“Akira” is widely regarded as one of the best anime films of all time, and it has had a lot of influence on many pieces of media that have come out since its release. Despite this, I never really had any desire to go out and watch it. However, during my Cult Films class last year, we spent a week talking about foreign cult films and the appeal that foreign films have on western audiences (Anime was a big part of the lecture, and it had my full attention). Every week, our teacher had us watch a cult film related to the topic, and write a paper about it. Because he mentioned “Akira” by name, I decided to use this as an excuse to buy it on DVD and watch it.
While I could just copy/paste my paper from this class here, that feels disingenuous. Also, there have been two different dubs of this film, and I don’t actually remember which one I have. I think it’s the Pioneer dub from 2001.
This story takes place in the dystopian sci-fi “future” of 2019. In 1988, a massive explosion destroyed Tokyo, triggering nuclear war, World War 3. Neo-Tokyo rises up following this war, but is full of gang violence and corrupt government. The plot follows Shōtarō Kaneda, a teenage leader of a local biker gang. During a gang war between a rival gang, Tetsuo Shima, Kaneda’s gang member and childhood friend, crashes his bike into a young child. The child is revealed to be an esper (a person with powerful psychic abilities), one of a few esper children who the government are experimenting on. After capturing Tetsuo, the government is able to trigger his latent psychic abilities, but many become fearful as his abilities seem to mimic Akira, the esper who caused the 1988 Tokyo explosion. Kaneda meets Kei, a young woman involved in the anti-government resistance, and works with her in order to try to save Tetsuo before he fully loses himself to his new powers.
Being made in the 1980s, this film absolutely follows the 80s anime aesthetic with its color and style, and while I can’t say I have a lot to compare it to from the time, it feels like the creators went the extra mile in the animation, making it very smooth and clean, even during big actions scenes with a lot of moving pieces. This even more impressive with the film’s 2 hour run time.
If there’s any kind of complaint about this film that I hear, it’s that the plot can get confusing at times, and people don’t understand the ending. To a certain extent, I agree. This film is one that benefits from multiple viewings, or reading a synopsis online after viewing. Although, the events that take place at the very end of the film aren’t fully spelled out, so I feel that it can be left up to interpretation. While based off of a manga series, the film is a shortened version of that plot, so it’s hard to say if reading the manga would provide a more conclusive ending.
It’s easy to see why many people consider “Akira” the quintessential anime film: the animation is fantastic, the story line is deep and interesting, and it does a lot to prove that anime can be a medium to tell dark, serious, and adult-oriented stories, unlike western cartoons. (the comparison of how Japan treats animation compared to how the US treats cartoons was a major part of my class paper) Many people who watch a decent amount of anime have most likely already watched this, but if you haven’t, I highly suggest it.