Wednesday, 1 June 2011

アキラ / Akira

So what has made Akira probably the most internationally famous piece of Japanese animation of all time? Well, there’s been a tendency to say that all anime before the 1988 landmark has been atrocious, with Akira for the first time taking the leap to smooth, impressive animation, realism and ambition. But that story doesn’t hold up well. Akira looks fantastic and has a challenging storyline, but it was hardly alone in this. By 1988 Ghibli had answers to all those things: their films have animation that stands up at least as well as Akira’s, 1988’s Hotaru no Haka’s level of realism is clearly more advanced, and Topcraft’s Nausicaa, made in 1984 by the team who would largely go on to form Ghibli, while arguably a mess, has plenty of ambition. But Akira demanded to be taken seriously as an adult piece of animation, not by being basely obscene but by being complex, gritty and occasionally gruesome. There is blood and violence here, and nudity too, but balanced by a plot more sophisticated than most sci-fi stories, a brilliantly grim atmosphere and a very interesting central relationship.

At the same time, there is much that is unsatisfying about Akira, not least in that it’s based on a much longer manga, which can go into greater depth about the world and the progression of the story. What for some people is a sophisticated plotline that needs repeated viewings and concentration to understand is for others a garbled, badly-conceived mess.

The story is this: Kaneda and Tetsuo are the leaders of a biker gang in a post-apocalyptic ‘Neo-Tokyo’. During a fight with a rival gang, Tetsuo gets mixed up with a strange government project involving small children with psychic powers and strange, preternaturally aged faces and is abducted by the military. Tetsuo is determined to have impressive potential for psychic powers, ones similar to Akira, the most disastrously powerful experiment yet, now apparently held frozen underground. He escapes from the hospital in which he and the other children are kept using the powers the government scientists have given him, but is recaptured after he meets Kaneda again. Tetsuo escapes again, his powers going out of control, and it falls to Kaneda to rescue him, with the help of a girl from an anti-government resistance movement (who looks oddly like him) – but will simmering resentments from an old rivalry get in the way?

I saw Akira when I was 12 or 13, the old Streamline-dubbed VHS version, which wasn’t as terrible as is often made out (and most of its voice actors are still working today), but was very much lacking in subtlety. I was, naturally, pretty confused, but intrigued enough to spend the time getting explanations for the parts I wasn’t clear on – and there’s really not much in Akira that doesn’t have an explanation within the film: it can be fully understood without the manga, even if it doesn’t live up to it.

The story is good and solid once you get your head around it, the characters are more than one-dimensional (if quite hard to like, especially Kaneda) and the world-building, while not exactly original, is superb. There are some real laughs in Akira as well as moments to make you wince, and the animation deserves all the praise it’s got. Not perhaps as different from all around it as has been claimed, but certainly a standout and a classic of animation. Granted, it’s a favourite because of its slightly lowbrow themes, its bloodiness and its explosions, and yes, I would rather the world thought Gauche the Cellist was the classic of animation rather than this, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Akira is excellent.

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