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Score: 8.16/10

Synopsis

Japan, 1988. An explosion caused by a young boy with psychic powers tears through the city of Tokyo and ignites the fuse that leads to World War III. In order to prevent any further destruction, he is captured and taken into custody, never to be heard from again. Now, in the year 2019, a restored version of the city known as Neo-Tokyo—an area rife with gang violence and terrorism against the current government—stands in its place. Here, Shoutarou Kaneda leads "the Capsules," a group of misfits known for riding large, custom motorcycles and being in constant conflict with their rivals "the Clowns." During one of these battles, Shoutarou's best friend Tetsuo Shima is caught up in an accident with an esper who finds himself in the streets of Tokyo after escaping confinement from a government institution. Through this encounter, Tetsuo begins to develop his own mysterious abilities, as the government seeks to quarantine this latest psychic in a desperate attempt to prevent him from unleashing the destructive power that could once again bring the city to its knees. [Written by MAL Rewrite]

Akira is a film adapted from the manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo. The film was a huge success, even outside its native Japan, and is often heralded as one of the all-time greatest anime ever produced. I first saw this film in 2007, and I have no desire to see it again. I know “classic” anime and I tend to not mix very well, but I cannot understand why this film was and still is championed as a “great” example of anime. The only thing great about this film is how it teaches you what NOT to film in an action film.

Story:

It’s the future in Tokyo, or Neo-Tokyo, and everything has gone to Hell. The streets are a warzone between gangs, the government, and everyone else. In between all of this are a number of children with psychic powers that enable them to do pretty much whatever they want. One of these children is a teenager from a biker gang named Tetsuo. He and his friend Kaneda get caught up in the government’s attempt to . . .

I’m sorry, I’m giving this plot way too much credit. Do you want to know what I recall this movie being about? It’s a series of one senseless act of violence after another. Sure, there are scenes of expository dialog, and an important flashback, but this is pretty much the entire movie right here: someone gets the crap beaten out of them. Someone else gets shot. Someone else gets exploded. Someone else gets the crap beaten out of them. Throw in nonsensical psychic powers, among even more people dying whether they deserve it or not, throw in one of the worst endings in cinematic history, roll credits. The film does not even bother to explain most of the things that happen. It’s pretty much like all those mindless action flicks that plagued Hollywood in the 1980s, except animated. Then again, Akira was made in 1988, so I guess it was just following the leader in this regard. 3/10.

Artwork:

Akira is famous for its fluid animation. Indeed, it is the oldest anime I’ve seen that has motion as fluid as what you would expect from an American animated film. As gruesome as the violence is, it is well-crafted. So why then does this only get a 6? Two problems. One, the coloring. I know, this is a bit unfair, seeing as how Akira is a pre-digital anime, but the coloring is drab for the most part. At times, it is fitting of its dystopian setting, but other times, it’s just, well, drab. And two, this film has some of the most bland character designs I have ever seen in a theatrical animated film. It’s like the filmmakers weren’t even trying in this aspect. This and the coloring bogs down my score, but at least there’s no choppiness in the animation. 6/10.

Sound:

The sound is alright. The soundtrack is eccentric, but works. The sound effects do their job. The ending credits song is lame retro 80s synth fluff, but it could’ve been worse.

I got to see parts of Akira in both Japanese and the English dub by Geneon. The Japanese dub is superb. Unlike most anime, Akira’s Japanese dialog was recorded before the animation work was completed, much like an American animation. Unfortunately, because of this, foreign language dubs look off compared to the original. Now, dub purists are probably thinking, “But . . . but . . . Johnny Yong Bosch! Wendee Lee! Joshua Seth!” Yes, I love them too, but honestly, if for whatever morbid reason you do decide to watch Akira, you’re better off seeing it in Japanese with the subtitles on. 7/10.

