World War 3 breaks out in 1988, and on 16th of August Tokyo is destroyed by an atomic bomb. More than three decades pass, and in 2019 the city has been reborn as Neo-Tokyo, a sprawling metropolis even bigger and more technocratic than before, the hub of a techno empire but with a slew of social problems behind the towering skyscrapers and neon networks. Unemployment has produced swathes of idle workers, students are organising protests in the streets, and terrorists plan to overthrow the unpopular government, who are struggling to revive the economy. In one of the more impoverished suburbs, where biker gangs clash with violent regularity, a bike gang leader, Kaneda, the rider of a vivid and powerful red bike with hi-spec tech features, takes pity on a younger boy, Tetsuo, after seeing him admiring his wheels outside a seedy bar, but both become involved in a high-octane chase through the city’s business district, being chased by a rival gang, The Clowns, and bikes are totalled and bystander’s cars are wrecked, Kaneda saving Tetsuo when he totals his own bike. Tetsuo seems to be a young man with ambitions to be a biker as famed as Kaneda, but he has special powers which even he does not yet know how to control. In another part of the city, the government is monitoring a special, secret scientific unit, which is dealing with a new and terrifyingly powerful source of energy, the project being codenamed Akira. As Kaneda and Tetsuo try to make their way through the city’s dark underbelly, becoming involved with anti-government activists, renegade cabinet officials, scientists who are willing to do anything in the name of research, and a military leader who knows what the government is working on, and wants to use it for his own ends, engineering a military coup which will put him in charge of the entire country and prepare the way for a new Japan-led war, it becomes clear that Tetsuo is somehow involved with the Akira project, as confrontations spark his natural paranormal powers, turning him into a young boy who is the target of the city’s many factions, all of whom want him and his powers for themselves, the change in him turning him against Kaneda. Meeting a young female revolutionary, Kei, Kaneda teams up with her, determined to find his friend once more and discover what is tormenting him so, as the frightening secrets behind the Akira project, forged three decades earlier, are about to be exposed.
One of the most impressive achievements in Japanese anime, and one of the very few to genuinely make the breakthrough from pure cult fandom to mainstream acceptance, with the film managing to appeal to a surprisingly wide audience and getting very positive notices from filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to, inevitably, James Cameron, Akira
is a dystopian sci-fi tale which reminds visually excellent and completely gripping over two decades after it was made, Katsuhiro Otomo’s film, based on his own graphic novel, excels on almost every level, from the terrific design and soundtrack, to the sheer pace of the complex narrative, which brings in everything from paranormal powers, biker gang mythology and the shadow of war guilt, all in one truly impressive package. This is also an anime which, unlike the more disposable end of the market, really should be watched subtitled in the original Japanese version, since despite two different attempts at dubbing an English language soundtrack, firstly by Streamline, who produced English language versions of a vast number of Japanese productions for the home video market through the Eighties, in 1989, and then in a redubbed version by Animaze in 2001, neither captures either the subtleties of the script or has particularly convincing or impressive vocal performances, largely provided by the sort of talent who usually dub Saturday morning TV cartoons rather than being particularly recognisable names. What perhaps gives Akira
, produced at a cost of $8 million, a then totally unheard of budget for an anime, such crossover appeal is the stunning design, Kaneda’s bike being one of the most iconic images in all mainstream Japanese animation, fantastic pace and a truly gripping plot, which manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of Japanese animation and maintain momentum, not easy when Otomo’s screenplay comes from his own six-volume manga, which eventually ran to an incredible 2162 pages and wasn’t actually finished when the film was released, eventually ending two years later although the writer has also insisted that it wasn’t really over, just basically stopped. Otomo has had mixed fortunes since Akira brought him worldwide fame, continuing to write his own very popular mangas, but his ventures into film, directing the live-action World Apartment Horror
(1991), which has its’ own cult following, and the steampunk anime Steamboy
(2004), which was perhaps not such a success as anticipated, but Akira
remains his towering achievement, being influential on a huge number of other sci-fi productions, as well as spawning an endlessly delayed American remake, but remember, avoid the dubbed versions and go for the subtitled.