Some movies are just hard to pigeonhole. Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated masterpiece is one such film that deserves at least a dozen different genre tags. Animation? Action? Science fiction? Horror? Crime? Thriller? Monster? Superhero? Post-apocalypse? The answer is yes to all of them, but even then, it doest fully capture the totality of this movie, a singular vision that managed to draw on so many different sources of inspiration and deliver a story that in its own way embodies and, ultimately, transcends them all. For anime aficionados, Akira is the movie when Everything Changed. For everybody else who saw it cold it was simply unforgettable. Whether you love this movie or love it very much, its gets into your head like unwanted psychic powers and brings you from where you were to somewhere else, and there ain’t no going back.
The story takes place some 30 years after WWIII, which began with a nuclear detonation over Tokyo. A successor city, Neo-Tokyo is build on the ruins of yesterday, but has already become an orgulous megalopolis teeming with crime, corruption, religious zealotry, violence, chaos and authoritarianism—and teeters on the edge of implosion. Into this, we follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two young biker punks and lifelong friends who zoom around on stolen bikes and gett into high-speed battles with other road gangs. Elsewhere in the city, a political conspiracy unfolds that attempts to sabotage a government project to raise psychic children, as well as push the city into revolution. On one fateful night, both fo these forces collide both literally and figuratively when Tetsuo almost runs down one of the government’s runaway psychics. He survives the explosive collision that results, but it also triggers his own latent psychic powers—powers severe enough to trigger an even greater apocalypse than before. Powers that might be more strong and uncontrollable than any others ever seen. Except for one person whose dark fate is so feared and revered that his name is whispered only by the brave and the foolish in the most hushed of tones…AKIRA.
Akira is a landmark movie that completely changed the landscape of animated entertainment when it first arrived.. It wasn’t just an enormously successful movie in Japan, but it had a massive impact on both animated and live-action cinematic storytellers around the world. It kicked the doors open to Western audiences who had only just begun to appreciate this Japanese version of the cartoons they had loved for so long. Akira brought forth a story of cyberpunk dystopia, body horror, mind-bending spirituality so potent that 31 years later—now that history has caught up with the movie’s once-futuristic timeline of 2019—that it has lost none of its potency. It may never. Such is the nature of this particular movie that continues to inspire almost ever creator who has taken it in.
But influence is no true measure of greatness. And neither is visual splendor, for there are many great movies that succeed despite looking like garbage, and exquisitely visualized movies that fall through And yet, Akira can’t be discussed without first acknowledging its visual power. It was so lavishly illustrated and so painstakingly animated (seriously, the frame rate is twice the usual standard for Japanese animation) that one can scarcely believe it all was done by hand. It is so stunning just to look at that it is still a life-altering experience to watch it in Japanese without knowing the language. It is so marvelous that it has set a standard that animators of all kinds are still trying to chase, even decades later. And they may never catch it.
But why? Why is Akira so special? Despite its visuals and its energy and its legacy, Akira’s true staying power is its story and characters, who draw us ever-deeper into a world we can never fully understand, yet dread its destruction all the same. They are all members of a cast who, despite their individual dramas, are parts of a grand drama of youthful rebellion that has decided if Neo-Tokyo is about to explode, then they’re going to be the ones who light the fuse. There are Kiyoko, Takashi and Masaru, the three ester kids whose youth has been stolen from them in a bid to prevent armaggeddon who might very well usher it in, and are only too aware of it. But we cannot forget our anti-hero Kaneda and our tragic villain Tetsuo, two guys who have been friends for so long that they have every reason to want to kill each other. Kaneda has been the braggadocios leader because he nominates himself. Tetsuo is a living ball of resentment, a middle son with no little brother to pick on until he suddenly realizes that the entire city will do. There is a desperation to Kaneda as his first adult decision is to try to save his friend. And there is a deep tragedy to Tetsuo, whose ascent to power Is really a descent into oblivion, but he’s just having too much fun to stop.
So much is going on in Akira that it becomes a movie full of moments, from the iconic opening motorcycle chase to Tetsuo’s psychedelic fever dreams to a running battle with the army, to a climactic showdown at Neo-Tokyo’s ill-fate Olympic Stadium—a grand metaphor for dreams for the future that are as grandiose as they are delusional. But the moment of truth must be Tetsuo’s all-consuming sequence of body horror, as his powers finally hit critical mass and the things that propelled him to the grandest kind of petty revenge finally takes its own vengeance upon his very self. For all of his rage-filled screaming, Tetsuo’s final act is to cry for help, reminding us that kids put in a position to destroy the world are still just kids, and what is more tragic than their downfall, or more cynical than letting it happen? Nothing.