Written by Katsuhiro Otomo & Izo Hashimoto
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
While there are a decent number of science fiction films that could be classified as masterworks, I personally believe it is the rare few that could be called visionary. I use that word in the sense of building a world that feels so unique and real, taking elements of our present and showing them taken to an extreme in the future. Every time I’ve watched Akira, I get that sense; it’s the same feeling I have watching Blade Runner. This is a fully realized world; we just see a small glimpse of a critical moment. Neo-Tokyo is one of the best science fiction settings ever created, and this story captures the best of the science fiction genre, particularly the subgenre of cyberpunk.
In 2019, Neo-Tokyo is swamped in civil uprisings as a result of rampant corruption and gang violence. Kaneda is the leader of a teenage biker gang called The Capsules. They are in the middle of a fight with The Clowns through highways surrounding Neo-Tokyo when a horrible accident occurs. Kaneda’s best friend Tetsuo encounters Takashi, a blue-skinned boy who possesses ESP. The moment of contact between the two triggers something in Tetsuo, and he is taken away by a secretive government agency that has more like Takashi in their custody. Kaneda meets Kei, an activist whose group is trying to rescue these espers from the government and reveal how they are being weaponized. But things become complicated when it’s revealed that Tetsuo has forged a connection with a dangerous entity known as Akira who’s reawakening could signal the end of the universe.
There’s a tactile feel to the world of this film that I absolutely love. While the technology is relatively advanced, there’s a sense it has been retrofitted to the old world. Much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this is a towering city with cables and wires sprawled all over the place. I get the sense that Katsuhiro Otomo must love that aesthetic as Tetsuo’s body horror experienced in the latter half of the movie has a similar look to it; technology and the organic are merged into this grotesque melange that is quite alluring. It’s made even more horrific in that it happens in the bright light of day. There’s no masking of how Tetsuo physically breaks down.
Japanese culture has had a somewhat volatile piece of inspiration in its science fiction and speculative fiction to work with: the nuclear bombing by the United States. Most prominently, we have Godzilla, a walking personification of those attacks. While Akira is set in the distant future of 2019, it references a horrific moment of destruction in the 1980s that created this new, broken world. Like all good science fiction, this story deals with both the past & present, disguising it as a fantastic story of the future. Cold War tensions are running high through this film, the looming fear of militaries growing so large that even their weapons are no longer something that can be controlled. In this way, Akira shares many themes with James Cameron’s Terminator.
Right now, the Western world appears to be on the edge of transformation, either into a relic of the past or fighting against its oppressive elements to create something more egalitarian. I fear the former seems more plausible to me than the latter. This plays out in Akira with the students’ protests and religion devoted to Akira that signal the ending of an era. When the Colonel begins his coup and members of parliament are being killed and taken prisoner, it’s clear that whatever this society was is over. Yet, even the Colonel with all his weapons, including an orbital energy weapon, are proven entirely useless when they face a transcendent power.
For being such a bleak film about the collapse of society, Akira ends up a surprisingly hopeful moment. The audience is made aware that the espers and Tetsuo are a part of something new, responsible for creating a new universe. The film is filled with makeshift families: the biker gangs, the student movement, the Akira religion, the resistance, the military, the espers. These are broken people in a world where the old structures crumbled when the world went to war for the third time. To survive, they cling to each other, emphasizing flashbacks that show Kaneda and Tetsuo’s relationship as orphans. While each of these characters has female love interests, the love story at the heart of the film is between these two young men. I don’t think it’s meant to be sexual, but there is a deep bond between them. Tetsuo feels he’s lived in Kaneda’s shadow and wants to be recognized as an individual. But ultimately, Kaneda knows he has to be there to witness Tetsuo’s death; it’s something he owes him.
Akira is such a powerful experience. There are few films I can watch that give me such a visceral feeling. Over a decade ago, I had dug a little bit into the manga, and this recent rewatch made me want to go back and read the whole thing. The world has so many more details fleshed out in the books, yet the film doesn’t skip a beat. The animation is a technical marvel, and I am continually stunned by how good the lighting is in this film. While I have never been able to say I love anime, I can, without reservations, say I love Akira.