Akira (1988)

Class: User
Author: Evan Brehany
Score: (4/5)
August 21st, 2011 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Before anime became a national obsession for outcast teens, before most high schools had the now regular anime clubs, and before Toonami or Adult Swim or any of that, anime was next to unheard of. Only remnants of series like Gatchaman and Gigantor (aka Tetsujin 28) kept the memory alive. Instead of having something like Dragon Ball Z or Pokémon come into the general public's mind when talking anime, there was one film which made the stylistic medium big and noticeable. This was it. With production processes that were unorthodox in Japan and with style and substance unorthodox to Americans, Akira shook the ground and garnered critical acclaim, while accumulating the first anime fans (who would screen VHS copies of the film at their local colleges).

Akira details the troubled mind of Tetsuo, who's life gets turned upside down as he becomes the fifth person (that we see on screen) to develop telekinetic powers in the world. Tetsuo, who has an inferiority complex, is part of a biker gang run by Kaneda - a childhood friend who keeps putting him down. The biker gang, along with a rival clown gang, government rebels, and the general public live in Neo-Tokyo, a man-made island which takes up most of Tokyo Bay. Neo-Tokyo was born out of the destruction of Tokyo, which not only brought upon another world war but also public awareness of one of the original four individuals who had telekinetic power, Akira. Tetsuo struggles with his maturing powers along with a vengeance against a society that had always put him down as Kaneda, along with some rebel militants, try to save him. Meanwhile, discord in the government is afoot as corrupt politicians - prepping up for the 30th Olympics to take place in their city - try to cut off the military's operation on containing individuals with ESP abilities.

Knowing full well that this is an adaptation of a notoriously large (2,000+ pages) work by Katsuhiro Otomo, things would be cut when written into a single film‘s screenplay. Hence, it is easier to talk about the film's shortcomings rather it's exceptional feats. There are many themes handled in Akira, but some that are surely underdeveloped would be the political side story. Obviously, we can see that the politicians are meant to be lampoons of their real life counterparts, but the theme is clearly underplayed. You do not feel anything one way or the other when one of the politicians (trying to escape Neo-Tokyo with millions in bonds and a mouth full of blood pressure medication) dies in the street. There could have been more substance with this aspect of the story. We are given Neo-Tokyo as a reflection of the Tiger Country-Era of Japan, but little is successfully accomplished.

The other aspects are handled well. Tetsuo's inferiority is detailed in the cause and effect, though it is not terribly cerebral when it comes to getting into the mind of the character. It is a more original way to carry out what could be interpreted (in part) as a revenge film (and even larger, a film about an individual with ESP, more on that subject next paragraph). It should be said though that Tetsuo's revenge against his oppressor and wanting to break free had indeed put him in the wrong, after all, great power comes with great responsibility. If you abuse it, you lose (i.e. too bad you had an inferiority complex, you've got a bigger job to do). The use of power is also used in a way akin to the Christian concept of sin - abuse it and it controls you instead of you controlling it.

Another theme the story tackles is the use of ESP, something executed differently than the norm. The take on ESP in general is different than what an American (or maybe a Japanese viewer) could expect. Not only is it more violent and graphic, but it also shows the effect it could have on human life - from aspects such as friendship to whole social orders in metropolises. Additionally, many critics have pointed out more undertones of the film though, such as the fact that Tetsuo developing his telekinetic abilities could be seen as an allegory for teens and their experiences going through puberty.

When it comes to anime though, one aspect of a film gets easy to review since directing, cinematography, set design, and other such areas tend to roll into one. That is the animation itself. Akira was, at the time, a groundbreaking production having involved animation techniques like pre-scoring the audio. Though expensive, it allowed for lip synchronization. Along with certain lighting techniques executed during the Asahi Production's transitioning of the art into film cells, this production has a lot more night scene than a normal anime of the time, and shows a lot of detail without having to go for the usual bluish colors normally used to signify night with definition.

