25 years ago this holiday season, the animated film feature “Akira” became the catalyst that sparked the modern American anime subculture
The ambitious anime film “Akira” opened in Japan on July 16, 1988. At the time it’s 1.1 billon Yen ($8.5 million USD in 1988) budget was the largest for a Japanese animated feature but it grossed 6.3 billion Yen ($49 million USD in 1988) at the box office so it paid off quite handsomely in more ways than one.
“Akira” had amassed a devoted following in Japan since the manga was first printed in 1982 in the now legendary Weekly Young Jump Magazine (not to be confused with Weekly Shōnen Jump Magazine). The series gained readership steadily as the themes of teenage angst, alienation & rebellion really resonated with a captivated audience of teens and young adults. It was running (in black & white) for 5 years before work began on adapting the manga series which spanned in excess of a thousand pages at the time with about a hundred characters to somehow edit it down to a two hour long (approx. 120 pages of script) feature film.
What makes “Akira” all the more impressive as a manga series is it was all conceived, written, penciled, inked by Katsuhiro Otomo himself. He was simultaneously working on an anime (1982's “Harmageddon”) doing character design at the time he began producing the serialized version of his creation for Weekly Young Jump Magazine. As he did, he steadily learned the ropes involving the production of an animated film.
Otomo worked some more in the realm of anime before ultimately deciding that he was going to adapt the unfinished work into an animated feature film that he was going to both write the screenplay for and direct. He’d never directed a full animated feature before and this particular one was going to be the biggest in the history of Japanese anime up until the time.
Right around the same time the “Akira” animated film adaptation premiered in theaters in Asia, the first edition of “Akira” appeared in graphic novel form stateside via Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint. “Akira” #1 was the August 1988 edition and the title gained a quick and fiercely loyal cult following shortly after it’s release for many of the same reasons it did in Japan. However, the fervor amongst American comic book readers who were used to reading comic books as opposed to manga spread like wildfire once the 1988–89 school year began and word of mouth really took off.
The popularity of Epic’s run of “Akira” graphic novels was in part aided by the recent runs of DC’s Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” which ran from 1986–1987 and was just released as a hardcover collection in early 1988 alongside the recent graphic novelization of Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Night Returns” in addition to Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke”. The arrival of “Akira” couldn’t have happened at a better time, the audience had been prepared to handle heavy themes presented in a graphic novel format and the fact it originated in Japan made it stand out all the more. “Akira” readers also dove into Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” which was reprinted into book form from it’s previous seralized incarnation as well.
The growing popularity of the “Akira” books changed the game. Viz Communications had been releasing translations of titles like “The Dagger Of Kamui”, “Area 88" and “Mai, The Psychic Girl” since Spring 1987 which garnered moderate to fair sales success (although “Mai, The Psychic Girl” was a critical hit and highly influential). The success of “Akira” increased fan interest in 1989 Viz releases like the translated versions of “Fist Of The North Star” & “Crying Freeman”.
The rabid cult fanbases of these manga series’ then relentlessly hunted down these books’ animated films and OVA’s from Japan. They usually located the Japanese LaserDiscs first then recorded them to Super VHS cassette tapes which they then screened in underground anime clubs during the late 80's. The earliest of these anime societies were located on the campuses of UMass/Boston in Boston, MA plus MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA.
In the back pages of “Akira”, they announced the limited English language release of the animated adaptation would occur sometime in late 1989. The film ended up being screened in arthouse theaters stateside over the Christmas holiday season. In a short run on less than 50 screens it grossed less than half a million dollars ($439, 162 to be exact). This number would not be a fair indicator of the influence it was soon to have or the rapidly spreading subculture it was about to ignite in America.
The first time I ever saw “Akira” was April 1990. My big brother presented my younger brother & I with a blank cassette tape which we put into the VCR immediately as we didn’t have cable. We adjusted the tracking & it was a bootleg copy of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” which was still in theaters and we’d already seen. However, immediately after it ended the screen went dark and we saw white words imposed over a city reading “1988. 7. 16 TOKYO”. A white flash that quickly morphed into an explosion happened onscreen next and my younger brother and I lost our fucking minds at that exact moment.
