To many, this is the movie that started it all. But what’s interesting about Akira is that, while it is largely credited with introducing anime to the West, it barely raised an eyelid on its initial release. Most Japanese critics’ lists from 1988 barely gave Akira a mention, instead deciding to concentrate on films like Grave Of The Fireflies or My Neighbour Totoro, at least as far as animes were concerned. But while these are perhaps (and in my opinion definitely) superior in quality, their success in western countries was more slow-moving and therefore not as much of a shock to the system as Akira was.
When Akira was first screened in Europe and North America in the early 90s, most people had simply never seen anything like it. Distributors, unaware of the tradition of adult-orientated animation in Japan, didn’t have a clue how to promote this feature (some billing it as a kids’ movie), and equally audiences suffered from the same confusion (in some cases parents taking their children to a film which features scenes such as a person exploding before mutating into a garish cyberpunk mess of flesh and cables). This confusion resulted in Akira being something of an underground success, but it also ensured the movie cult status across western countries, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.
Is Akira a hyperviolent, sadistic fantasy? Or an eloquent statement on modern civilisation run amok, with technology getting the better of its masters and planet Earth having its divine revenge on those who mutilated it? It’s possibly both. Most aficionados of Japanese animation (and also some Japanese live action, witness films by Shinya Tsukamoto or Takashi Miike) are aware that stylised violence is nothing particularly new to the genre (for now wanting to avoid the age-old discussion of anime not being a genre in and of itself but rather a style of animation which incorporates several genres like horror, sci-fi, adventure, etc and indeed, it would do great disservice to the artistic integrity of many anime artists to simply lump them into one category). However, another fairly consistent, and perhaps ironic, feature of these “violent” narratives is the humanistic message inherent within them, and that, as opposed to many Hollywood narratives which use violence in a Biblical way (ie. the Good guys are justified in using violence against the Bad guy), a narrative like Akira, which stems primarily from both a Buddhist- and Shinto background, avoids lazy good/bad categorisations and instead uses violence to make a clear point – That it does not lead anywhere but tragedy. While perhaps the gratuitously stylised nature of the violence ends up clouding this message, the sheer fact is that, unlike in many mainstream narratives, violence is not rewarded in films like Akira. In fact, in Akira it culminates in the end of the world. Some resolution.
As much as Akira has attracted attention for its violent content, so the convoluted narrative has caused accusations of it being confusing at best and incoherent at worst. While it’s very likely that some of the Buddhist symbolism within the film (Tetsuo’s final transformation into a new cosmos, as hinted at during the final credit sequence, being a case in point) will go over a few people’s heads, the storyline itself is fairly simple: Tetsuo, a bullied and insecure individual, is subjected to a genetic experiment which unleashes a hidden power within him, and, in his anger, destroys the world which he feels rejected him. As well as being a somewhat abstract statement on disaffected youth, I would regard Akira as a document of its time. Even though it’s set in the future (but then any sci-fi is just an abstract futuristic representation of the time it was made in anyhow), Akira excellently sums up the blind and ravaging short-sighted materialism of our age. That aside, Tetsuo’s mutation has been described by some as allegorically representing Japan’s disproportionate wealth bubble of the 1980s, while Tetsuo himself is the product of a world driven by greed and avarice.
I have to admit that Akira left a huge impression on me when I initially saw it 20+ years ago. In fact, as with so many others, it probably helped to start my fondness of east Asian cinema. I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten or twenty years from now, Akira is widely regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made (if it isn’t seen as such already, witness the influence it had on Hollywood films like The Matrix), and that future generations will justifiably view it as an all-time classic.
9 out of 10 stars