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Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Akira

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally watched and written about every animated production (available in English) contributed to by Katsuhiro Otomo, whether as director, writer, character designer, or vague “consultant” — except for his most famous directorial work, Akira. It seems only right that I should cover this now, over 28 years after I first watched it.

Back in 1994 when Akira was first broadcast on British television, I was barely in my teens. My main exposure to anime had been as a little kid, watching shows like Battle of the Planets, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Thunderbirds 2086 and Ulysses 31. Moving to the city when I was nine years old gave me access to cable TV and random episodes of Robotech and Captain Harlock. These were heavily serialised shows, broadcast at obscenely early hours, like 6:30am on a Saturday. I was never able to watch them regularly enough to follow their plots.

As I entered adolescence, on cable movie channels I found a few scattered showings of older-skewing anime like Gall Force, Locke the Superman and Lensman. Although they looked cool, I found their storytelling inscrutable. I decided that perhaps “Japanese cartoons” were just weird, and not my thing. Then came the advent of UK videogame magazines like Super Play, with their anime-inspired cover art, and SNES games like Ranma 1/2 with their colourful and fun anime aesthetic. A couple of my school acquaintances were into anime and manga, and they were excited about Akira’s upcoming broadcast.

I convinced my parents to let me stay up late on the Saturday night of January 8th, 1994, for the subtitled version of Akira to start its over 2-hour runtime at 23:05 on BBC2. Although I can’t admit I understood the plot, the stunning animation and artistry drew me in. It was miles above any anime I’d ever seen before. Like many others of my generation, Akira was the gateway drug into the wider world of anime appreciation — and obsession.

At the time, newsstand anthology magazine Manga Mania was published by the UK branch of Dark Horse Comics, and every issue contained 60 or so pages of Marvel’s Epic Comics’ English translation of Akira’s manga. It took up half the magazine’s pages! Manga Mania also ran comics licensed by both Dark Horse and Viz, like Godzilla, Appleseed, Dominion, Silent Mobius, and Striker (Spriggan) among others, but Akira was indisputably the best. The US edition of Akira was colourised, but for economy’s sake, Manga Mania was (at least at the beginning) produced on black-and-white newsprint, so Otomo’s strikingly detailed linework was prominent and unmuted by the addition of computer colours.

Akira had already been released on PAL VHS in the UK back in 1991, to great critical acclaim, but its TV broadcast sent a rocket up UK fandom’s backside. Infamous UK video label Manga Video capitalised on Akira’s success by licensing a large range of sci-fi and fantasy movies and OVAs, often dubbing them full of hilariously inappropriate swearwords in order to gain the “correct” BBFC age rating — generally the higher, the better. Perhaps apart from the tentacle-filled but heavily censored hentai fantasy title Urotsukidoji — Legend of the Overfiend, no other anime title could claim the same level of media attention or sales numbers as Akira.

The film itself was completed and released in 1988, the first full motion picture directed by notorious perfectionist Otomo, he also wrote the script, adapted from his own manga, and storyboarded every single scene. Akira’s cel count was apparently double that of the average Disney animated movie. Otomo’s prior directing gigs had been segments of the 1987 anthology movies Robot Carnival and Neo Tokyo. Quite how he managed to source funding for this mega-ambitious production, at the time Japan’s most expensive ever animated movie (budget ¥700 million), I have no idea, but whoever made the decision must have been skipping with delight. Akira was a worldwide success story.

Much like with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Akira was written and directed by the author of a still-running, unfinished manga. Akira’s manga itself wouldn’t be complete until 1990, and the English translation wasn’t finished until Epic Comics’ chapter/issue 38 in 1996. Otomo’s almost 2,200-page manga had to be compressed and altered to fit the shape of a two-hour movie. Like with Nausicaa, this meant excising great chunks of plot, removing multiple characters, compressing the timeline to bring forward later developments, but changing their details and significance. It makes for a movie that works well for fans familiar with the original manga, but for a slightly less coherent experience for newbies. That Akira’s narrative functions at all is a testament to allowing original creators control when it comes to adapting their work to different mediums. I thank God that so far no Hollywood Akira remake has ever proceeded past pre-production stage.

Regardless of narrative and structural issues, Otomo succeeded in creating a work of singular cinematic genius — full of incredible imagery and concepts, magnificent design work, interesting characters and a fully-realised, lived-in world. Weirdly prescient, it’s set in 2019, the year before the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Akira’s future is now our past, but thank God we didn’t have a World War III or massive craters in the middle of Tokyo. Of course in the real world, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021 by a different semi-apocalyptic event…

So when watching Akira in 2022, does it still hold up? It absolutely does. With such high production values and stellar direction, Akira doesn’t seem even slightly dated. Everything flows so well, with intelligent scene transitions and marvellous juxtapositions of the small, mostly bewildered characters and the massive city they inhabit. Taking obvious inspiration from the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, (made only six years prior), the rebuilt areas of Neo Tokyo comprise of towering, monolithic skyscrapers, festooned with electric lights. Lurid three-dimensional holographic advertisements adorn the rooftops, and brilliant searchlights illuminate the night sky, compared with the dark emptiness of the destroyed sections of the city.

