Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Magnum Opus

A cluttered and claustrophobic cityscape, cut in two by the near-empty motorway directly in the middle of the frame. These clusters of buildings, as seen from a birds eye view, feel uncomfortable, while the empty road feels uncanny. All you can hear is the swelling of wind, a very anxious noise, as the camera follows the path of the road until it’s focused on the far off city centre. The date flashes on screen, 16th of April, 1988. Then with no warning, no cue and no fanfare, a shadow emerges over the epicentre of the city, before you have time to process anything it erupts in a blinding white sphere engulfing the landscape. As the atomic blast fills the screen a simple message appears: “Written and Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo”.

In a single minute, Otomo and his crew crafted one of the single greatest openings to a film, and give you ample warning that you’re about to watch a masterpiece. It’s important to note that the significance of the 16th of July is that it’s original Japanese release date of the film, a conscious and powerful choice to root the dystopian saga’s humble beginnings in the immediately contemporary society. Already Otomo is making a power statement with a single line of text superimposed on the screen.

By the time Akira began production, Otomo had already established himself as a creative force in Japan through his manga of the same name. It can’t be understated how popular Otomo’s manga was as it was released, this in turn is what led to the unusual production history of film adaptation. The furore for an adaptation of the epic story of Akira resulted in Otomo being approached multiple times with offers from studios, and while he’s said that he initially didn’t plan on adapting the series outside of the manga, he agreed on the condition that he would have full creative control over the film. One of the mind blowing aspects of the desire to see Akira transferred to the big screen is the formation of ‘The Akira Committee’, the only production credit we see at the beginning of the film, came about as a number of entertainment companies in Japan pooled their resources and funds in order to finance the ¥1.1 Billion production cost, a behemoth amount for an animation film and one of the most expensive of all time.

The big concern for Otomo was how to condense his, still ongoing, epic tale of psychic abilities, motorcycle gangs and a terrorist resistance down into a 2 hour film. This means that the film itself covers the first couple of volumes of the manga, while the ending of the film incorporates elements of the manga’s ending. But watching the film itself, you couldn’t tell, it all fits together seamlessly. There’s a reason that so many people online ask the same question about whether the film covers the entire manga or not. While the narrative gets somewhat confusing in the second act as more exposition is given, it is not impenetrable and can make complete and total sense with enough attention being paid. 

For years, as I rewatched this film over and over again, I was always struck by how fluid the animation is, but I could never put my finger on it. The way the suped-up motorbikes glide and swing across the roads, the way the riots feel so accurately chaotic and the way buildings crumble and glass shatters, all looks so dynamic. I eventually found out that Otomo was unsatisfied with the results of using 12 frames per second, the industry standard, and so used 24 frames per second during the production of Akira. As I’ve hopefully already demonstrated, this technique’s effect cannot be understated. Even in the opening bike chase sequence alone, where we’re introduced to the imposing and claustrophobic nature of Neo-Tokyo, and the gangs that roam the streets, you can see the impact the increased frames have. Even now, I can picture the shots of the water tower collapsing onto the street below, the bike crashing through the restaurant window, and the iconic shot of Kaneda’s bike slid, all with pinpoint accuracy due to the level of detail put into these shots. This level of detail continues throughout the film, to create these tremendously stunning scenes throughout the two-hour runtime, some of my favourites are the nightmare sequences, like when Tetsuo’s stomach rips open and spills his guts on the sidewalk, or the giant bunny creature that oozes a milky discharge, or the iconic imagery of Tetsuo draped in his makeshift cape and bionic arm on the disused Olympic throne. While I could go on and on just talking about the amazing shots and imagery within the film, it’s safe to say that the whole film is beautiful to look at and the imagery is always visceral and stunning.

The story itself is so incredibly put together, at its core it’s a story of deadlock between a corrupt government and its military arm, a group of terrorist resistance fighters trying to take down the oppressive regime, all posed against a growing rise in dissatisfaction from the general population. But within this there are lots of different microaggressions, such as the Colonel of the Military at odds with the rest of the politicians, the terrorist fighters being financed by one of the wealthy elites, as well as the mysterious and top-secret psycho-kinetic children that are both the government’s greatest weapon as well as posing the most dangerous risk to society. All of this is at play before Kaneda, Tetsuo and the rest of their Biker Gang get involved into the national conflict, completely accidentally, and tip the delicate balance in all out destruction. The narrative plays out like a symphony, the delicate dialogue is delivered superbly, information is revealed just when it needs to, the gorgeous visuals bring life through the set-pieces and technology involved, while the chaotic action plays out like a beautiful crescendo.

If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, this film is near and dear to my heart, ever since I first watched it many, many years ago, it always stuck with me. Initially it was purely the visuals, the political conflict and metaphor underscoring the film was lost on me, but as I grew up and watched it again I began to appreciate the intricacies of the plot. Otomo’s direction and plotting stood out more, the way characters cross paths, or interact with the wider story stood out more and more, every detail pinpointed with extreme accuracy and nuance, all while my appreciation for the aesthetic grew and grew. It was always a masterpiece for me, but somehow everytime I watch it, the film never ceases to amaze me with just how incredible it is. 

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