Cue the Gamelan Music, Maestro, Because the Best Anime Ever Made Is Back in Theaters!
Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s magnum opus, is back in theaters for a 30th anniversary screening at Metrograph in New York.
Still from the 1988 film Akira. Image courtesy of Funimation and Metrograph.
At a certain point in our recent past (think the dawn of the new millennium), you knew something was culturally relevant if it was parodied on South Park (and now we have Twitter). It remains to be seen what is going to last in terms of our memory of this era (heaven knows all the data is being archived regardless) but there’s no question that the past three decades should be known as a time when human expression itself, and all the traditional art forms that it has been channeled into, began to move across cultures and borders with the kind of ease that stood in direct contrast to the strengthening of social and political stances against the movement of us human creatures. Widespread cultural appreciation—and its boorish stepsister, appropriation—rears its head in concert with societies’ backlash against change and integration, and consensus over what’s important or even actually occurring becomes niche subjects for frivolous arguments online.
But there’s an upside! Japanese animation is a perfect example of the leaps and bounds in accessibility and audience building made possible by the speed of circulation enabled by digital technology. Just the past few months have seen a dizzying array of screenings, premieres, and first runs in the US, but particularly in New York theaters, what with the ongoing retrospective of Makoto Shinkai’s films at Metrograph—including the blockbuster Your Name (2016)—Nitehawk Cinema’s annual series “Anime After Dark,” and a Studio Ghibli film attracting hordes of viewers to Prospect Park earlier this summer. This all times perfectly with the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most important, rigorously crafted, and influential films of the genre: Katushiro Otomo’s Akira, released in 1988 and based on the director’s epic manga that he also wrote and drew.
Imagine the artistic credibility of Citizen Kane (1941) and the cinematic spectacle of the original Star Wars trilogy together in one film, and you can start imagining the crater-sized impact of Akira. We’ve known that Kanye, for one, is a rabid fan since the 2007 video for “Stronger,” and he cited the movie as his “biggest creative inspiration” on Twitter yesterday with a photo of Otomo holding a gift of Yeezys.
The film, optimistically enough, places us thirty-one years after World War III, in 2019. A strange, dome-shaped explosion eradicated the old Tokyo in July 1988, which has been rebuilt as Neo-Tokyo, complete with a civic build up to the Olympics, a stadium for which is a key site during the climax of the film version of Akira and throughout the manga’s far more lengthy story arc. Our main characters, definitely not heroes, are Tetsuo and Kaneda—two hooligans who were abandoned as children and grew up together in a group home and who now, in their precious teen years, are the leading lights of a local motorcycle gang. They occasionally attend a vocational school—an institution very enthusiastic about corporal punishment—with their brothers in vehicular motion Kai and Yamagata, but their key concern is clubbing to death their rivals in the Clown gang; they succeed with aplomb in one of the first scenes of the film.
The choreography of the mayhem and bravado from when they first mount their bikes to when the chase ends with Tetsuo’s bike blowing up at the command of a psychic, prematurely aged child, can leave one breathless. Also, please note the intense soundtrack in that scene, and its stunning use of Javanese gamelan and Japanese noh music throughout, as performed by the collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi!
Since that was no common traffic accident though, the military helicopters in with Colonel Shikishima at the command to retrieve both the decrepit-looking kid, who was smuggled out of the government’s custody by a rebel group and is actually one of a trio of state-monitored espers, along with Tetsuo. The Colonel’s colleague, one Doctor Onishi, finds that the young thug has quite a bit of psychic promise though, recognizing a similarity between his potential and the unprecedented power of Akira. Akira, it’s alluded, was a small boy who was under his care and the state’s supervision, along with the aforementioned trio, prior to the mass destruction that Akira’s own esper abilities caused. Having apparently learned nothing at all from that experiment, or perversely desiring a repeat catastrophe like the lawful evil he is, the doctor puts the traumatized and seething with repressed rage Tetsuo on a regimen of medication to bring him out of latency.
The heedless, insane, but maddeningly pure principle of progress and innovation for its own sake is the truly destructive force in Akira, as in reality.
This extremely unfortunate decision leads to all the incredibly animated (hand-drawn) fun for the rest of the film, following Tetsuo as he goes on a rampage against the entire world that has wronged him, psychotically joyful that he now has incredible powers to exact revenge on anyone with—especially his best friend Kaneda, who he’s lived in the shadow of—and even handily disposing of the military’s worse-case scenario weapon, a satellite that aims a laser from space at Tetsuo’s precise location on Earth to try and prevent him from accessing the frozen specimens that remain of Akira’s body beneath the Olympic stadium. In the manga, the boy wonder and Tetsuo team up to head a new Great Tokyo Empire on the dusted remains of Tokyo after it gets annihilated (again!) by Akira’s distress at the murder of one his companion esper children, but in the film’s compressed plot Tetsuo’s powers ostensibly become so great that they quickly start to destroy his body, leading to the infamous scene that South Park was savvy enough to shout out, wherein Tetsuo metastasizes before the Colonel, Kaneda, and his girlfriend Kaori’s eyes into a meaty, slimy, writhing baby of goop.
Meanwhile, as the world rushes towards apocalypse, the good doctor watches a graphic display tracking the pattern of Tetsuo’s psychic strength, delighted at how similar it has become to Akira’s circa the cataclysm that kicked off WWIII. It’s hard not to read the character of Akira, and the final transformation of Tetsuo from fleshy mass to disembodied voice, as a prescient rendering of the Singularity—a contemporary theory best associated with Google founders and the cultish author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil—as well as Japan’s fantastical (and fictional) answer to America’s atom bomb.
The dangerous powers of Tetsuo and his predecessor are incubated and encouraged, for the sake of science, by a presumably highly educated man who encourages and exploits his subjects’ and materials’ potential beyond any ethical restraint. The heedless, insane, but maddeningly pure principle of progress and innovation for its own sake is the truly destructive force in the film, as in reality. In one scene, the Colonel laments that humanity would dare to touch what it can’t control, meaning power like Akira’s or Tetsuo’s, but the sentiment feels believably and frighteningly freighted coming from a film made in one of the few countries to be on the receiving end of atomic energy’s full deployment, and which since 1955 has legally stipulated that such technology should be only used for “peaceful purposes.” The best laid plans of mice and men, though.
Ethics forces us to consider how just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, like developing ultimate weapons or any technology you wouldn’t ever want used against you. To wit: yes we could go to space but—and I hope you’re taking notes my miserable Elon—I think a Pixar film has already addressed the inevitable scenario as to why we would need to. It’s not pretty. To save the planet, cease production, and, to save ourselves, stop abusing the children; you never know if their latent psychic powers might get a helping hand from the state!
Akira begins its 30th anniversary run at Metrograph in Japanese with English subtitles on August 29 and screens through September 6, 2018.