Akira’s manga is renowned for its pages upon pages of ultra-detailed depictions of apocalyptic urban destruction, with skyscrapers collapsing and great oceanic tides deluging the streets. Although in the movie, Tokyo is destroyed twice, in the manga, Otomo (presumably for fun), blows up the city three times. The movie version’s cataclysmic denouement is a combination of details from the unbelievable carnage depicted in chapters 16 (explosion #2) and 37/38 (explosion #3) of the manga. Where more than half of the manga’s storyline takes place in a truly lawless, post apocalyptic Mad Max-esque ruined Neo Tokyo, the majority of the movie takes the plot beats and settings from the first few volumes, where the city at least nominally functions as a society.

Also toned down from the manga is the frequent explicit oral and intravenous drug abuse that may perhaps have been a bit much for mainstream cinema. The hints remain there, but are less of a focus. The manga’s somewhat rambling structure and lengthy periods without appearances from the main cast are also significantly streamlined. Aside from the main trio of Kaneda, Kay and Tetsuo, there are multiple other characters who take the spotlight at times in the manga, whose roles are reduced sometimes to even blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameo roles in the film. (For example: Lady Miyako, an important psychic cult leader/prophet, who features only briefly as a raving zealot in two short scenes; and corrupt politician Nezu whose selfish actions inadvertently cause the second apocalypse in the manga but who suffers a humiliating, meaningless death in the movie.)

Evidence of Otomo’s singular inspiration as a director is demonstrated by the sheer number of incredible, memorable scenes he stuffs into Akira, from the opening motorcycle chase with its smeared tail-lights, to the multiple instances of civil unrest, the tremendous hoverbike sequence, and not to mention the unhinged Tetsuo’s climactic and uncontrolled transformation. These instances transformed animated cinema forever, with many subsequent movies iterating on and referencing them. Even with such later cinematic homages, they’ve done nothing to lessen the sheer visceral power of Akira’s incredible imagery.

Even 34 years on, the design of Kaneda’s red jacket (with the capsule on the back) remains instantly recognisable, his souped-up motorcycle iconic. He’s the poster boy for charismatic anime anti-hero, while his friend/rival/antagonist Tetsuo is archetypal suffering telekinetic psychopath. Otomo’s character designs bear little resemblance to typical anime visual tropes, with normal proportions and a total absence of sexualisation or fan service. Main female character Kay is beautiful in a very ordinary way, she’s competent and driven, with a strong moral core. Despite Kaneda’s boorish advances, she steadfastly refuses to become romantically attached, though her attitude to him softens over the course of the plot. Her actions and abilities drive the plot just as much as Kaneda’s.

The three weirdly-aged-children are further examples of Otomo’s singular design aesthetic — creepy and cute, young and old, pathetic yet powerful, they are innocents in a world that has abused and altered them. As in most of his works, Otomo demonstrates his distrust and dislike of authority figures. Here, his withering gaze is focused upon the inhuman actions of the military in weaponising children, and upon the corrupt politicians who bicker amongst themselves but ultimately are interested only in personal gain. Otomo doesn’t really offer any solutions other than having everything blow up, and starting again.

Blowing stuff up does seem to be one of Otomo’s primary fixations, and this features in so many of his works. Beginning with Akira, most of his films or scripts seem to culminate in a singular episode of spectacularly cathartic explosions. From Tetsuo’s fleshy eruption and subsequent nuclear detonation in Akira, we see a similar pattern at the end of Roujin Z, Metropolis, Spriggan, Steamboy… So many intricately drawn explosions, always so beautifully and smoothly animated. The man knows what he likes, and it seems anime fans all like a bit of wanton destruction too. There’s something truly cathartic about seeing a corrupt, broken system explode and break into charred chunks, leaving no other option but to wipe the scarred Earth clean and start again.

If you’ve never had a chance to experience the apocalyptic delights of Otomo’s Akira, there’s a reason it’s held up as a paragon not just of the director’s own body of work, but of the entire medium of anime. There’s never been anything quite like it since, but so many of the later anime we love owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to director Otomo and his mad, mad appetite for destruction.

Written, directed and storyboarded by: Katsuhiro Otomo
Screenplay by: Katsuhiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto
Produced by: Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Music by: Shoji Yamashiro
Japanese cinematic release: July 16th, 1988
UK home release: 1991 (VHS), 2002 (DVD), 2017 (Blu-ray), 2021 (4K)
Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
Runtime: 124 minutes
BBFC rating: 15

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Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.