Additionally, with the pre-scoring technique, the images of anime characters are no longer as stagnant as they once were. The lip movements are based on acting done before lip moments are animated, giving a new layer of reality to the already detailed and layered artwork which exhibits artistry and detail more common of the most experienced engineers. And to say layered, it means that multiple sheets of plastic containing images are placed over the other - giving a faux three dimensional look to the film. One of the great things about the animation is that it works for both the non-anime and anime cottoning peoples - the female characters are not overtly cutesy, the good guys and the bad guys are not overly obvious via the size of their eyes, and other such stereotypes for anime are avoided.

With the presence of pre-scoring, the portrayal of the characters by the actors and actresses are important here. The film is filled with voice stars to be, including Mitsuo Iwata as Kaneda (who tokusatsu/Henshin fans may know from the Japanese version of Power Rangers Samurai, Samurai Sentai Shinkenger and part of anime series such as One Piece), Nozomu Sasaki giving voice to Tetsuo (Sasaki would go on to voice the lead in Yu Yu Hakusho), Col. Shikishima being acted by Taro Ishida (famed Kingdom Hearts actor and part of Juken Sentai Gekiranger), and the good doctor Onishi voiced by Mizuho Suzuke (who has done the dubbing on such films as the original Star Wars Trilogy as Darth Vader and The Godfather as Vito Corleone). Akira is limited in regards to female characters that matter, but in that corner we have Mami Koyama (of Giaking fame) voicing Kei and Tetsuo's girlfriend Kaori being voiced by Yuriko Fuchizaki (Kiki's Delivery Service).

It is tough to grade voice work in that you pay much more attention to the vocal tones and amount of flamboyance in the vocal performance, unlike a traditional film performance in which body languages plays a good part of the overall act. It is easy to compare the original Japanese language audio compared to the 2001 Pioneer-commissioned dub track. The Japanese actors make the film seem more "real" - less stereotypic sounding than the American dub track (common of other anime dubs, as well). No over-exaggerated diction to over-clearly show "what's happening" between characters in the Japanese vocal track. That is the problem with American dubs to an extent - they are stereotypic to the situation. The Japanese acting is more soulful and really does the film justice as a whole, except for the "Discipline" scene in the beginning of the film (which the dubbing adds to a good bit).

The music is what gives the film it's most (at-first) alienating quality. The music isn't anything less than extraordinary. It is somewhat of a benchmark, as Akira Ifukube was not only brave enough to use ostinato but produce a more Western score than what was the norm at the time with Godzilla, or Nobuo Uematsu taking a song he had already written, making the sound more operatic with larger orchestration, and infusing a metal edge to it for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. For Akira's score, a musical group known as the Geinoh Yamashirogumi (lead by Tsutomu Ohashi) was given a demanding task for the score. Two things were demanded of their skill - for the score to sound futuristic while holding to a sensibility relatable to the (then) modern sensibilities, coupled with the request that the score be conducted before the film was even finished, much less without whole scenes being ready.

Variety is what makes this score a positive listening experience. With that edge, the score not only pushes away from the usual (and possibly all-too predictable) scores of cinema but also gives us something new to listen to (which is why the music may alienate first time watchers). Ohashi utilizes both organic and inorganic sounds for the soundtrack, with it's futuristic sound coming from a source that is timeless - a 16-beat pattern which is said to be in the human DNA. The instruments made to comply with this musical framework are what seems to be somewhere around five hundred voices, the Indonesian Angklung (a bamboo instrument), the gamelan (which is played to the pelog and slendro musical scales which go along with a 16 rhythm), and more. In addition to the sound module method and the chanting of character names, the music captivates the viewer and of itself should be a reason to re-watch the film. When you listen to the soundtrack by itself, you find out that the piece entitled "Requiem" is actually played at the beginning and at the end. Its versatility makes it so that at the beginning it is what energizes the viewer into the film with a build up of momentum and when the more choral parts come into play at the end, it all comes together to make your viewing soar.

Akira is a film that went against the grain in terms of substance, style, and execution, and while it may not be as great in terms of story telling as it's manga counterpart, the style and execution is something to still be marveled at. It was a ground breaker in Japan and what saved the anime fandom in the US. There are valid reasons why AKIRA was on Empire's "100 Best Films Of World Cinema " list. Just keep an eye out for who else may be watching with you, the film does have mutation scenes more gruesome than John Carpenter's The Thing, brief nudity, and animal death (two German shepherds).