Watched via DVD/BD



PLOT: Akira is a movie adaptation of a cyberpunk action manga series featuring a motorcycle gang. Because of the manga’s six-volume, dense plot line, a lot of the story had to be condensed and cut out in order to make Akira into a feature film. Honestly I think it would have been much better off as a television series. I suppose that was the flavor of the time, to make everything into a movie or OVA, but if Akira ever gets made again I hope it’s into a series.

All right, so to start off with we have a high school motorcycle gang comprised of a bunch of students who are all students at a juvenile delinquent school. Kaneda is the leader of the group and he and his other members constantly dog on their weakest member, Tetsuo (his best childhood friend). One day while fighting against a rival gang Tetsuo happens across a weird blue child on the run who catches him in a blast. The child and Tetsuo get caught and dragged off to a research facility. There Tetsuo begins to discover some weird new powers that he can’t control that were set off by the blast.

While initially terrified of this new power, Tetsuo quickly adapts to his new identity and even seeks to use these new talents to his benefit to rise in social status. Little does Tetsuo realize that the more he uses these powers (and less medication he takes) the less control he has over himself. This of course doesn’t stop him from going around trying to boss people around.

Meanwhile Kaneda and the rest of his friends become worried about his absence. Kaneda ends up joining a secret organization whose goal is to sneak in and get Tetsuo back out. Along the way we learn more about these blue children with psychic powers and the research facility that they are all in. Whispers of an entity known as Akira begin to get around and there is a battle for Tetsuo to find Akira and everyone else to keep him from reawakening the power that was long ago sealed away. I’ll leave it there so I don’t get into spoilers (even though this movie is SUPER old).

I was gonna say this movie’s not that old, but it’s 26 years old now. Yeesh.

I do think Tetsuo’s a good metaphor for people who become power hungry with new skills and end up corrupt, but I’m not sure if all the psychic business had to come in. Or maybe this all just comes back to me not loving psychics. Maybe I need more exposure, like with vampires?

PLOT: In 2019, 31 years after Tokyo was destroyed and World War III began, Kaneda and Tetsuo are members of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda, the gang’s leader, is a cool guy who rides an awesome red bike, while Tetsuo’s the black sheep of the group and resents how much Kaneda has to help him. While riding their bikes one day, Tetsuo almost crashes into a small, blue-skinned boy named Takashi. Tetsuo and Takashi are taken by the government, which is where things get weird.

Turns out Takashi’s an esper, and Tetsuo has some burgeoning esper powers of his own. The military detains Tetsuo and runs some experiments on him, learning his abilities are similar to Akira’s, the esper who caused Tokyo’s destruction in 1988. Throughout the rest of the film, Tetsuo learns about his psychic abilities and tries to come to grips with them, but their strength and his new ability to surpass Kaneda end up messing with his head. The famous climax of the film features Tetsuo’s powers exploding out of his control and threatening the survival of Neo-Tokyo.

While Tetsuo’s dealing with his new esper status, Kaneda meets Kei, a member of a revolutionary group that wants intel on the government’s shady dealings. While helping Kei with the group’s plans, Kaneda learns about Tetsuo’s psychic powers and decides to help Tetsuo as best he can. The movie’s climax is also a confrontation between the two, with Kaneda trying and failing to get through to Tetsuo while Tetsuo goes mad with glee at his amazing powers. In the end, Akira and the other child psychics have to save the day, and there’s still some major damage to Neo-Tokyo.

To be honest, there’s a lot packed into Akira, and it’s pretty intense and confusing. This is the kind of film I need to watch multiple times in order to pick up on all of the small details, especially since the plot leaves a lot to the viewer to piece together. Considering the inclusion of the military and the psychic children, I think the revolutionary group could’ve been left out to simplify things, especially since Kei’s group is mainly a way for Kaneda to learn about Tetsuo. With everything left in, I feel like Akira’s an overly complicated film about psychics that’s trying too hard to put a complex spin on the genre and ends up being confusing.

I think both the revolutionary group and rival bike gang could have been left out, but once I read summaries of the manga I realized both groups are incredibly important to the rest of the plot that was cut out. I’d have loved to see this play out more in the movie though.

