I’m a big fan of Japanese anime with my first taste of it coming in the late eighties. I remember Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) first airing on British television. I was a pre-teen at this point and my late grandparents would often tape some great programs for me. That recording of Laputa stayed in the family for years until someone (I’m still not certain who) taped over it. Boy, was I pissed!
In the early nineties my older brother began sampling Manga films, adaptations of Japanese comics and graphic novels and we experienced some contrasting formats ranging from Project A-Ko (1986) to Urotsukidoji I: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989). On each VHS was a trailer for another film my brother and I were desperate to see, beginning with the voice over: “Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.”
This film was, of course, Akira which remains, in my humble opinion, the greatest animated film there has ever been. It was adapted from Katsuhiro Otomo’s graphic novel (1982-90) which stretched to 6 volumes and covered more than 2,000 pages. It’s epic in every sense of the word but back in 1988 Otomo’s magnum opus was somehow adapted into a 2 hour feature length film.
Explaining what the hell Akira is about isn’t the easiest of tasks and even today I’m not convinced I understand every aspect of it. We are told that in 1988 Tokyo is destroyed by a widespread explosion that forms the catalyst for World War III. The scene soon changes to AD 2019 in Neo Tokyo, born in the aftermath of the devastation that obliterated its predecessor. The streets are filled with riot police and protesters, while rival biker gangs – the Capsules and the Clowns – cruise the highways and battle it out for supremacy.
The film quickly gets going with the Capsules, led by Kaneda, involved in the latest battle against the Clowns. Tetsuo, a downtrodden member of the Capsules, races ahead of his friends in order to prove his worth, only to crash when trying to avoid a young boy – Takashi – who has wandered into the road. No sooner have the Capsules arrived at the crash site than the military arrive and abduct both Takashi and the wounded Tetsuo. Tetsuo then becomes the basis of experiments linked to the elusive Akira, a unique child that played a part in the destruction of Tokyo 30 years before.
That’s a simplified idea of what goes on in Akira but there’s so much more depth to it, my ramblings hardly touch the surface. Our focus is shifted frequently, watching Kaneda’s search for Tetsuo and his involvement with a rebel faction opposed to the government, Tetsuo’s emergence as a powerful being hell-bent on taking revenge against all who have wronged him, the three espers – Takashi, Kiyoko and Masaru – and their link to both Akira and Tetsuo, as well as the imposing Colonel Shikishima and Doctor Onishi who oversee the project involving Tetsuo.
While Kaneda comes across as a bit of a goofball at times, his priority being getting together with rebel, Kei, he ultimately steps up as something of a hapless hero. The really memorable moments belong to Tetsuo though. At the outset he is an insignificant runt in the biker gang, scorned and dismissed by his peers, but following the experiments he is subjected to, Tetsuo inevitably escapes his confines and is near unstoppable as he wanders the city and leaves nothing but devastation in his wake. The friendship between Kaneda and Tetsuo is explored in more depth towards the end, revealing companionship that isn’t apparent in the first half of the film. The final face-off between the two men simply has it all.
I have seen different versions of Akira and my preference is for the original English dub though you can’t go wrong with the film’s first incarnation in Japanese. The new English dub that was released in 2001 just didn’t do it for me, but to be fair I’d become so used to the original that this was bound to be the case. I had the same problem when a modern dub was done for Laputa, which wasn’t as memorable as the previous one, but that’s just my opinion and many have disagreed with me about that.
Watching Akira it’s hard to believe that this amazing film is now more than 25 years old. The likes of Pixar may produce more visually stunning animations these days but I still prefer this format that Studio Ghibli still primarily use. The company founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in the early eighties has produced some of my favourite anime films but all of them are superseded by Otomo’s Akira. It remains visually stunning to this day, has an intricate story, great characters, memorable set-pieces and a terrific climax. For anyone that is curious about trying Japanese anime I would point them to Studio Ghibli first, simply for the variety of films offered there but if they really want to see anime at its best then they should head for Akira and Neo Tokyo, buckle their belts, hold tight, sit back and enjoy the ride.
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