No, not that one. This Joker is a criminal who wears clown make up and leads a posse of clown-themed criminals in a crumbling urban dystopia different guy, okay?! It’s a different guy. Joker is one of several characters who have quite large parts in the manga but are reduced to cameos. The Capsules trounce the clowns (although Tetsuo kinda gets his ass handed to him) and but then the cops show up.
Meanwhile, a man bleeding from a gunshot wound staggers through the streets of Neo Tokyo, leading a strange, grey-haired and wrinkled little boy (Takashi). The dude’s being pursued by police dogs who he shoots but then wanders right in between police and anti-government rioters. The dude rather stupidly shoots at the cops, and they shoot back. Trouble is, he has a hand gun and they have like fifty machine guns and before you can say “You ever dance with the Red Rooster in the pale moonlight?” he resembles nothing so much as a fine bolognese (this movie is crazy violent incidentally). All this is being watched by Kei and her boss Ryu, who are terrorists/freedom fighters working to overthrow the corrupt government of New Tokyo. Takashi freaks out and screams, which shatters all the glass in the surrounding buildings, causing it to rain down on the terrified crowd. Kei and Ryu watch in shock as Takashi disappears.
While chasing the last of the clowns, Tetsuo almost crashes into Takashi, who instinctively lashes out with his power, blowing up Tetsuo’s bike. Kaneda and the other Capsules catch up to find Tetsuo lying on the tarmac, badly injured and with Takashi looking on in horror. Suddenly, army helicopters appear overhead and a second aged child named Masaru tells Takashi that there’s nowhere to run. Now, you may have noticed I’m not crediting voice actors as we go, and the reason for that is that there are at least three dubs for this; the original Japanese dub, the first and legendarily awful English dub and the more recent 2001 Pioneer English dub which is much better in terms of sound quality and acting. Since it doesn’t seem fair to credit one voice actor, and I don’t have the energy to credit all three for each character I’m going to forgo name-checking this time except for this one instance. Like I said, the Pioneer dub is definitely superior. But…some of the voices quite frankly just don’t match up to the characters and Masaru is probably the worst offender in that respect . See Bob Bergen gives Masaru a very innocent, child-like voice, which, okay, sure, he is physically a child. But the thing is, he’s a child who looks like Detective Robert Ironside and the voice just doesn’t match the character.
The army swoops in and a tall man with a Mr T haircut (the Colonel) emerges from one of the choppers and sternly regards Takashi before simply saying “We’re going.” The soldiers drag Tetsuo away and when Kaneda protests they punch him in the stomach (again! again!). The helicopter takes off with the Colonel, Masaru, Takashi and the wounded Tetsuo. As Tetsuo lies unconscious in the helicopter, he begins to twitch as they fly over the half completed Olympic stadium which is being built for when Neo-Toky hosts the 2020 Olympiad. Considering how things turn out in the end of this movie, we should probably all be grateful that the 2020 Olympics will actually be held in…
Alright, so the army turns Kaneda and the rest of the Capsules over to the police to see if they had anything to do with the anti-government riots. The police set them loose after it quickly becomes apparent that Kaneda is incapable of anything that sophisticated and is in fact an unusually life-like mannequin being operated by a pair of hamsters.
Kaneda sees Kei waiting to be interrogated and pretends that she was with them so that she can go free. A rare act of decency? Oh you sweet summer child. Kei sees through him, saying “I think you’re a skirt chaser, you’ll help anyone as long as it’s a girl.” Still though, she thanks him and tries to leave and Kaneda quickly drops the nice-guy act yelling “You could at least tell me your name you cold bitch!” and ohhhhhh fuck this piece of shit so hard I am done, I am out, no animation is worth this…
The next time we see Kaneda he’s getting punched right in the face.
The capsules have been brought to the principal’s office of their reform school to be disciplined for the night before, which involves the gym teacher knocking their teeth out while yelling “DISCIPLINE” (huh, I didn’t know the Christian Brothers had schools in Japan). Bruised and bleeding, Kaneda and his crew leave the school are joined by their girlfriends who ask them excitedly about what happened the night before. Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori asks where her boo is but they tell her that they don’t know which hospital he was sent to. Kaneda’s girlfriend asks him a question and he snaps and yells at her to get off his arm and leave him alone and she says “What’s gotten into you?!”
Nothing. Nothing has gotten into him. He’s a PIECE OF SHIT.
In the army’s research facility, Doctor Onishi tells the Colonel that Tetsuo has started exhibiting psychic ability, and that he could prove to be as powerful as “Akira”. Onishi asks the Colonel for permission to begin treatments that will unlock his psychic ability and the Colonel asks if it’s safe. Onishi says that he will do everything to ensure Tetsuo’s safety and the Colonel barks that he’s less worried about Tetsuo and more worried about, y’know, blowing up Tokyo again because that was a little bit of a fiasco, wasn’t it hmmmmmmm?
Meanwhile, security in this super secret army facility turns out to be something of a joke as Tetsuo, a teenage boy recovering from serious injury, is able to escape without apparently any bother and shows up at Kaori’s house. He tells her that he only remembers being on an operating table, and that they were probing his mind.
Tetsuo says he can’t go back there and asks Kaori to run away with him. Running away requires transportation, and without money that requires stealing a ride. But stealing from an innocent person is of course terrible, so Tetsou does the morally correct thing and robs Kaneda’s bike (hey, Kaneda said if he wanted one he should steal one for himself). Tetsuo takes a wrong turn and ends up in Clown territory and nervously asks if that’s a good idea and he tells her to shut up because just to be clear, none of these guys is not an asshole. They get attacked by the clowns and Kaori gets beaten, stripped and almost raped in a really, really hard to watch scene before the Capsules arrive and drive them off. Kaori is in a bad way, so obviously Tetsuo takes care of the important business of beating the shit out of the last clown while she lies slumped unconscious against a wall.
