Akira

Overview: In 2019, thirty-one years after a powerful force known as Akira destroyed Tokyo and set off World War III, Neo-Tokyo has become flooded with gang violence, political unrest, and religious zealots. When a young man displays telekinetic powers similar to that of Akira, he is captured by the government and sets off events leading to the creation of a new universe.  Distributed by Toho. 1988; Rated R; 124 Minutes

Cultural Memory: Imagine for a moment that Philip K. Dick and Carl Sagan had a love child who grew up to write an X-Men arc. That is Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo’s film, based upon his manga of the same name, condenses his eight-year serial into a single film while still delivering the premise’s grand ideas. The grandest of these ideas being that the energy which created the universe exists, untapped, within every person, allowing them to carry the universal memory of everything. While many science-fiction stories explore the meaning of humanity and mortality, Akira settles for nothing less than godhood. This exploration is connected to the memory, or as the film would suggest, the energy, of Japan’s history.

The impact of WWII and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are apparent in the film. Otomo uses the threat of annihilation to explore not only the devastation of Akira’s power but also its role in rebirth and reconstruction. The film uses history to contrast the culture shift seen in the film where destruction through human error is a sign of the rapture and deities are a form of evolution.

Blood Milk: The film moves fast, wasting no time in its delivery of exposition and establishment of the power factions and concepts. Because of its pace and complex ideas, Akira rewards multiple viewings. While the film is weighty, it isn’t without thrills. The film’s opening motorcycle chase is one of the greatest feats of animation ever crafted. While I’m usually not a fan of anime’s cheap, stylistic choices, Akira stands apart as a stunningly detailed achievement. Akira helped change the popular belief that cartoons were strictly for children. It’s a bloody and disturbing film, filled with surreal sequences of giant stuffed animals leaking milk and body parts bursting with blood. But the film’s graphic nature is also underscored by innocence.

Heroic gang-leader, Kaneda, and telepathic Tetsuo’s relationship, bound by their childhood friendship, holds the film together. In the midst of all the film’s theories and action scenes, Akira is about the friendship and egos of two young men caught between childhood and adulthood. The story is not far removed from the current craze of dystopian young adult films. What makes Akira different is in its ambition to explore not simply how these young characters can shape a nation or a world, but a universe.

Leaving a Crater: Otomo’s film is a seminal work, and its impact can be seen in The Matrix trilogy and more recently, Chronicle. The long-gestating, live-action remake will have a tall order to reach if it hopes to match Otomo’s vision. Akira stands with Blade Runner as one of the most influential and thoughtful works of science-fiction’s contemplation of humanity and the meaning of transcendence.

Grade: A