Why is 'Akira' regarded one of the best animation films even after 30 years of its release?
Find out in this article —
Akira is a 1988 Japanese anime film about dystopian Tokyo after a massive explosion. The film takes places in 2019, telling about the story of Tetsuo Shima and his emotional involvement with his best friend Shotaro Kaneda. This movie focuses on extreme violence in the cyberpunk world and corruption in the Neo-Tokyo, a future metropolis.
The movie begins with a hard-hitting image on the screen. A tremendous explosion hits downtown Tokyo, back in 1988, setting in motion World War III. The next image we see on our screens would be of extensively high skyscrapers and highly developed Tokyo out of the war debris into a metropolis full of colourful lights. The movie is not at all about the post-war drama though... but far more than that.
This Katsuhiro Ohtomo film takes the viewers into a whole another world, the frightening, thrilling cyberpunk world of 30 years later the war, where children are having their disrupted birth accompanied with strange superpowers as a result of appalling experiments carried out by top-secret government associates.
The film majorly highlights the character of Tetsuo Shima who is a friend of Chummy Kaneda, the leader of Biker Gang ‘Capsules’. During a road brawl with another biker gang, The Clowns, Tetsuo crashes into a seemingly small boy but with ageing wrinkles all over him and unbelievably astounding telekinetic powers, and is taken away by government officials to some secret laboratory just for he had managed to stumble upon that little fella right before he was about to be taken away by that government ship. In the background, rebels from several branches of government are experimenting on some special hand-picked children to inject godly powers into them and calling them 'Espers'. Tetsuo happens to be one of those specials and has to undergo a similar experiment with hopes of Colonel Shishikama to replicate the indescribable powers of one Esper in particular, ‘Akira’. Akira happened to be the same guy whose powers triggered the explosions in Tokyo decades ago. Although the experiment supposedly goes well, Dr Onishi, who experimented, has managed to unleash the latent powers of Tetsuo which were buried deep down into him and now have grown out of control. Tetsuo is a mad horse now, violent, hallucinating, powerful maniac. When Kaneda learns of Tetsuo and what he's grown out to be, he joins forces with Rebels in hope of recovering his old friend just as he used to be and try to stop him from destroying the whole of Neo-Tokyo.
What makes Japanese anime a treat for the eyes is that it unlocks certain ideologies and fantasies that brew inside of our consciousness without our knowledge of them even being there. The realism, the art of conveying emotions, the subjectivity of huge matters told in simply lucid animations makes it an art form to be cherished at any cost. Directors like Katsuhiro Ohtomo are just like cherries on top of the cakes. Anime is more than often characterized by the juxtapositions of comic-book pictures and maintaining the tone of sensitive ideas with mature storytelling. Same is the case with Akira. Amazing visuals, colourful palettes on the screen feel like watching a groundbreaking piece of cinema in front of your eyes. The evidently ceaseless and visually rich spectacles of a nuked world reborn into a frightening dystopian city screams about the degree of the imagination of Ohtomo back in 1988. This could have been the reason for the audience not comprehending the limits that Akira reached about three decades earlier for it was too much for them to handle. Akira, in all ways, showcased the farsightedness of then unpopular Ohtomo. His efforts of making a directorial dream come true in form of futuristic crime saga may have overshadowed the emotional depth of the script, but with the impacts that the film had on the audience, these criticisms seem trivial.
What makes Akira relevant even today?
Akira provided the audience with animation techniques like never before. Ohtomo took many risks in making Akira that other directors at that time couldn't even think about. Hand-painted light sources in the films made the two-dimensional skyscrapers look alive but also made the project twice as much time-consuming. The film’s use of light almost makes the city seem like its own character. Without this technique, the film’s post-war Neo-Tokyo setting wouldn’t have felt as moving as it did.
Akira didn't just stand out from other anime but also paved the path for grown-up anime in the west as well. The western audience had never been given a chance to embrace the real animation art for a mature audience. Banners like Disney, Warner Bros were only into selling tickets to kids with the child-friendly stories of dolls and mermaids. But Akira was different. It was full of corruption, violence, secret experiments, rebellious teens, and some overpowered kids with telekinetic abilities. Unlike Astro Boy and other anime up until that time, it didn’t try to blend in by adopting an American aesthetic that made the audience think it was a Western creation. Akira forced viewers to face reality by depicting a hyper-realistic, post-war dystopia and made them realize the power of animated characters on screen. Akira' didn't back down or censor itself. The West had to accept the anime as it was. And this led to the West accepting the true form of Japanese anime.
The limitless legacy of Akira is still alive...
Akira's influence left a mark on international cinema and its impacts can still be felt throughout the world, even today. The ambition that this movie carried and its success proved how anime films do not have to cut corners to be profitable and how to sell reality to the audience. The risks that Otomo took pushed animation companies to aim for the stars. The heartfelt narratives, detailed settings, and cutting-edge animation styles that resulted in breathed new life into our current fictional worlds. No doubt, many of the great animated and science fiction films and shows of our generation owe a great debt to Akira.
Hollywood has tried for more than a decade to produce a live-action adaptation of Akira, resulting only in fumbles but nothing productive. No special high-tech computerized visual effects combined with star powers of the likes of Keanu Reeves, Leonardo could ever match the singular vision of Ohtomo that he achieved in 1988.
Such an extraordinary benchmark needs to be seen again and again for re-evaluation into its deeper roots and relevance and to be appreciated as a landmark not just of Japanese anime but of international cinema.