'Akira' is still one of the greatest animated films ever made

Kambole Campbell
·7 mins read

Watch: The 4K restoration of Akira gets a new trailer

Despite it being one of the loudest animated films ever made, Akira begins in eerie silence. In the year 1988, an unknown singularity suddenly and entirely wipes out the city of Tokyo, the screen fading to white before back in to show the crater, the husk of the old city that lies still abandoned in 2019, post World War III.

There’s no explosive sound effects or score except for the irregular, rattling drum beat. That strange and unsettling opening is emblematic of Akira’s offbeat but awe-inspiring sensibilities, a hypnotising mixture of otherworldly terror and, put simply, extremely cool presentation.

Released in 1988, Katsuhiro’s film was pioneering in its cyberpunk aesthetic, contrasting a dazzling, towering neon skyline with the more derelict and litter-strewn streets below, all a backdrop to tumultuous social upheaval.

A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)
A still from Katsuhiro Otomo's seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)

The film was vastly influential over the anime industry, inspiring a wealth of Japanese cyberpunk stories that followed, as well as holding lasting influence over sci-fi across the world – animators are continually referencing it to this very day.

The Japanese animation industry didn’t see widespread popularity in the West until the likes of Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z and Cowboy Bebop hit television, but Akira was one of the first major instances of an anime film catching the eye of Western viewers with its display of intense, mature, animated storytelling. Afforded one of the biggest budgets ever seen for an anime at the time, almost every frame is created with an immense amount of hand-drawn detail that feels tangible in its construction.

Read more: Live action Akira remake ‘on hold’

Every sequence is realised with vivid, breathtaking expressive colours – bright green, purple and red hues soaking each scene. Painstakingly animated by hand, the care that went into Akira can be seen in every frame; there’s 327 different colour shades in the film, 50 of which were invented for it.

A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)
A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)

Because of that, the film still looks breathtaking today – especially with its new 4K remaster. That careful and meticulous construction went into every element of the film. The score, composed by Dr. Shoji Yamashiro of the Geinoh Yamashirogumi collective (which is fascinating in itself – composed of doctors, engineers and businessmen combining traditional music with the modern), was created and recorded before the film was made, the animations then crafted around the music, rather than the score being created and structured around an existing film, which is what usually happens. Likewise, also unlike many anime films both at the time and even today, the animation of each character was tailored to pre-recorded dialogue.

Elements of Akira disseminated into Western pop-culture via TV shows like Batman Beyond and particularly through cyberpunk sci-fi films like The Matrix. With that last film in mind, Akira has a similar approach to the illusionary, dreamlike allure of capitalism and industrialism. Idealised images of everyday life are broadcast in televisions in a shop window, an advert with friendly, obedient dogs flash onto the screen, before the film cuts to much less friendly, barking police dogs in pursuit of an unknown man, and Katsuhiro only continues to dismantle the fantasy of urban living from there.

A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)
A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)

Among the film’s introductory scenes are images of protests (here about tax reforms) from masses of people being violently suppressed by a combination of the military and the police. In a rather spooky touch, a stadium outside the city centre is undergoing construction in preparation for the 2020 Olympics set to be held in Neo-Tokyo (in our own world, Covid-19 cancelled the 2020 Olympics, here it was the city literally exploding).

Read more: What did 1988's Akira get right about life in 2019?

Despite the story of otherworldly powers, a third World War and various retro futuristic ideas the 2019 of Akira is very much grounded in Katsuhiro’s impressions of 1980s Tokyo. It’s tempting to tie Akira to our present, to paint it as a prophetic vision of the future, but these are mostly superficially similar elements, as the film is very much still a product of its time, a snapshot of the youth culture of rudderless teens amongst Japan’s post-war industrialism.

Akira specifically channels the punkish subculture of bōsōzoku (literally "running-out-of-control [as a vehicle] tribe”), based around colourfully customised motorcycles and uniforms based around worker’s fatigues and military garb, uniforms referred to as tokkō-fuku ("special attack clothing”). Though it had been around since the 50s, this Japanese subculture had reached its peak during the 80s and 90s, around the time Akira was in production. Katsuhiro’s opening imagines a future where this culture has become dominant, an outlet for angry and disaffected teens, that rage and internal turmoil externalised in a destructive chase throughout the city, the litter-strewn streets treated as a playground.

A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)
A still from Katsuhiro Otomo seminal 1988 animation Akira. (Manga UK)

What perhaps makes it endure the most outside of that combination of Japanese history with a terrible future is the care it takes with the emotional bedrock of its plot. The epic and often terrifying scope of Akira’s presentation, with its expressive colours and painstaking detail, is all in service of a surprisingly heartfelt story of the bonds between disaffected youths; what could easily just be a rollercoaster ride of flashy animation and pretty lights is grounded in the emotional trauma of these two young boys, one of whom ends up desperately trying (and failing) to save his lifelong friend from his own burgeoning monstrousness.

Its visceral imagery becomes remarkable because of that, especially how it externalises these emotions, sometimes through nightmarish hallucination, sometimes through borderline Cronenbergian body horror, as overwhelming power turns into a seething mass of pulsing flesh.

Read more: Akira creator to produce new anime series adaptation

But despite the film’s hellish and paranoid vision of the future, there’s genuine awe in Katsuhiro’s presentation of Neo-Tokyo, just as there is with its displays of spectacular and terrifying power. Presented with plenty of grandeur, backed by the synths and spiritual chants of Shoji’s score, the opulence of the city isn’t just meant to be critiqued: it’s also meant to be admired, in its own terrible way.

Japanese manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, who is this year's festival's guest of honor, poses on a replica of his Akira anime's motorbike on the eve of the 43rd Angouleme International Comics Festival on January 27, 2016 in Angouleme. (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP) (Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images)
Japanese manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo poses on a replica of his Akira anime's motorbike on the eve of the 43rd Angouleme International Comics Festival on January 27, 2016. (GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images)

Even in a moment of what seems like ultimate destruction, a scientist observes the explosive events of the finale with awestruck expression, asking: “is this the birth of a new universe?” In Akira, the apocalypse and creation lie on two sides of the same coin, the fearsome power wielded by Tetsuo can both raze cities to the ground and create new universes.

That complex combination of cultural specificity and expansion of the cyberpunk genre into more spiritual territory, the allegory of the lingering trauma of nuclear war, the frequent jumps between intense, kinetic action and pure abstraction, its epic scope mixed with a personal and straightforward tale – all of those contradictory elements combine into something that still plays unlike anything else.

Like that final singularity, Akira exploded onto the anime scene with immense force and new possibilities attached, propelling proper expansion of anime into the West as well as inspiring new directions for the industry.

Remastered in 4K, Akira is coming back to UK and Irish cinemas for a limited run on 7, 8 and 9 October.