Cyberpunk Cinema #4: Akira (1988)
Still flawed, still amazing at nearly 30.
Cyberpunk: a genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology.
When looking at the seminal works of Cyberpunk fiction, one that stands out in the top three is Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated take on his own Akira. Akira is based on a six volume, 2000 page manga which was written and published throughout the 80’s by Otomo and released in the west by Epic Comics. When Akira the animated film was released in 1988, the manga still had two years of issues left to complete the telling of its story. It’s similar to what is currently happening with George RR Martin and his Game of Thrones saga. Otomo was essentially off script and trying to tell his epic in a two hour movie with presumably an outline guiding him onwards to the shared finale between the two mediums.
It took me a while to fully appreciate Akira and ironically my love for the film only really came to its current level as technology developed in home media. Akira was the film that kicked off the anime boom of the early 90’s in the UK. You went into WH Smith in 1992 and there was this cover of an animated movie that had a 15 certificate, What was it? What did it mean? If you were a comics fan then you knew of the title but I’m fairly certain that many of its fans bought it out of initial curiosity more than anything. There were the odd cinema screenings at places like the ICA and the Prince Charles Cinema but most people saw it initially on video. Being all of fourteen and not really into reading subtitles I was stuck with the cropped VHS version with the bad dub which took real patience and tolerance to get through. At the time the film never really made sense to me but I liked the ideas, the designs and most of the trippy finale. It wasn’t until a really good remaster and redub in the early 00’s that the film finally clicked. Suddenly it all made sense and I could see it for the beautiful, flawed masterpiece it actually is. Even though it is nearing thirty years old, Akira is still a beautiful film, animated to perfection with breath-taking detail. The opening ten minutes remains some of the most stunning work in any animated film in history.
Script wise Akira suffers from a little incoherence, choosing to tell the core story from the manga and leaving out most of what comes after volume three. What is great about the film is what is now commonly referred to as ‘world building’ in most film journalism. Otomo gives us the details we need to know, after a previous disaster which destroyed the city, Neo Tokyo is on the brink again with political machinations and biker gangs and at the same time there is this emerging telekinetic phenomenon only present in the truly gifted that the military seek to control. Plotlines to do with religious fanaticism, drug addiction, other characters with psychic abilities and just who this Akira bloke is are all left to the manga and given short shrift in the film. Central to the film is the relationship of two childhood friends who have both grown into biker juvenile delinquents. Tetsuo is the weaker and when he is imbued with god like powers he chooses to take vengeance on a cruel world. Kaneda is the leader of the gang and truth told also kind of a dick, but he is the hero in a film full of morally dubious characters. The politics are given just enough exposure but It’s the emergence of Tetsuo into a powerful being and the resulting battle that is the focus here and the film is never less than enthralling as a result. Akira doesn’t have the overabundance of technology that something by Mamoru Oshii might have, but it does have the city straight out of Blade Runner, the lawless criminals, the drug epidemics and the fusion of flesh with machine that is found in a lot of Cyberpunk.
Over the years elements of Akira have been influential and just outright pilfered by other works. Many of today’s current generation of artists saw the film or read the manga at an impressionable age so you can see its influence frequently. There has been an ongoing attempt to turn the manga rather than the anime into a westernised film for several years and many directors have been attached. Filmmakers such as the Hughes Brothers, Justin Lin, Jaume Collet-Serra, Jonathan Nolan and Leonardo Di Caprio have all tried and failed to bring the story to the west so far. The concern seems to be whether any studio is willing to shell out what would likely be a huge budget for one, two or three films to really do the story justice. However some production sketches shared in 2014 from when Ruairi Robinson was attached, and actors Chris Evans and Joseph Gordon-Levitt both involved were very promising. If Ghost in the Shell hits big this spring then expect this one to pick up some traction again, but if Ghost flops I suspect its dead for good. As it stands the animated version remains the definitive film version of Otomo’s magnum opus.