SETTING: The setting for Akira reminds me a lot of the setting for A Clockwork Orange, a futuristic dirty and depraved world where rival gangs constantly beat each other up and hang out in bars doing drugs. This future world takes places in “Neo-Tokyo” after the third World War.

Early into the movie we see a young blue child running away from an organization. We find out that this research group experiments with young children and tries to harness their inner psychic powers (that are in everyone). Much of the storyline takes place in this research facility where we see Tetsuo slowly unravel into insanity. We also get a glimpse into “Akira” and the three children who remain.

The facility and surrounding city play a huge part in setting up the mood of the time. The series definitely feels post-apocalyptic. Ultimately I found the setting to be a waste as the climax seemed too repetitive of prior events. I was kind of hoping that the setting would be transformed in some way by the action of the movie.

SETTING: You can’t really say that Neo-Tokyo’s an original setting (though it might’ve been in 1988), since every story that takes place after an earth-shattering event takes place in Neo-Tokyo, New New York, or something similar. Despite that, Akira does a good job of developing the setting in an interesting way, though it clearly has connections with the Tokyo of 1988. I find these connections, which show up in the clothing and prominence of motorcycle gangs, to be fascinating, since they work to date the film (much like the battle music in Nausicaä) despite its future setting.

Even with those reminders of the ‘80s, Neo-Tokyo’s an excitingly gritty city, with the military having too much control for my liking and a growing resistance movement to counter it. Though I think the revolutionaries make the plot too complicated, I do appreciate that some of Neo-Tokyo’s citizens express their unhappiness, but their cause could use some development. Finally, the technology to analyze psychic powers is interesting and very cool, but I wish it had been explained more instead of just looking cool. More understandable explanation would’ve helped this movie make a lot more sense to me.

CHARACTERS: I have to agree with Crystal, while Kaneda seems a bit rough on his friends, he is ultimately my favorite character from the movie. I think this mostly has to do with how much air time he gets and how he’s not shown as being crazy. We do get the opportunity to see a bit of background story as to how he’s actually a nice guy, but ultimately it doesn’t even mean much since the movie is so compressed.

Tetsuo is like your typical little brother. He looks up to everyone, wants to be like the older kids, but will never be able to climb out from under their shadow. Once he discovers his latent psychic powers everything begins to change. Rather than allowing for others to dog on him, he begins to take control and become very violent, even to the point of scaring his best friends. Tetsuo has little regard for anyone else and seeks solely to explore and increase his powers. This ends up biting him in the rear as he begins to lose control of himself.

After these two the characters who get the most attention are the three blue children: Kiyoko, Takashi, and Masaru. The movie doesn’t go into enough back story to quite explain who they are, what their intentions are, and what they want from Tetsuo. I found them to be rather creepy and I could never quite figure out if they wanted to help him harness his powers or try to hurt him. We see them time and again sneaking into his room and creeping him out with their powers. That and their relationship to Akira just leaves everything as a big mess of confusion. I’d have like to see the character list narrowed down in order to develop each person more.

I get the feeling there’s some fun backstory between the blue children and Akira, which probably gets expounded on in the manga. Too bad their role in the movie gets so confusing, since I can never tell how they really feel about Tetsuo.

CHARACTERS: Kaneda’s my favorite character in Akira, mainly because he’s a straightforward guy whose motivations I can quickly understand. He just wants to ride around with his gang and take care of his childhood best friend, without worrying about revolutions, military plans, psychic powers. When he has to, though, Kaneda does what he can to help Tetso, which I’ve always found impressive. No one asked him to do everything he does, but he assumes the role of potential savior of Neo-Tokyo because it’s the right thing to do.

Tetsuo, on the other hand, is a whiny guy who’s understandably driven crazy by his psychic powers. I might like Tetsuo better if his past were better explored, but as it is I feel like watching his mental breakdown is kind of meaningless because I’m not invested in the character. Yes, he goes through some horrible experiences and faces an immense mental burden because of his psychic powers, but I just don’t feel for the guy. If I had to, I’d compare him to Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I feel for Shinji much more because we actually take the time to allow me to sympathize with him.

All of the other characters fall into this weird place of not being developed enough for me to care about them, either, and they mainly feel present to drive the plot forward. To top it all off, Akira, the movie’s titular character, is barely present at all and not explained in any comprehensible way. There are some characters that I find interesting, like Takashi, Kei, and the girl psychic, but I don’t feel like I know any of them because they’re around so fleetingly.

