(1988, Katsuhiro Otomo)
For years, people held the misconception that animation is exclusively for children; that no mature story can be told sensibly with animated characters. After all, it’s all anthropomorphic mice and bunnies, right? Then, in the late 80s, an animated movie found its way to the West from Japan, surprising many with its violent and mature content. That film, now held up as a milestone of Japanese animation, was Akira.
The story is set in Neo Tokyo in the year 2019, a city built on the ruins of Tokyo following an incident that destroyed it in the late 80s. During a battle between rival bike gangs, one gang member, Tetsuo, collides with a mysterious child who looks aged beyond his years. Shockingly, the child remains unharmed, but Tetsuo is injured. The military arrive and take both the child and Tetsuo away. Fellow gang member Kaneda begins to actively search for him, joining an anti-military group after saving Kei, one of its members. Cue a lot of exciting action sequences and a massive dose of mind screw for good measure.
The first thing to note about Akira is just how fluid and expressive the animation is. The level of detail is phenomenal. While some aspects of character movement may not be entirely realistic compared to, say, Grave Of The Fireflies which came out in the same year, it’s certainly got a lot of life in it, and brings the world of Neo Tokyo to life. The background details are plentiful too, even down to readable graffiti on walls (well, assuming you can read Japanese, of course). The work that went into this is phenomenal.
Similarly, while the movie’s often falsely used to “prove” that anime is all hyper violent and perverse, it’s incredibly wrong. Not only is anime a diverse genre to begin with, but Akira is also not the brainlessly violent action flick many claim it is. There’s actually a lot going on here. Sci-fi dystopia, class struggles, political corruption and themes of friendship and loyalty are all present, along with a huge philosophical climax that leaves you thinking about the movie long after you’ve stopped watching. Yes, there are scenes of extreme violence (such as a fairly gruesome shot of man’s arm getting run over by a motorbike) but it’s not wall-to-wall and never feels jarring in the context of the action. The film is smarter than just a violent gore-fest.
However, the amount of stuff going on also works against the movie. Akira was adapted from director Katsuhiro Otomo’s own manga, which was a sprawling epic of nearly 2,000 pages, and as such, the anime version struggles to squeeze everything into two hours. The large cast of characters feels underdeveloped and many of the movie’s concepts feel under explained. We never really find out why the government have interests in experimenting on people, and there’s very little backstory on the horribly aged kids we see throughout the movie, although they are important to the plot. As impressive as much of the movie is, there are times when it just feels like things are being rushed, and everything is being condensed to fit a time limit.
But it’s definitely a milestone in film-making, especially in the animation world. It does effectively show how animation can be used for more than just dancing penguins and cheeky ducks to entertain children. It showed the Western world how much more diverse animation can be and how it can be used to produce stunning mature movies too. Its influence is undeniable, even if it is slightly flawed.
Starring the voices of Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Taro Ishida & Mizuho Suzuki
Dub starring the voices of Johnny Yong Bosch, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee, Jamieson Price & Simon Isaacson
Written by Katsuhiro Otomo & Izo Hasimoto
Produced by Ryohei Suzuki & Shunzo Kato
Music score by Shoji Yamashiro
Cinematography by Katsuji Misawa
Edited by Takeshi Seyama
Favourite Scene: Kaneda’s clumsy misguided attempts to flirt with Kei provide some much needed comic relief from the general sense of “huh?”
Scene That Bugged Me: So…what exactly happened at the end of the movie? I really have no idea…
Watch it if: You have even the slightest interest in anime
Avoid it if: The idea of hearing someone shout “TETSUOOOOO!” several hundred times terrifies you
Originally posted on Blogspot Friday 9 March 2012