This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Katsuhiro Otomo's watershed feature Akira. Otomo wasn’t first director to depict the potential threat of tampering with human evolution or to set a story in a Blade Runner-influenced dystopia, any more than George Lucas was the first director to film a space opera. But both men took elements from familiar genres and transformed them into something compelling.
Akira is one of two films generally credited creating a mass audience for Japanese animation in America (the other was Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro). And it enjoyed that success, initially on college campuses and in revival houses, despite scratched, badly spliced prints and a terrible English dub that made its convoluted story all but incomprehensible.
Akira takes place in 2019, 31 years after Tokyo was destroyed during World War III. Its replacement, the glittering metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, is built on ruins, physically and morally: beneath its opulent towers lies a gritty under-city of abandoned buildings, barricaded store fronts and graffiti. Cultists, anarchists and petty thugs struggle against the brutal police and military on its mean streets.
Tetsuo, the weakest member of Kaneda’s teen-age biker gang, is captured by the military and used in biomedical experiments. When the mysterious Akira was subjected to similar experiments three decades earlier, he somehow acquired the powers that shattered Tokyo. But Colonel Shikishima mistakenly believes he can control the results. As Tetsuo suffers through grotesque physical and mental metamorphoses, he develops terrible psychic powers: Lashing out against his real and imagined tormentors, he levels much of the city.
As is often the case with anime, the ending of the film feels ambiguous to Western audiences--many questions are left unresolved. But those ambiguities have sustained more than two decades of discussion and debate on line and in person.
Otomo’s brilliant cutting and camerawork in the opening motorcycle chase and fight between Kaneda’s gang and the rival Clowns have been widely praised and often copied. The glittering towers of Neo-Tokyo rise above freeway where the gangs collide, but no matter how far and fast the gangbangers ride, they never get any closer to them. Kaneda and Tetsuo can never hope to reach the opulent heights of the city. Like Wagner's Valhalla, Neo-Tokyo can only be seen by mortals from afar; and like Wagner’s Valhalla, it was built on theft, greed and corruption—and is doomed to fall, even at the height of its splendor. At a time of growing income inequality, Otomo’s vision has only become more relevant and powerful.
The new three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Akira from Funimation is based on the 2001 "special edition", when Pioneer Entertainment reportedly spent more than $1 million restoring the film. They not only removed years of dust, dirt and scratches, but created a new English translation with better vocal performances and a more coherent translation of the script. Funimation re-scanned the film for the Blu-ray, and it looks splendid, although the blacks are little too inky and colors a tad too bright in places.
The new set includes numerous extras. In "capsule mode", a capsule appears in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, which viewers can click for a brief explanation of some detail, the translation of a sign, etc. There’s an interview with Otomo, a piece on restoring the film, a glossary of terms and, most interesting of all, the original storyboards, cut to the film’s soundtrack.
Akira is a landmark in the ongoing dialogue between Japanese animation and American filmmaking. Otomo and Mamoru Oshii drew on Blade Runner for Akira and Ghost in the Shell, which influenced the Matrix movies. The cultural crosspollination continues, and 25 years after its initial release, Akira remains a watershed film in the history of animation.