EMPIRE ESSAY: Akira Review

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Kaneda is a bike gang leader whose close friend Tetsuo gets involved in a government secret project knowned as Akira. On his way to save Tetsuo, Kaneda runs into a group of anti-government activist, greedy politicians, irresponsible scientists and a powerful military leader. The confrontation sparks off Tetsuo's supernatural power leading to bloody death, a coup attempt and the final battle in Tokyo Olympiad where Akira's secrets were buried 30 years ago.


The written language of Japan consists of ideographs, which are mostly stylised pictures; because of this, comic strip art (manga) has never been marginalised as the kiddie-level art form it mostly remains in the West. And alongside the huge manga industry, which puts out strips about everything from baseball and cookery to Samurai action and hardcore porn, there is an equivalent animated movie (anime) business, which produces high-profile cinema films (often based on successful manga), direct-to-video series, tossed-off quickies and a great deal of television.

Once, the only profile this form had in the West came from a few poorly-dubbed series about Lolita-cum-Barbarella space heroines or boys who were best friends with giant robots.

Omoto is unusual if not unique in coming to film after establishing himself as a manga artist-writer, and Akira is a story he first told as a lengthy serial that began in 1982 and continued for eight years. Surprisingly, he took a break from regular production of the comic book series from 1986 to 1988 in order to write, direct, supervise and design the film version, which was therefore finished before the printed story could run its course and represents a fairly different version of the same basic plot. The film opens on July 16, 1988, with a strange silent explosion devastating Tokyo and leaving a vast crater where the city once stood. Then, we cut to 2019, 31 years after World War III, and visit Neo-Tokyo, the new metropolis built atop the ruins. Otomo's future city is a richly-detailed backdrop, imagined and designed from the huge buildings down to the smallest details of vehicles or police uniforms, and it is also a summation of every future city depicted in comics and on screen, taking in the Metropolis of Fritz Lang, DC Comics, the ad-blitzed dystopia of Blade Runner and many other imaginopoli.

In return, Otomo's vision has been endlessly copied and "homaged" by subsequent filmmakers. The plot focuses on the relationship between a pair of disaffected teenagers who have grown up together in a harsh orphanage: the slight, resentful, uptight Tetsuo, and the more confident, breezy and heroic Kanada. Both kids run with a cycle gang who seem markedly less vicious than either their rivals or the city cops, but trouble is brewing between them because Tetsuo resents the way Kanada always has to rescue him.

Stepping back from this personal story, the film establishes a conspiratorial layer as a group of scientists, military men and politicians ponder what to do with a collection of withered children with enormous psychic powers, especially the mysterious and rarely-seen Akira, whose awakening to full potential might well have caused the end of the old world. While Kanada is being drawn into a relationship with Kay, a girl who is with an underground activist movement, Tetsuo has been visited by the children, who have triggered in him the growth of psychic and physical powers that might make him a superman or a super-monster and which transport the film into an area of Cronenbergian surrealism.

As befits a distillation of 1,318 pages of the story so far, Akira the film is teeming with incident and detail. Some themes and sub-plots get short shrift and are lost in the mix, and Akira himself only makes it to the screen in the vaguest sense. However, the film keeps piling up sequences that manage to out-astonish the last: the action chases and shoot-outs of the juvenile delinquent plot benefit from an attention to minute detail that extends to the surprised, shocked faces of the tiniest extra; the onset of Tetsuo's metamorphosis (which inspired Shinya Tsukamoto's live-action Tetsuo films) takes in nightmarish scenes of giant, animated playthings that represent repressed portions of his psyche; and the finale, which combines flashbacks with a destruction of Neo City and the creation of a new universe, is one of the most mind-bending in all sci-fi cinema.

Tetsuo becomes a constantly-shifting monster that alternately looks like a billion-gallon scrotal sack or a Tex Avery mutation of the monster from The Quatermass Experiment. Still, Otomo never loses sight of the tragic human character inside.

The fact that every DVD retail outlet has a crowded anime section, is down to the international success of one film, Katsuhiro Omoto's Akira.