It was the “Akira” animated film! I’m not sure if I even blinked once while watching it but we rewound it so much it took 3 hours to complete the first time. Our bootleg/dubbed VHS version of “Akira” was soon watched by all of our friends and even some of their friends so they’d understand why we kept saying “TETSUO!’ & “KANEDA!” all day long as inside jokes whenever something happened at school. Over a year later, it finally emerged as a VHS rental (Streamline Pictures) in some area videostores but it was far from popular initially.
Beginning in 1988, a company noticed that there was a devoted and rapidly growing fanbase of anime and manga fans who were jumping through flaming hoops just to acquire anime films in Japanese. If these titles could be distributed stateside for a reasonable price dubbed not only would they sell but they’d become popular rentals for years. That company was called AnimEigo. They’d soon be joined by similar distributors like Streamline Pictures (who were responsible for “Akira”) and in 1990 Central Park Media entered the fold.
Those that read “Akira” wanted to see the movie version. Once they did, they had to show it to anyone willing to watch. In some cases, they may have forced people to see it. These people would spread the word and they’d rent it and watch it then rave about it. This happened a lot in college as the 1990–91 school year can be attributed to when the anime fan subculture began to grow by leaps and bounds stateside.
“Akira” became a gateway drug of sorts. Whether we’re talking about reading the graphic novel/manga or watching the animated film. Seeing one made you want to see/read the other. Afterwards, you would explore either the worlds of anime, manga or both. Among the titles American anime fans began to seek out following seeing or reading “Akira” include “Space Pirate Captain Harlock”, “Arcadia Of My Youth”, “Golgo 13: The Professional”, “Space Adventure Cobra”, “Fist Of The North Star”, “Macross: Do You Remember Love?”, “Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind”, “The Dagger Of Kamui”, “Area 88",“Dirty Pair”, “Appleseed”, “Megazone 23", “Bubblegum Crisis”, “Demon Beast City” and “Crying Freeman”.
Throughout 1990 & 1991 more Japanese anime OAV’s, series’ and films made their way stateside through the ingenuity of rabid anime fans like “M.D. Geist”, “Galactic Patrol Lensman”, “Prefectural Earth Defense Force”, “Black Magic M-66", “Zillion”, “Baoh”, “The Guyver: Bio Boosted Armor”, “Grave Of The Fireflies”, “Goku: Midnight Eye”, “Demon City Shinjuku”, “Madox-01: Metal Skin Panic”, “Riding Bean”, “Urotsukidōji: Legend Of The Overfiend”, “City Hunter”, “The Venus Wars”, “Gall Force”, “Doomed Megalopolis” and “Cyber City Oedo 808" all ended up on college campuses through anime societies or sold/traded by individual members. During this time, attendance at regional Comic Cons began to sharply increase due to the involvement of manga/anime fans.
At these early 90's Comic Cons and conventions anime OVA’s, series’ and films began to be sold and traded more and more thus expanding the fanbase. As the demand grew, more and more titles were dubbed and sold. The explosion of interest in anime sparked by “Akira” was also bolstered by a comic book boom. Again, “Akira” was in the middle of a perfect storm as the anime was watched by more and more people and it’s Epic Comics run was gaining more and more readers. The same kids who adored Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen would also watch a secondhand VHS dubbed from LaserDisc copy of “Mobile Suit Gundam F91" in Japanese with little clue as to what the hell was going on…
Throughout the mid to late 90's anime became more and more accepted as more distribution companies popped up and the Anime section became a major draw at the video store. This was bolstered by the releases of titles like “Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie”, “Vampire Hunter D”, “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”, “Ghost In The Shell”, “Gunsmith Cats”, “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, “Ninja Scroll”, “Key The Metal Idol”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Serial Experiments: Lain”. Another wrinkle that would make anime even more palatable to new fans in the late 90's entering the 00's was the introduction of the Cartoon Network’s Toonami block beginning in Fall 1998 plus a brand new video distribution format, the DVD.
Between 1989 and 1999 there were quite a few young creatives who saw “Akira” in addition to several other manga/anime titles which, in turn, inspired or influenced their work. The 1999 film “The Matrix” was clearly inspired by anime like “Akira” and “Ghost In The Shell” amongst others. “Akira” changed the way animated films were made as it had become the gold standard by which all subsequent anime features were judged. Regardless of it’s widespread popularity and influence, just 10 years after it first premiered stateside it was out of print.
