Akira is the perfect example of how radical, revolutionary, and exciting Japanese animation can be in comparison to Disney’s more straight-lined melodramatic fantasies. It’s bold. It’s epic. It’s loud. It’s visually gorgeous, and there’s a thunderous energy to it that you’ll never find in Hollywood. From start to finish, it pumps along at full speed. While this may be good for its imagery, it never really slows down to allow the audience time to digest its story (which at times, seems to zoom by quicker than Kaneda’s bike).
Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) is the leader of a biker gang in New Tokyo, a city that was once decimated by a nuclear explosion and has since reformed itself, albeit to a corrupt government. It’s a dystopian world where graffiti and grungy textures seem to be the norm. It is in this world that Kaneda’s gang does battle with rival gangs, racing along the motorways against a gorgeous night skyline, leaping from bike to bike as they take out the opposition, without care or concern for innocent bystanders.
It’s in this skyline — and its intersecting grid of highways and roads — that Akira’s visual beauty shines through. The world that Katsuhiro Otomo creates here is at once mesmerizing and dangerous. It’s not a safe place. It’s not the kind of city I’d want to stroll through even during the brightness of day. But it’s a city that has a certain charm about it, a charm that might have been borrowed from Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Its buildings tower up into the sky, layer after layer, sliced by rays of impenetrable spotlights. It’s the kind of city that has been influenced by cities that came before, and that influences the cities that have come after.
Anyway, the movie’s plot centres on Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), Kaneda’s best friend and fellow gang member, who has been captured by a governmental organisation that is trying to right a 30 year old wrong. The organisation is led by The Colonel (Taro Ishida), whose only known motive for anything he does — as far as I can tell — is to save his city that has fallen into the hands of corruption and violence. Tetsuo has psychic powers, and it’s believed that he has the strength to overcome Akira, a malicious supernatural being imprisoned in a frozen chamber that’s buried beneath a stadium. Naturally, Tetsuo becomes addicted to this power, and it consumes him.
This, for me, is Akira’s weakest point, even though it’s trying very hard to make it its strongest. It’s a complex story that never really finds its footing. It begins in murky waters, introduces us to numerous characters (some more relevant than others), blows us away with its visuals, and then zips by, leaving its fundamentals behind in a cloud of dust. Is there real importance to the biker gang? Who is this Kei character and why is she of any value to the story? Better yet, who are the three little old kids? Yes, we learn that they are failed experiments of some sort, and that they’re needed — in some way — to help stop Tetsuo, but what is their true purpose? Who or what is Akira? It’s a thick story, built on layers and coated with dazzling colours, boosted with a soundtrack that equals the movie’s blistering pace, but inside it all lies a convoluted maze, one that’s not easy to get out of.
Still, Akira is remarkable. Even though its plot is not the easiest to follow, it gives us enough to keep up. It thrives on the unmatched quality of its animation, on the outstanding vibrance of its colours. Its visual signature is so substantial that its characters become secondary. Most people may not remember what Kaneda looks like, but they will remember his stunning red bike. They may not remember what Tetsuo says, but they will remember his spiky hair and his makeshift red cape. There’s powerful impact in the way we view New Tokyo, and in the way it subsequently gets destroyed. I didn’t feel sad when Tetsuo left the film, but I felt sad when the city crumbled.
Best Moment | The first gang fight we see. Kaneda’s gang chases down the Clowns, and the subsequent high speed battle is exhilarating, not to mention the gorgeous scenery it’s set against.
Worst Moment | When Tetsuo’s psychic powers get the better of him, and he transforms into a hideously grotesque mass of swirling meat.