Hey now! Don’t go hating on Shinji! Shinji is very easy to identify with, and to a certain extent Tetsuo is as well. He goes through periods of terror and revenge, which I think would be normal for a boy that age.

I’m not ragging on Shinji, because I find him to be a well-developed character with a mental breakdown, whereas I don’t think Tetsuo gets enough development. I’m much more sympathetic to Shinji, largely because of the time devoted to getting the viewer to know him.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I loved loved loved the art style for Akira! It was such a great trip watching this movie. I have no idea if this was in style at the time, but the whole movie is heavily centered around a tertiary color palette. The colors reminded me a lot of the palette from Watchmen. The choice of colors creates a wonderfully putrid mood that heightens the gritty and rotting sense of the world. Not only that, but the outlines and drawing style just screams “Western comic books”. The background characters look like they could have stepped right out of a Western comic. Meanwhile the main characters all have a raw energy that is repulsive. The style of the characters make them very hard to identify with and empathize with, making it all the more enjoyable while you watch the movie and try to understand where everyone is coming from.

The backgrounds are fabulous with a beautifully rendered sense of depth and space. I loved the angles and how well everyone moved through space. You can tell for the time that this movie had a great budget. Sure you get people getting off model from time to time, but that’s nothing considering when this movie came out and everything else that went into it.

While the movie has undoubtedly aged and the style might not seem too appealing to new fans, the animation alone should be enough for fans to give this movie a watch.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Akira’s art style takes some getting used to for me, as the director draws characters in a very specific style that differs from most of the anime and manga I’ve experienced. Everyone looks ugly, and it’s pretty hard to tell the women from the men, since they all have square faces and the same hair. It’s not as horribly ugly as, say, Initial D, but the art does nothing to make the characters more likable, instead drawing them in a more realistic way that somehow readies you for the violence to come. The best part of the art is, undoubtedly, Kaneda’s motorcycle, which is completely iconic and gorgeous to look at. As a symbol of Kaneda’s power, though, it makes sense that it would look so cool and sleek.

The animation, on the other hand, is breathtaking. You can tell that Akira was made during the ‘80s, when anime studios had lots of money to throw at films, making them as detailed as possible. The backgrounds are all finely detailed, and the movements of everything are precisely drawn. I’m not kidding—following an explosion, the smoke is drawn so delicately and deliberately that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. You never see detail like this, not even in the best Studio Ghibli movies, because Akira’s obsessed with including as many minute details as possible. The amazing animation is a lot of what makes the film’s climax so memorable, and it’s essentially why I find this film worth rewatching.

OVERALL: Aside from the animation and Akira being a classic sci-fi film that influenced many series to come, I don’t know that I’d recommend watching it. Really it comes down to what you like to watch. I’ve seen a lot of dystopian movies or ones with psychic powers to think that Akira is rather bland. It may not have seemed so at the time, but I think it lacks a certain spark that could have been there had the anime been a television series rather than a movie. Really all it’s missing is more time to develop the characters and setting in a meaningful way. I’d be very interested in reading the manga, as it goes into much more detail, but I can’t quite find the motivation to give it a shot since I just can’t connect with the main characters. I’ve probably said it before, but I for one am not a sci-fi person, and even this classic couldn’t change my mind. I hope however that if you are into sci-fi and classics, that you give this movie a shot.

OVERALL: I’m one of those people who doesn’t really “get” Akira. I’ve never been into psychics, and I don’t find sneaky government plans or wanton destruction to be all that interesting from a narrative point of view. I prefer my stories to have well-developed, compelling characters, so Akira’s difficult for me to enjoy watching because I don’t like anyone aside from Kaneda. The manga, which has the time to develop all of its factions and plot lines, might be more interesting, but I’ve never been driven to read it because I’m so lukewarm on the film. I think this film is worth watching from a historical perspective, because it had a huge impact on the early anime fandom, but the only reason it gets such a high score from me is because of the animation. I could watch those billows of smoke all day, and that’s where I find the real artistry in Akira. Aside from the animation, I find it to be a cliché story about psychics without much to say about the greater world.


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