If you wanted a copy of “Akira”, you had the following options. Record it when it aired on cable, buy a used copy on VHS or outright buy a rental copy from a videostore or you could buy it on LaserDisc. Since VHS tapes were being phased out in favor of DVD’s there was only one other option available with the emergence of the Internet; buying it on Video CD directly from Asia. In 1999, I bought a double disc VCD version of the original 1989 English dub of “Akira” from Malaysia for only $7. I still have it to this day as “Akira” wouldn’t receive a proper DVD release until July 2001 following it’s rights being acquired by Pioneer who commisioned a new dub.
“Akira” was introduced to another generation of anime fans whose introduction to anime came via “Dragon Ball Z”, “Lupin The 3rd”, “Outlaw Star”, “Cowboy Bebop”, “The Big O” and “FLCL” on cable. From there, they had the Anime Network and the Internet to aid them in their quests to find the same anime that just a decade ago required serious legwork. Now all you had to do was visit Amazon or a host of other sites that specialized in anime films. Once again, interest was renewed in film that proved to be highly influential in the 21st Century.
The influence of “Akira” has become increasingly prominent in recent years and can be seen in Hollywood films like “Jumper” (2008), “Push” (2009), “Inception” (2010), “I Am Number Four” (2011), “Looper” (2012) and “Chronicle” (2012) amongst others. While we grew up seeing telekinesis employed in numerous ways in anime it wasn’t until recently that those same effects could be replicated in film. Once the floodgates opened, more and more movies were released where characters did things reminiscent of what Tetsuo Shima did with his powers in both the manga and the anime versions of “Akira”.
The flawless execution of the adaptation from serialized manga to full length “Akira” animated feature broke the mold and accomplished the seemingly improbable between 1987 and 1988. Epic Comics’ “Akira” graphic novelization process pushed the boundaries of comic book art and established a brand new means of production between 1988 and 1989 that is now standard practice (it was the first ever digitally colored comic book in history). “Akira” was the the catalyst that both captured the imaginations of Gen X’ers and opened them up to new things. For us early adopters, it made converting neophytes to full blown anime & manga heads possible. That alone forever changed popular culture.
The VHS tape from 1990 that I first saw “Akira” on has since been lost to the ravages of time. The 2 VCD version that I copped from Malaysia in 1999 with the original 1989 English dub on it can only be watched on my MacBook Pro using VLC. I’ve personally introduced at least 100 people throughout my lifetime to “Akira” directly whether we’re talking the manga/graphic novels or the animated film. At the time I saw it I had NO clue I’d be recounting the experience almost 25 years later but this is merely a testament to it’s timelessness and it’s ability to resonate with both Generation X’ers and Millennials alike.
The Epic Comics run of “Akira” lasted from August 1988 to February 1996 overall. There were several breaks in production throughout it’s life. The first 30 issues went like clockwork but there was a break between July 1991 and January 1992 for Akira #31. Issues #32 & #33 were released in April & May 1992 but issue #34 didn’t hit store shelves until October 1995. The entire 38 issue complete run of “Akira” ran from someone’s freshman year of high school to their senior year of college. Owning all 38 issues was the badge of a true fan.
Nowadays, “Akira” is shown on Cartoon Network. It’s widely available to stream or purchase in multiple physical and digital formats. To young kids nowadays it’s a title they have to work their way up to due to it’s adult themes and graphic violence but it’s definitely a rite of passage. “Akira” has become a part of pop culture to the point there’s been outrage over the preliminary casting choices to its oft delayed live action film adaptation. To be honest since 2008, I kind of feel like I’ve seen “Fakira” quite a few times already…
If you look at the growth of Comic Cons nationwide between 1989 and 1991 it was widely attributed to the new anime fans who attended them who were fans of “Akira”. They led to the creation of the first Anime Con in 1991 which became Anime Expo the next year. The first Anime Con drew 2,000 people while the most recent Anime Expo had over 80,000 attendees. 25,000 people flooded my neighborhood for Anime Boston this past Spring at the Hynes Convention Center. Considering the fact that at the most 100 people would be in the theater for a screening of “Akira” at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge 25 years ago that’s incredible.