those he sees as "corrupt politicians and capitalists".

Akira, like many other science fiction anime, occasionally pauses the action to have characters discus science and philosophy. Unlike many anime, Serial Experiments: Lain for example, Akira is never bogged down in its philosophy. And the dialog is rarely obtuse, usually sticking to what is necessary to tell the story. A scene of the head the Akira World Renewal Movement chanting in the street succinctly captures the current debate between science and religion as she denounces science as a wicked impurity. One moment, late in the film is of particular importance as Kei explains why the rebel movement finds Tetsuo so dangerous. Every stage of life owes its existence to an earlier form of life. The familiar concept of collective unconsciousness is here extrapolated into a theory of cosmic memory, the participants in this theory have, through experimentation appropriated power intended for a more advanced stages of development. They believe Akira has evolved into a being of pure energy and giving that much energy to boy like Tetsuo would be like giving the power of a human to an amoeba. Kaneda doesn't fully understand the danger until she reminds him that amoebas don't build or create anything, they only eat all the food around them. Kei has been used as a mouthpiece for the other psychics so occasionally it is unclear when she is speaking and when they are communicating through her. Kei departs with the psychics, their last message to Kaneda being that Akira's power lies within all human beings to choice of whether to use it for good or ill being up to the individual.

The final confrontation involving Tetsuo, Kaneda, the Psychics, and the Colonel's forces, is a showcase for why animation is a superior medium for science fiction than live action film. The effects and transformation sequences in the final minutes of the movie would alone bust the budget of a live action film - indeed plans for a live action version of Akira were scrapped when the proposed budget escalated to $300 million. Set within the confines of an Olympic stadium, the finale depicts the logical conclusion of the Olympian ideals of Faster, Higher, Stronger. Tetsuo has become a godlike being yet unbalanced by rage he looses control of that power and mutates hideously eventually destroying not only himself but his girlfriend as well. Using their combined forces, the psychics are able to reconstitute Akira - his reemergence is an apocalyptic vision not unlike the emergence of an ancient deity. Tetsuo and Kaneda are swept up by the vortex of pure energy. Kaneda passes through several spheres of his friend's consciousness, reliving many childhood memories before the cataclysm ends, Akira and Tetsuo disappear, suddenly and harshly taking with them the military scientists who foisted this power on an unprepared populace. Light breaks through the clouds and a disembodied voice shouts, "I am Tetsuo!" suggesting a kind of rebirth. The final frames of the movie consist of an animators pencil test of expanding bubble of energy suggests…well that is up to the viewer to decide.

Conclusion

Akira On some film message boards, it is not uncommon for many younger anime fans to dismiss Akira as not original or particular groundbreaking compared to more recent efforts. This false notion comes from an ignorance of the history of anime. While animation has always been a popular medium in Japan, Akira broke box office records for an animated film. It was also the first in new wave of anime in North America which sparked the current popularity of the form. This was due in no small part to its advanced and detailed animation incorporating more than 160'000 cels, exactingly lip synched dialogue, and fluid, realistic motion. Other factors would include its lush score, and thoughtful, intelligent story. Although Akira may pale in comparison to recent films it is a groundbreaking film without which many later efforts would not exist.

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