1988 was a great year for anime and it appears that of all the big anime films to have come out that year, Akira turned out to be the most influential. Writer/Director Katsuhiro Otomo, adapting his own manga to feature film length, has a storytelling/animation style that is instantly recognizable by anyone who’s watched anime films or television shows within the last 25 years. Which makes Akira feel a little old hat. And that may be the film’s biggest problem – it’s lost its re-watch value. And not just due its infinitely replicated imagery.
The big issue is that Otomo isn’t very interested in subtle storytelling, which sounds refreshing at first, but quickly begins to grate as most lines of dialogue are delivered through yelling out the main character’s names – Kanada! Tetsuo! Kaori! etc. until the bludgeoning dialogue defeats the viewer into submission. From a story perspective, it appears that Otomo struggled to adapt the manga into this much-shortened format. He chooses to leave things unexplained, which is fine as one of the great positives of Japanese anime is that it doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer with it’s message. Unfortunately, the characters are shortchanged. Neither Tetsuo or Kanada left me feeling with anything other than indifference by the end. If Akira is a tragedy, in the way that a lot of anime epics are, it really loses a lot of thematic weight by giving it’s already unlikable characters very little development.
Of course, what stands out about Akira are the visuals. Otomo was clearly inspired by live action films like Blade Runner and creates a cityscape (2019 ‘Neo’ Tokyo) that is at once foreboding and beautiful. The scope of the visuals is truly cinematic, but Otomo is not afraid of being creative, especially in the beginning and the end of the film when he uses techniques like still imagery and even pencil tests.
Overall I can’t quite recommend Akira to a modern audience. There are better examples of the genre out there with more well-developed characters and captivating storylines. Yes, some have said that the visuals alone make it worth seeing (plus the bragging rights), but I still believe that a film is truly successful if it’s story also sparks at least part of the conversation. No one really cares what the movie is about anymore, but did you see that shot where we first see ‘evil’ Tetsuo through the flames? C+
The film was very successful when it came out. So much so that Otomo has not had to work as much in the intervening years (at least not on films). Many see Akira as the definitive example of its genre and reputable critics have called it one of the 100 best movies of all time. There also has been talk of a live action adaptation for as long as I can remember – currently the rights are with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company.
Otomo has had a few films since then, none of which have had the international acclaim garnered by Akira, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. There is only one Akira, for better or for worse.
Next time I will be watching another anime – Hayao Miyazaki’s classic My Neighbor Totoro! See you then!
1988 #15: The Great Outdoors
1988 #14: Time of the Gypsies
1988 #13: Bull Durham
1988 #12: A Short Film About Love
1988 #11: Heathers
1988 #10: Coming to America
1988 #9: Beetlejuice
1988 #8: Cinema Paradiso
1988 #7: Big
1988 #6: Who Framed Roger Rabbit