Few animated films can claim to have the influence that Akira has had. Initially released as a series of graphic novels in Japan, it was one in a long tradition of comics stretching back over a century. These ‘Manga’ comics were first adapted for film (both animated and live action) from the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the adaptation of Akira in 1988 that the genre was brought to mainstream Western audiences.
The UK and US had not seen cartoons like these before. Hyper-violent, often sexually explicit, and tackling graphic adult themes, it soon became clear that the term ‘cartoon’ itself wasn’t an appropriate label for them. They ended up taking the name of the tradition to which they belonged, to the degree that ‘Manga’ is now sometimes used as an erroneous catch-all for Japanese comics and animations in general, even those that don’t belong to the brand.
To this day, Akira remains one of Japan’s greatest Manga exports. It has been restored and re-released on home video several times and a live-action version is currently in pre-production. Along with Ghost In the Shell (1995), which was also recently adapted by Hollywood into a live action version starring Scarlett Johansson, Akira is probably the first film that many would associate with Manga.
Not that it’s the most accessible example of the style (but nor is it the least). It starts coherently enough: set in 2019, World War III has obliterated Tokyo, and in the streets of the city built on its ruins – dubbed Neo-Tokyo – violent biker gangs fight each other for supremacy. When one of these gangbangers, Tetsuo, crosses paths with a ghoulish psychic child on the run from a military research facility, he and his friends are drawn into a conspiracy that bears whispers of gods and the annihilation of the world.
It is up to Kaneda and the rest of Tetsuo’s buddies to figure out what’s going on and rescue him from the military forces that swept him up in their pursuit of the psychic boy. To be fair to Kaneda and co, even those on the inside of the circle – including a fanatical colonel, three child psychics, and Tetsuo himself – struggle to grasp the dangers of the powers they’re unleashing.
Once the psychic chain is off, Akira glories in its destructiveness, spreads its gore proudly across the walls. It progresses from a militaristic cat-and-mouse game to an increasingly abstract descent into dark metaphysical territories. Steel and flesh are assimilated into each other during what eventually becomes this viscerally destructive flexing of cyber-psychic muscle, where all the technology of the future is useless against the power of an awakened deity.
While the form may have been new to many audiences in the late-eighties, the message it delivers is one that artists and philosophers have considered for centuries. It is a grotesque coming-of-age story, one in which adolescent anxieties are forced to give way to the responsibilities of adulthood. Ultimately, man stands ready to be measured against the gods he worships. It owes as much to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as it does the Japanese and American comics that helped to shape Manga after World War II. It asks the fundamental questions: where did we come from, and where are we going?
There’s no surprise that Akira resonated with audiences when it first appeared, and its perseverance means that it can be considered a classic of world cinema. Much of its imagery has now become iconic: the bikes, the ruined city, the repulsive bloating. It marked the start of a new movement in cinema, one which showed that animated films were no longer just for kids.
Country: Japan Language: Japanese Year: 1988 Director: Katsuhiro Otomo Writers: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izo Hashimoto Starring: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama Runtime: 126 minutes