Like many kids growing up in the ‘90s, my first exposure to Japanese animation was Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic 1988 movie, Akira.
When I first saw it, I was blown away. In my mind, animation had either been targeted at kids, or fairly shocking in terms of quality – or in many cases, of course, both. This was neither.
The animation was fantastic, the soundtrack inspiring and atmospheric. It wasn’t aimed at kids either, being chock full of bad ass biker gangs, psychic monstrosities and orbital laser satellites. I loved it! Along with the equally influential Ghost in the Shell (1995), it formed a gateway to the distant worlds of Japanese anime.
I hungrily sought out everything I could. In those distant times before high speed internet and international shipping via Amazon, this was a difficult task. I looked through my local comic shop’s single shelf of anime titles, finding such luminaries as Guyver (1992) or Cyber City Oedo 808 (1991). Most were shovelled onto VHS for a western release by the somewhat confusingly named Manga Entertainment (manga being the Japanese name for comic books, and the company being sellers of animation).
Most were terrible, with appalling voice acting and shoestring animation values. Still, it lit a small fire, and now anime and manga are fairly common. While never very likely to fully enter the mainstream, Japanese animation certainly occupies a fairly prominent spot in the general consciousness of pop culture.
Whilst the movie is the most famous version of the story, Akira is an adaptation of a long-running manga of the same name. Spanning six volumes and taking eight years to complete, the manga is a sprawling epic with a huge cast of characters covering such themes as social entropy, loss and alienation.
Condensing such a rich story into a 2 hour movie was always going to be challenging, and as a result the film is more of a cinematic experience than a fully realised narrative. So, how well does it hold up today? The animation is still superb, with stylistic characters populating rich and atmospheric landscapes. Many movies that boast impressive visual spectacles upon release age quite badly (hello Tron!) – however, the animation quality on display here remains timeless.
Speaking of rich and atmospheric, the soundtrack really completes the mood of the movie. The tribal drum beats along with the visuals of the biker gangs doing battle on the highways of future Tokyo remains the most well known and iconic sequence.
It’s not all good, though. Akira is definitely a movie of ideas rather than execution, and large portions of the film can be described as, at best, confusing. Still, the head trip of watching the movie for the first time is, perhaps, part of its appeal.
Released in Japan in the late ‘80s, Akira made its first appearance on British shores in 1991. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recognise its influence on a regular basis. If you haven’t, there is a solid chance you’ve experienced something that was inspired by it, having crept its way into everything from music videos for Michael Jackson (‘Scream’) and Kanye West (‘Stronger’) to South Park (the Season 4 episode ‘Trapper Keeper’). Either way, following an overdue UK Blu-ray release earlier this summer, it’s certainly worth revisiting.
Watch the trailer…