It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly three decades since Akira was first released in Australia.
The impact Katsuhiro Otomo’s dystopian cyberpunk epic has had on anime and pop culture as a whole cannot be understated – on the micro level, it is considered among the greatest of its kind, reaching cult status as it spread across the world, but more broadly, it paved the way for the genre to grow and mature.
The stakes were raised, and anime’s ambition and creativity flourished in ways that had never been seen before. We weren’t just looking at ‘cartoons’ anymore; we could now appreciate the medium as art.
Set thirty years after a conflict that wipes out Tokyo, Akira tells the story of rebellious teenager Shōtarō Kaneda and his biker gang. During a skirmish with a rival gang, they run afoul of a secret government operation that experiments on children that display psychic abilities. One member, Tetsuo Shima, is abducted, and Kaneda sets off to track him down.
First released in 1982 as a hit manga, Otomo’s dream remained to see it fully realised upon the screen, to capture the scope of his vision. As he put it:
“in the comic, I used each issue to build more depth and size. But in a film, you get to combine this all into one. It’s much more convincing… I could really create the type of environment that I wanted to depict”
Akira is grim and penetrating, painting the post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo as a city not of exaggerated horror, but of aimless melancholy. As society slowly rebuilt itself following the catastrophic events of war, it was under the duress of greed, cynicism and political incompetence.
The result is a place of depravity, where the lines between poverty and wealth have been widened even further, and violence runs rampant. It’s simply par for the course; many of the characters appear indifferent — even oblivious — to the criminal and terrorist activities surrounding them.
The future of Neo-Tokyo hinges on faint beacons of hope, such as the upcoming Olympics set to take place. In a chilling display of prescience, the event is marred by setbacks that create an air of uncertainty. “Just cancel it”, reads the graffiti scrawled under one promotional sign.
Akira’s haunting imagery sticks with the viewer, and it is absolutely bursting with symbolism. It is deliberately ugly in how it portrays the world, in a manner so masterful that it strikes its own beauty. Though there are clearly protagonists and antagonists to be found, there are few actual heroes, and even fewer characters who you would definitively call ‘good’.
That said, however, on the aesthetic front, this film is anything but ugly. Its bold palette exceeds 300 unique colours, spread across over 160,000 animation cells. Around 70 staff members worked tirelessly on the project, completing the animation after the dialogue had been recorded to allow for the most accurate lip syncing — a labour intensive irregularity in anime.
The production budget was a record 1.1 billion yen, which already sounds like a lot, but is even more impressive when you recall the fact that we’re referring to 1.1 billion yen in the late 80s. With inflation, that equates to roughly 1.3 billion yen in 2020, which is close to $20 million in today’s AUD.
You could buy a lot of things with $20 million. But you could only ever make one Akira.
The film’s tentacular influences on subsequent works range from outright and explicit references — as seen in Rick and Morty’s season 4 premiere or in the works of musicians like Michael Jackson or Kanye West — to subtle nods or Easter eggs, some confirmed, others up for speculation.
Walking through the streets of Final Fantasy VII’s dire city of Midgar draws multiple parallels with Neo-Tokyo, and Eleven of Stranger Things could very well be the modern interpretation of Tetsuo himself.
Akira remains as poignant now as it did when it first screened, or perhaps even more so. The societal ills and stunted progression of widespread technology, where devices are not as ambitiously advanced as other futuristic portrayals, ring true in 2020. It hangs like a general malaise, unavoidable and inescapable.
All of this goes to say, Akira is a timeless classic. At no point does it feel dated or irrelevant, and the image of Tetsuo, makeshift cape draped over his shoulders as he stares down those who oppose him, is simply iconic.