Characterization:

Characterization? What characterization? This, along with the threadbare plot, is what killed Akira for me. Who are these characters? Why are they doing the things they are doing? Why should I care for them? Only one character gets any such development, and that’s Tetsuo. We learn his motivation and his desire to strike back at the world, and why he and Kaneda are conflicted with fighting each other at the end, but that is it. Seriously, that’s all the characterization you get in this film. When a character dies, you don’t care for them, because you know nothing about them. The characters whose names I even remember are Kaneda, Tetsuo, and Akira, and that’s only because the first two keep shouting each other’s name, and the last has his name in the title. Like, for example, who was that girl Kaneda kept hitting on? The one that, thanks to the lackluster character designs, looks like a boy? What was her purpose in all of this? What about all those government guys? The rival biker gang? The other children with psychic powers? And why does Akira do what he does in the ending? None of this is either elaborated, or done in a way to make me care as an audience member. 2/10.

Enjoyment: If all you want to see are brutal, pointless acts of violence, then you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what Akira delivers, in spades. If you want more than that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I know this is a compressed adaptation of a manga, and the manga is supposedly better, (I don’t know, I haven’t read the manga version of Akira) but couldn’t Otomo have made the anime at least stand on its own for those who haven’t read the manga? As it is, it is a confusing mess, chock to the brim with sensationalized violence. Now, mind you, I don’t mind seeing mature content in my entertainment. What I do mind is seeing “mature” content used only as a means to shock and awe the audience. That’s all Akira does, and somehow, it managed to delude a large number of anime fans into thinking it was “deep” and “meaningful”, when all it really is is a crappy 80s action flick that dissolves into nothing by the end. That’s about as much sense as I can make out of the ending anyways. 3/10.

Now before any of you say “You just hate Akira because you didn’t see it back when it first came out!”, I want to point out that that is a moot point to make. My favorite film by Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky, predates Akira by two years, and is a much, much, MUCH more enjoyable film than this. And also, Katsuhiro Otomo would go on to make the film Steamboy, which, unlike Akira, actually has a proper plot, characters worth giving a damn about, really nice coloring, and slightly less bland character art. So really, there’s no point in seeing Akira anymore, except to laugh at it, because as far as I’m concerned, the anime version of Akira is nothing more than a joke.

