Director – Katsuhiro Otomo – 1988 – Japan – Cert. 15 – 124m
Manga artist turned director Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk classic returns to the big screen in a brand new 4K IMAX print – plays in the BFI Japan 2021 season in December and the Anime season April / May 2022 at BFI Waterloo IMAX #AKIRA4K
When Akira first appeared in the UK at the start of the nineties, Disney was busy reinventing the animated cartoon as a platform for the Broadway musical (Beauty And The Beast, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991; The Lion King, Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers, 1994) and there were debates about whether comics (or ‘graphic novels’) could be created for adults as well as kids.
As so often in technology and media, Japan was ahead of the game. Otomo had published his long-running comic book or manga Akira in 1982 and turned it into a feature six years later, challenging widely held Western notions of what animation was. You could make SF in movies (Voyage To The Moon, Georges Méliès, 1902) and you could make serious SF (2001, Stanley Kubrick, 1968), but animation was strictly for kids, at least in the English-speaking mainstream, and that as what Disney did. Then the Akira feature came along and changed the game. In the UK, Manga Entertainment launched highly successful video label Manga off the back of this one theatrical release.
Akira opens with the 1988 nuclear devastation of Tokyo. A brief, huge blast. The rest of the film takes place decades later in 2019 in Neo Tokyo. (Luckily, being set a year ahead of the current pandemic, it doesn’t get that detail wrong. It also shows 2019 anticipating the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were still set to go ahead in 2019.)
Kaneda is a juvenile biker gang leader whose parents must be loaded given his prize possession, a customised, high tech, red racing bike. His friend since childhood Tetsuo and the other gang members ride less distinctive bikes and at the start, they get into a fight with rival biker gang The Clowns who wear circus make-up.
Meanwhile, a revolutionary has a small, blue-skinned child in tow. Hunting him is the military, presided over by the Colonel who runs a secret psychic research unit from where the small boy has been taken. The unit is home to several similarly blue-skinned children and is concerned with a mysterious project known only as… Akira.
From its opening explosion and gritty biker gang chase through its revolutionary, its military men, back room boffins and more, it’s a visual tour de force that looks and indeed sounds terrific on the big screen. (The radical soundtrack employs Taiko drummers, all manner of indigenous Japanese musical forms, and other elements.) The images really spring to life on the big IMAX screen though.
A considerable amount of teenage rivalry and testosterone is displayed between natural leader Kaneda and the self-doubting Tetsuo, who seem to shout at each other vociferously by name when ever they run into one another. The latter, for reasons not entirely clear, is singled out and taken away by the Colonel for his psychic experimentation project. He appears to possess psychic ability in greater quantities than all the small kids put together.
At the same time, like many teenage boys, Tetsuo barely understands and is incapable of controlling his emotions. So much so that, as the narrative moves inexorably towards its climax, first his arm then his entire body grows and morphs into a gigantic mass of flesh and metal, not a thousand miles from the similarly named character in that other key Japanese cyberpunk text Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989). Long live the New Flesh!
Look beyond the science fiction and cyberpunk trappings, though, and the film may be one of the greatest expressions of male teenage angst ever to hit the screen.
Akira 4K IMAXis out in cinemas in the UK on Wednesday, October 7th. #AKIRA4K