I saw AKIRA for the first time, like most of my generation probably did, on VHS with an English language dub that lost or changed a lot of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original intent. Still, even in its tinny, garbled form, AKIRA made an impact. To those who saw it, it became a seminal moment similar to seeing STAR WARS for the first time. Decades later, Otomo’s vision remains important and influential for pop-culture, to the point that upcoming games like CYBERPUNK 2077 have incorporated aspects of the cyberpunk thriller into their visuals.
Returning to Finnish screens 21 years after its initial release (at the Helsinki International Film Festival), AKIRA doesn’t appear to have aged a day. Presented in pristine 4K with the original Japanese language audio, this is the best and most beautiful way to experience Otomo’s masterpiece for the first, second, or even tenth time.
Set in 2019 Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Third World War decimated the country, AKIRA presents us a world on another brink of collapse. Split into a highly hierarchical society of haves and have-nots, Neo-Tokyo is festering at the seams. Biker gangs roam the endless highways, while politicians scheme in the shadows, and military leaders rule the megalopolis with an iron fist. When a nightly showdown between two gangs goes awry, a group of teenagers is thrust into the middle of a rebellion, a coup, and the return of a godlike being only known as Akira.
Otomo’s brilliant storytelling feels just as fresh now as it did upon initial release. The opening sequence, where anti-hero Kaneda leads his gang of outlaws into battle, is intoxicating on the big screen. The peerless score by Geinoh Yamashirogumi thunders from the speakers and the visuals are a hypnotizing assault on the senses, pulling us into this dystopian world that is as tempting as it is repelling.
There isn’t a single computer generated image in sight. This is all handmade craftsmanship operating on another level from everyone else. Every image is filled with details, making the film fit for endless repeat viewings. Neo-Tokyo twists and turns upon itself, appearing to rise out from the depths of hell itself, sweltering above the decrepit canals and hollowed ruins of the old world. Everything that has come after owes Otomo a debt of gratitude. I can’t imagine THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS looking anything like it does without AKIRA there to guide the way.
The script, based on Otomo’s own manga, is dense and literate, using the pulpy action thriller as a basis to explore the trauma left behind the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like with other modern greats such as BATTLE ROYALE, Otomo’s work is illustrative of the disillusionment between the youths and the adults, and the divisive gap splitting into a canyon with every passing year.
His characters are hard to like, but easy to understand. They’re all children left on their own by uncaring parents and a society too wrapped up in itself to give a damn. So they waste their days by modding their motorcycles, drinking and taking drugs, and fighting others just like them. It isn’t until Kaneda meets Kei, an older and more mature freedom fighter on a quest to bring down the oppressive system around her, that he begins to see the bigger picture.
But Kei is not much better off than the others. Her team cannot see the forest from the trees, instead focusing on a single aspect in a bigger picture nobody gets to see. Otomo’s sprawling epic might infuriate some here, as there is no rewarding ending that ties up loose ends. Even as we’re embroiled in high concept sci-fi, this is just as much a slice of life story about growing up as it is a cyberpunk thriller.
The original manga, released over the course of seven years from 1982 to 1990, is far denser and more elaborate, and there are elements in the film where cutting corners does hurt some. Characters come and go at a rapid pace and some are so alike they’re difficult to tell apart. When the finale begins to erupt, others are discarded entirely whether their stories are complete or not. Poor Kaori for example seems to exist entirely to be assaulted, abused, and worse.
It’s a minor quibble in a film this extravagant and bombastic. When viewed, there is little one can do except go along for the ride. AKIRA is an electrifying, dizzying epic; a rarity that defined an entire genre and continues to do so again and again over the decades.
If you haven’t seen it before, do so on the biggest screen possible. It will be a revelation. And if you have, do so anyway. There’s nothing quite like it before or since.