Akira is a very controversial piece of art—but a remarkable one regardless. It's not an easy watch by any means, nor it is an easy review subject: the ambition and influence exerted by the movie and its creators make grasping and appraising it in its entirety far from trivial. As virtually every other seminal work of art, Akira is nowhere near flawless, hence why many people don't even consider it a good movie—what with all the gratuitous bloodbath, plot holes, odd side-characters and whatnot—just read some other reviews here. A good bulk of the criticism is valid for sure. But what do we have beside it? Allow me to get the bad out of the way: if there is a particular aspect where Akira is teetering on the edge of failure in my opinion, it's the fact that Katsuhiro Otomo chose to stuff an elaborate story encompassing almost 2000 pages' worth of his original manga into barely two hours of screen time. This lead to a significant degree of screenplay butchering and stunted character development that visibly skips important steps all too often. Would an OVA or a multi-part feature-length movie work better? Who knows! Thankfully, what remains is still above what we tend to get in the science fiction action movie genre even these days, and to be fair it contributes heavily to the re-watch potential. In fact, I would recommend watching Akira again, given some time—you will most likely notice some details you ended up missing the first time owing to the breakneck pacing. Personally, I find myself re-watching it every couple years, and despite almost having learned it by heart already, it's very hard to stop myself once I get going. It's just too awesome, and the sheer delivery of some of the pivotal scenes still—some 30 years since its release!—remains at the pinnacle of animated cinematography. On this note, I'd also like to point out Otomo's setting: although Akira is set in the (not-too-distant) future, it is remarkably unappealing and free of the rampant techno-fetishism (aside from that one bike) and uncharacteristically rich aesthetics often seen in works of dystopian fiction. It's all about the everyday soot, blood, and dirt; it's filled with biker gangs, corrupt politicians, and radical groups trying to drag each other down. Everyone is miserable in their own way. The core plot revolves around a post-WWIII secret military experiment program to manifest, magnify, and control latent psychic powers; which partially lead to the WWIII in the first place and went awry a few too many times. These social, political and scientific (borderline mystical) aspects mix and intertwine as a couple of teenagers get accidentally involved in the whole mess, each dealing with it in their own way. There are no heroes and no winners in this story, only casualties—but that's also what makes the ending so moving and ultimately uplifting. I'm sure I don't have to point out the quality of the art and the animation in particular—everyone has already done so many times over—it's still an internationally recognized milestone in animation and the first Japanese movie to rival the production values of Western studios like Disney, and it stands tall even among the high-budget anime movies of today. The attention to detail, the complete lack of filler shots to pad the length, and the exemplary way the animation is used to convey impact yet again contribute to the high re-watch potential. This is a master class on animation. Everyone even remotely associated with the industry would benefit greatly from watching and studying Akira: from the technical perspective, it stands the test of time remarkably—perhaps only one-upped by the likes of Redline (2009). Also of note is the fact that Akira pioneered lip-syncing character dialogue—typically characters are animated first; then voices are recorded, which often results in audiovisual incongruity. But Otomo was intent on using the high budget he was provided with to do things right even if it broke the industry conventions. That said, many people complain about the character designs, and it's easy to tell why: they are remarkably unappealing—everyone has small eyes, the guys are borderline ugly and there's not a single waifu in sight. Personally, I find it charming and a perfect fit for the gloomy setting. It makes way more sense to me than e.g. the likes of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. I like that movie to bits, but come on: these characters are going to look gorgeous no matter how much dirt and soot you smear over their faces. It looks silly when it doesn't have to—good character designs should reflect their environment, not contradict it. But if I were to name a problem with Akira's designs in particular is that facial variety isn't Otomo's strongest suit, leading to a lot of similarity between characters' faces across Akira's cast and Otomo's other works as well. In terms of the sound design, Akira makes remarkably good use of being silent a good portion of the time. This is an approach modern filmmakers tend to (very unjustifiably) ignore, eager to fill every scene with music that is often too expressive for the purpose, rendering it into cacophony and contributing to mental fatigue. When sounds do play in Akira, they're always highly dynamic and spot-on. Most of the soundtrack is dominated by sparse, impactful industrial beats as well as ethnic motifs and chants, and is intended to set the ambiance first and foremost. The score is composed and performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi—a unique performance collective consisting of hundreds of members from all ages and professions that mostly have nothing to do with music (seriously, look them up). And good lord it is a massive score! Tetsuo's hospital hallucination theme, Dolls' Polyphony, never fails to give me the shivers when I so much as *think* about it. And when I watch it in-context on a good sound system, it just blows my mind. This—this is how to do it right! I tend to be very conservative when giving out 10s for anime as you can tell by my list (of which barely 1% ends up in that bracket), but after all these years, Akira remains among the very few anime that feel deserving of this high mark and one I keep returning to when I need to cleanse my palate after the onslaught of stale shounen cliches, characterless moe blobs, terminally shy schoolchildren, and science fiction that is equally bad at both science and fiction. It combines visceral, high-octane action with an uncharacteristically cathartic resolution—I couldn't have asked for more. Even if flawed, it certainly remains a timeless masterpiece and deserves a watch whether you are an anime fan or not. Sure, there have been many pieces released in the past 30 years that are more enjoyable and even more competently done, and it's not like Akira is the be all, end all of any entertainment medium you group it with. But as more and more titles surpass it in particular respects, Akira stays the Colossus of Rhodes of the anime industry, representing a great creative achievement by itself and serving as an excellent gateway anime for many people for years to come. And for that I am truly grateful to its existence.

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