Wednesday, June 5, 2024

First Contact: Akira

A classic and fundamental movie in the history of anime lives up to the hype, 35 years on


For someone who is as visually focused as I am (amateur photographer and all), it will be a surprise to readers that my knowledge and consumption of anime is minimal. Mostly due to circumstance, and luck, and not having access to cable shows and channels that featured anime, by the time anime was widespread and easy to consume, the bewildering variety of anime kept and keeps me from trying to dive in. My watching of anime ever since has been mostly scattershot. A few episodes of things like Dragon Ball Z. Cowboy Bebop. And a few other random episodes here and there of odd series that I’ve come across. So my education of anime needs a lot of work.

As far as the purposes of the First Contact project were laid out, I wanted to pick a piece of classic anime. And so we come to Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 cyberpunk action film Akira, based on his 1982 manga of the same name.

Akira is the template, the herald for anime to be accepted and watched and studied by adults, and has influenced generations of anime, and Western movies, ever since. In some ways, though, I’ve seen parts or images or motifs from this movie, and I’ve been seeing the “Akira Slide” for decades now, particularly in animation. I never knew that Akira was really the origin for the visual. What was also clear, upon watching this film, is how many other images and motifs were also clearly borrowed from  it. Recently, I watched an episode of What If? that features a horrible and distinctive transformation. Imagine my surprise when, while watching Akira, I saw what that What If? episode was clearly borrowing from and referencing.

And I had always heard in a second-hand way that Akira was an inspiration for The Matrix. I had accepted this as received wisdom without understanding what that meant, until I finally watched Akira. When Tetsuo holds up a shell coming at him hanging in midair, I could see the bullet-time of The Matrix. The stylization and the visuals of the action sequences, the fluid motion and movements of characters were clearly forerunners of what was done in The Matrix (and therefore movies that borrow from The Matrix are borrowing from Akira). Also the idea of someone ordinary developing psychic powers that can change the world is in fact the central theme of Akira, although it goes in very different directions.

And such visuals! Even beyond these and other iconic images, the palette of the movie is gorgeous. Hundreds of hand-painted colors make the saturation of the film unbelievably gorgeous. In our current era of muted and underlit palettes, watching Akira was a riot of color and imagery that threatened to overwhelm me at times with the sheer power of what was on screen. Even scenes in tunnels and sewers (and there were more images of sewers in this film than I was ever expecting) had a visual key and style to them that is at odds with a lot of modern cinema—to Akira’s benefit. I could always follow what was happening on screen, see it, and experience it.

I am not so focused on sound and music in movies and television as some people are, but I was also struck by the clever and nuanced use of music. The use of Indonesian gamelans as well as Japanese Noh music was, to me, unique, and striking. The music counterpoints the visuals, both in the action beats and in quieter moments.

And then there is the topicality of the movie. This movie works so well on its background and worldbuilding as it does on its main plot that both feel very resonant, even today. As of the time of the writing of this piece, we are facing a world where protests and unrests against oppression and for freedom of speech and right to assemble are being met by violent reactions from people in power. Throughout Akira, we see in things as subtle as posters and graffiti, and as visceral as brutal police and army crackdowns against demonstrations, the struggle to be heard, to have a voice, to change an unjust system. The movie is not subtle that this is a post-war dystopia, and it even has a coup, to boot. Can a movie filmed in 1988 and set in an alternate 2019 have something to say about our present of 2024? It turns out, in the case of Akira, most definitely yes.

And I do want to expand that to talk about the final thing that struck me about this movie, and something that readers of my book reviews know I am concerned about, and that is the worldbuilding. Neo-Tokyo, the city built next to the ruins of the one shattered in World War III, is a vividly imagined and realized place. From visuals to settings, to small details and touches, Neo-Tokyo feels like a lived-in place with people of all strata of society trying to get along. It’s a city that feels real, a place you could go and be immersed in the experience. Granted, that experience would be alarming, with authoritarian police squashing dissent, violent and out of control biker gangs of young hooligans, and a full-on cult to a being named Akira, but it would all feel holistically and organically real.

And the movie’s plotting and pacing are very well done. We start with the image of the start of the Third World War... but what that image means and its implications are held in reserve until the end of the movie, when we answer another question: Just why is this movie named Akira? The main characters are Tetsuo and Kaneda. Just who and what Akira is (and consequently, why the movie is named Akira) is a slow building and compilation that mirrors a lot of what the rest of the movie does. I have discussed the worldbuilding, that starts with us seeing the Capsules and the Clowns and in a systematic and patient way. We add in the social dynamics of the police and society, and then our introduction to the ESPers, and then the military that controls them. The plotting is similarly a crackerjack piece of work, starting us with the small-time problems of a couple of gangs, and leading to, well, consequences not just for Neo-Tokyo, but for the entire world and the entire universe. It all feels like a logical progression, and what starts off as a story with small stakes winds up with the largest of stakes by the ending.

But for all of the visuals, the worldbuilding, the plotting, and even the sound, what makes this movie a true classic, one that truly justifies me tackling it as part of the First Contact project, is the thematic currents and subcurrents throughout the movie. It’s true of a lot of SFF that theme is what brings you back to the table for rereads and deeper dives. Akira’s themes are both worn on its sleeve and also reward watching and contemplation. Questions of government (military vs. civilian), the uses of power and controlling power. Press freedom. Violence and lawbreaking vs. authoritarian tyranny. The power of found families and chosen relationships. One can see in Akira an echo of Godzilla, and so we get into questions of nuclear war and nuclear power. As the movie goes on, we get into even weightier themes that approach apotheosis, the Godhead, and the future of humanity itself. All this condensed into a visually stunning, entertaining and kinetic anime movie that clocks in at a lean and mean 2 hours and 4 minutes.

My only regret is that I did not give Akira a try sooner.


POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.