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Cyberpunk anime are as common in Japan as period dramas are in the UK. At least three are produced every year. More if people are especially concerned about the unstoppable forward march of technology. The influence for all these anime series and movies can be drawn back to one word: Akira. The magnum opus of manga artist and anime director Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira took the world by storm influencing the likes of The Matrix, Chronicle and Looper.
On the sixteenth of July 1988 Tokyo is destroyed by a singularity event that starts World War 3. Thirty years later the city of Neo-Tokyo has been built on the ruins of the former metropolis. Though sprawling and populous it is a shadow of its former self as political unrest, religious fervour and teenage biker gangs run wild. One such biker gang, the Capsules led by Kaneda, are engaged in a turf war with rival gang the Clowns. When Capsule member Tetsuo comes in contact with an escaped psychic child he is captured by the military as his own psychic powers begin to develop. Kaneda seeks to rescue his friend before his powers destroy the city all while an army colonel desires to control and understand the power of these psychic children for the glory of Japan.
Akira’s animation was one of a kind for its time. The film was the most expensive anime film ever made to that point costing $10 million though it eventually made back its budget eight times over. Otomo demanded complete creative control and he got it thanks to his uncompromising vision of what Akira could be. Seven production companies formed the Akira Committee to make the film and in the end 160,000 animation cels were used to adapt Otomo’s original 2,000-page manga.
Anime was and still is famous for cutting corners in terms of production through basic lip-syncing in static face drawings. Akira used full fluid animation. Establishing shots feature as much movement as a live action film would. Shooting stars, smoke and clouds move across the sky as opposed to being static background art. Facial animations move from joy to fear to anger. Explosions and the film’s often brutal deaths have as much detail as the buildings, machines and characters that suffer them. One shot has the Capsules leaving school jeering and joking only for one member, Kai, to vomit blood. It has no effect on his arc or the other characters in that scene. It’s just an example of how detailed Akira is.
As the Cold War drew to an end a new kind of anxiety appeared in the Japanese consciousness. Bigger, more lucrative opportunities opened up in the east for American investment. Japan were right to be worried and it was these fears of economic decline, extremism and historical cycles that Otomo reflected in his work and has also perhaps predicted. The Japanese government in 2019 seems to be made up of corrupt, cowardly politicians with Colonel Shikishima being the only voice of strength and reason. Mobs rule the streets as violent police crackdowns lead to overflowing prisons and dead citizens.
As exciting as the political subplot is with neither side being wholly good or evil it ultimately falls to the teenage bikers and revolutionaries to give Akira its heart. Kaneda only joins the resistance because he has the hots for female revolutionary Kei. Later it’s because he wants to save his friend and the city from the apocalyptic fate threatened by the film’s massively detailed action scenes. Tetsuo’s powers render him psychopathic and God-like in a Cronenberg-on-speed kind of way. Unable to contain his strength Tetsuo begins to grow and change.
The violence of Akira is not for the faint of heart. Tetsuo stepping on glass sent shivers up me. Near the beginning the police gun down a revolutionary in a scene that would put the execution in Robocop to shame. Kei shoots a police officer and blows half his face off. The wonders of animation huh? But it is Tetsuo’s transformation that is the film’s crowning act of violence. Foreshadowed by Tetsuo’s own nightmares fingers multiply, limbs bulge and burst and guts turn inside out until he resembles an enormous mutant infant before collapsing into a mass of oozing tissue. To call it sublimely horrifying is a stretch but it was the single most impressive piece of animation since the giant warrior in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
Speaking of that giant warrior, the influence of Akira within Japan cannot be understated. Some of the most famous anime of the 1990s came about as a direct result of Akira’s success. The cyberpunk dystopia of Ghost in the Shell. The body-horror and delirious voice acting of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The gore and grim reality of Psycho Pass. You don’t have to look far to see it no matter where you are in the world. Hell even the Irish stout Murphy’s got in on the whole Japanese cyberpunk aesthetic.
In 2013 when Tokyo qualified to host the 2020 Olympic Games the fact that Japan were due to host the 2020 games in Akira was lost on no one. Many jokingly claimed that Akira had predicted it. It was not the only thing Akira predicted. The current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considered by many to be a far right nationalist and his government has been rocked by scandals in the last few months. The crisis of national identity Japan has suffered since World War 2 is well documented in Akira. It is a nation of technological marvels but one that is torn between remembering the atomic cataclysms wrought against it and trying to forget its own long list of war crimes.
Though the animation starkly presents these dichotomies of technological superiority and desperate poverty it is in the sound of the film that these crises of faith and identity play out. Many portions of the film are quiet. The sound of footsteps echo in Akira’s cryogenic tomb. The singularities that bookend the film feel like being sucked into a vacuum. Much of the dialogue consists of characters screaming out each other’s names until the likes of KANEDA, TETSUO and KEI are flashing bright red in your mind’s eye. The music is a combination of Blade Runner synths, traditional Japanese drumming and choirs that whisper, shriek and babble on command. If the aesthetics of Akira don’t overpower you the sound surely will.
Akira offers little in the way of hope throughout. The government collapses, thousands die and the future of Neo-Tokyo lies either in the hands of a fascist with a mohawk or three biker revolutionaries beginning to understand their latent psychic powers. But Kaneda speeds off into the ruins with his friends with the same gay abandon he had at the beginning. As dawn breaks on Neo-Tokyo Otomo leaves it up to viewers to imagine a brighter future. Akira offers the spark but it is up to others to fan it into flames.