I’m on a mission to watch popular films that missed me the first time around and obscure films that just never found their way into my circles. This “First Watch” review covers the 1988 Japanese animated film Akira. It has been highly regarded as one of the best films of all time by critics, filmmakers, and audiences alike.
Akira was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and written by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto. The story is based on Otomo’s 1982 manga graphic novel by the same name. The film was released to Japanese theaters in 1988 by Toho and then to the United States in 1989 by Streamline Pictures. The film grossed over $45 million at the global box office and has since earned over $80 million worldwide in home video sales.
I’ve been exposed to this film over the years, knowingly and unknowingly, in other pop culture media. Clips from the film were used in the 1995 music video for “Scream” by Michael and Janet Jackson. More recently, the character Kaneda’s motorcycle appeared in the 2018 film Ready Player One.
I streamed this film on Hulu.
The year is 2019. Neo-Tokyo, a dystopian metropolis, is plagued by corruption, anti-government protests, terrorism, and gang violence. Shōtarō Kaneda is the leader of a biker gang called the Capsules. His childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, is a hot-headed and impulsive youngster.
One day, Tetsuo is involved in a motorcycle accident that gives him incredible telekinetic abilities. The government, led by Colonel Shikishima, is interested in Tetsuo’s powers and begins to experiment on him. Tetsuo’s powers grow out of control, and he begins to have visions of a mysterious being called Akira. As his powers grow, so does his madness, and he threatens to destroy Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda and his friends must stop Tetsuo before it’s too late. Along the way, they encounter a group of resistance fighters who are trying to overthrow the government and also learn more about the mysterious Akira and his true nature.
The film culminates in a final battle between Tetsuo and the government, with the fate of Neo-Tokyo hanging in the balance.
What I Liked
Akira is so visually stunning. Growing up in the world of Voltron, M.A.S.K., and other animated Japanese imports during the ’80s, the imagery in this film truly baffles my mind. Akira uses traditional, hand-drawn cel animation (over 160,000 individuals cels in fact) which felt nostalgic to watch even though this was my first viewing. I noticed many familiar animation techniques like panning and blurring yet there were truly mind-blowing scenes like the final battle that must have needed layers upon layers of cels to pull off.
Dystopian stories are also very appealing to me. Being in a world that is very different, yet could exist, are the type of fantasy films I really enjoy. Akira has a great balance of higher technology and elite government with a sense of poverty and street life. The biggest example is the street gangs and their eccentric motorcycles which was a highlight for me.
Kaneda seems to be the most celebrated character from the film. His leadership matched with his affinity for Kei and empathy for Tetsuo made for a great rollercoaster of emotions while following his story arc.
What I Didn’t Like
I initially started watching Akira with English subtitles. With the film being so optically stunning, I found myself missing dialogue because I’m staring at all the visual elements. I switched to the English dub of the film and found it very hard to follow the story. Dubbing a Japanese film to English must be a difficult task, but trying to match dialogue to lip movements made for so many chopped sentences and just poor grammar. While I’m no English major, I just feel like the film would be much better served by completing more thoughts and offering less lip matching. I really haven’t noticed that kind of discontinuity with 1980s era cartoons, but I’m sure it just depends on the voice direction and cast.
All in all, I enjoyed the experience of watching Akira. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend watching just for the glorious animation. It’s definitely worth the hype of being one of best animated films of all time. Yet, it’s probably a film I won’t be revisiting on a regular basis. I’ll eventually watch it again and now that I’m somewhat familiar with the story, I’ll probably try to watch it with just subtitles next time.