What I’m Watching Now:

“Akira” (1988) dir. Katsuhiro Otomo

Two weeks ago, after deciding to trample over my newly minted sleep schedule, I was lucky enough to catch “Akira” at the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas in Manhattan. It was a midnight showing and, as expected, the theater was sparsely populated with only the most serious of fans: some solo late night moviegoers, a girl wearing the iconic capsule jacket, a group of friends noisily piling into a row together. This was my third time watching the film — my first on the big screen — and it was no less impressive than before. By now, I’m able to follow the plot without much concentration, but I still found myself wide-eyed and sweaty-palmed during film’s denouement, wondering how anyone will survive. This is thanks in no small part to the captivating animation, which can easily hold its own against any present-day, CGI-soaked franchise.

“Akira” © 1988 Toho

“Akira” is an adaptation of the manga series of the same name, which was also created by the film’s director, Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in 2019, “Akira” follows two childhood friends, Shotaro Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima (mononymously referred to as Kaneda and Tetsuo, respectively) living in the futuristic and chaotic Neo-Tokyo. After a motorcycle accident, Tetsuo begins to develop powerful telekinetic abilities that threaten to destroy the city, prompting the intervention of the oppressive and ulteriorly-motivated military government. On a broad scale, the film deals with transhumanism, memory, friendship, ineffectual and hollow government authority, rebellion and cynicism towards said government (especially from the youth), and the limitations of science and technology versus nature. On a smaller scale, it’s about motorcycle gangs and how CD jukeboxes still exist in 2019.

“Akira” © 1988 Toho

While the themes of “Akira” rightly warrant lengthy meditations on the human spirit, the dangers of technology, dystopian governments and whatnot, what I was most struck by this time around was the excess of scenery. In the world of the film, Tokyo is destroyed in 1988 by a massive explosion, an event that triggers World War III. Thirty-one years later, the city has been rebuilt as a sprawling, radiating metropolis (hence the “neo” in “Neo-Tokyo”). During the film’s opening sequence, Kaneda, Tetsuo, and the rest of their biker gang race through the city during a brawl with their rivals, streaking through the labyrinthine streets lined with monolithic buildings and crowned with towering, neon advertisements. It’s practically impossible to tell just how large Neo-Tokyo is, and what’s more, the film makes no effort to orient the viewer, opting instead to plunge headfirst into a twisting, seemingly endless cityscape.

“Akira” © 1988 Toho
“Akira” © 1988 Toho

Though home to what should be millions of people, the streets of Neo-Tokyo are comically empty. Massive, concrete structures bound by braids of pipes and wires fill the spaces between buildings, and when streets do appear, they’re almost always barren, save a burned-out car or two. Indeed, the only time crowds appear in the film is when they’re protesting, under attack, or experiencing some other kind of chaos, effectively outlining an undertone of civil unrest without spending too much time explaining its origins (the most you’ll get out of the protesters’ intentions are vague mentions of tax reforms). While on a technical level it’s probably easier to animate a series of buildings rather than hordes of people, the city’s emptiness also helps to contextualize the characters and streamline their movements. In their solitude, they’re not only easier to follow, but they become isolated them from the film’s subplots, which helps to angle them toward the eventual climax.

At its core, Neo-Tokyo is defined as a city of excess and extreme: it’s both eerily desolate, yet turbulent and violent, with little compromise. Ostensibly, the city is a monument to consumerism and industry, built on the ashes of destruction and war, a shining example of perseverance in the face of annihilation. Over the course of the film, however, this example proves to be a hollow one. The city is governed by a small group of men who prefer to squabble over petty disagreements rather than take action against the impending disasters that threaten it. Though crowded with hundreds of buildings (i.e., oppressive, looming structures reflective of a controlling, cold-blooded government), there doesn’t appear to be anyone living in them, and they’re easily torn down in the film’s finale, proving just as weak and useless as the government that was meant to protect them. Even those tasked with guiding the city are immediately shown to be self-serving and nearsighted, refusing to listen to anything that threatens their way of life. Neo-Tokyo a facade, no more than a glittering backdrop used only to juxtapose its image as a booming metropolis from its unstable reality.

Neo-Tokyo from above. “Akira” © 1988 Toho

After the film ended, I shuffled outside feeling slightly dazed, as is expected after sitting in the dark for two hours. It was a little after two in the morning, and Saturday night benders were reaching their climax. Club-goers and delivery-men alike roamed the streets, illuminated by hazy streetlights and neon signs. As I walked to the train, I pondered my surroundings, curious if the East Village resembled Neo-Tokyo. The superficial comparisons came first: both are crowded with buildings and winding streets, both have shining skylines lit by spotlights and lined with traffic. On a deeper level, both cities have histories marred by political corruption and have experienced devastating crises, both of which continue to antagonize their long term operations despite any respective advancements. As far as I know, however, New York isn’t home to any telepathic espers, and our football stadiums aren’t built on top of any massive, government-owned vaults. This is good news if you plan on avoiding all-consuming singularities, but disappointing if you were hoping to join a roving motorcycle gang.

When it comes to stunning animated features in which themes of humanity, friendship, and the limits of technology abound, “Akira” can’t be beat. You can watch it on Hulu, Amazon Video, Vudu, or iTunes. Check out a trailer for the film below.

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