Alright look, if it seems like the movie treats its female characters kind of awfully then…yeah it sorta does. This, incidentally, is one area where the manga is by far the better of the two versions. In the comic, as well as a greatly expanded role for Kei there is a wealth of distinct, layered and interesting female characters including my absolute favorite Chiyoko, who’s so badass she makes Brienne of Tarth look like Princess Peach.
Tetsuo yells at Kaneda that he didn’t need his help, saying “Why do you always have to save me?!” He starts getting a pain in his head and sees visions of a strange boyd and hears a single word: “Akira”. He then starts hallucinating that the ground is shattering beneath him and that his guts are bursting out of his body. Otomo stages this scene in a very interesting way, cutting out all sound and music except for Tetsuo’s laboured breathing. This emphasises the hallucinatory nature of the images, they make no noise because they’re not real, while the lack of sound also forces us to focus on those images, increasing their intensity.
The army arrives and scoop Tetsuo up and…yeah, we’re pretty much right back where we started.
Later that night the Capsules are hanging around the city centre when a bomb goes off and Kaneda sees Kei and Ryu fleeing the site of the explosion. Kaneda chases after her because what’s sexier than terrorism, amirite? Some cops almost shoot her but Kaneda intervenes and she ends up killing one of them to save him, and Kei is clearly horrified by what she’s done. The two run off into the night before more police can arrive.
Meanwhile, Tetsuo lies in a hospital bed dreaming of playing with Kaneda in a playground which then gets annihilated by a massive white explosion (and anybody not wearing 2 million sunblock had a real bad day. Got it?) He wakes up screaming Kaneda’s name, (something he only does every three minutes or so) and gets another pain in his head, which cause the light overhead to shatter.
The Colonel visits a nursery where a third psychic child, a wizened little girl named Kiyoko, is lying in a bed. Kiyoko tells him that the city is going to be destroyed, million of people will die and can she please have a glass of water? She warns the Colonel not to let Tetsuo go, which is a big ask because as we’ve seen, the Colonel kind of sucks at his job.
Alright, for the sake of clarity I’m just going to spell out what happened here. Kiyoko, Masaru, Takashi and a few dozen other children were part of a government project to awaken their psychic potential through the use of powerful drugs that stunted their growth whilst also accelerating their ageing. One of the children, Akira, tapped into a “greater power” (subtly hinted to be God or at least the force that created the universe) and ended up destroying Tokyo and triggering World War 3. Akira was then buried deep underground under the uncompleted Olympic stadium. Doctor Onishi and the Colonel pay a visit to Akira’s chamber where he’s kept frozen at near absolute zero. The Colonel snarls: “Look at what they abandoned in their panic, they were afraid! They were too scared, so they hid it away from the public. They forgot all shame and honor, cast off the civilization and science we had created, and shut the lid of the Pandora’s Box they themselves had opened.”
Um, Colonel? Aren’t you supposed to close a Pandora’s box? Seems like the smart thing to do.
Meanwhile, Kei and Kaneda arrive at a rebel safehouse. Kei is looking for Ryu while Kaneda is trying to convince her to turn herself in, saying “when you get out we can go for drinks.” and I’m starting to think we all owe Hitler an apology because clearly Kaneda is the worst human being ever. The other rebels arrive and pull their guns on Kaneda demanding that he identify himself (look, just shoot him, you guys can’t the risk, think of the revolution!) and Kaneda says “Well, I guess if I said I was Kei’s boyfriend that would be stretching the truth a little.”
The rebels discuss their plan to infiltrate the lab and get information on Tetsuo, the newest subject of the government’s research and when Kaneda lets slip that he knows him they decide to bring him along. Later, Ryu discusses the coming operation with Mr Nezu, his patron, the leader of the opposition party who is secretly supporting Ryu’s terror campaign for his own political ends. Nezu says that the city is like a rotten fruit, ready for revolution and points to a religious procession in the streets led by…oh what the close up mouth whore fuck?!
Alright, so I should probably explain why this is kind of messed up. In the manga, Lady Miyako is another of the psychic children who escaped the lab after the Akira event and used her powers to establish a kind of church in Neo Tokyo. She’s a really interesting character, who leads the various factions united against Tetsuo. Here, however, she’s reduced to two tiny scenes where she’s a religious fanatic who worships Akira (and Tetsuo who she believes IS Akira) and as a final indignity, the American dubbers apparently thought she was supposed to be a dude and gave her a male voice actor. Grrrrrrrrrr…
Tetsuo wakes up to find himself still in the military hospital with no one for company but Teddy-Sees-All, the bear who sees into your soul (on sale now!).
I haven’t actually mentioned the score yet which is odd because it’s my straight up favorite movie score of all time. The music for Akira by the Japanese musical collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a weird, trancendental thing that gets into your brain and starts pushing old, dusty buttons. It at once sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard and the oldest most familiar sound on Earth. It’s fuckin’ primal, man. It’s also amazing in that it was composed before any of the musicians had seen so much as a cel of the animation and was edited afterwards to fit the action of the movie. The music for this scene is called Doll’s Polyphony, give it a listen.
Tetsuo throws the bear away and tries to sleep. And then things get weeeeird….
Alright, so what I think happens here is that Masaru, Takashi and Kiyoko are psychically impersonating the teddy bear, toy rabbit and toy car to…kill (?) Tetsuo because they know (?) he’s going to try to awaken Akira (?) which will destroy Neo-Tokyo. Maybe. Perhaps. It’s not exactly crystal clear. Anyway, they succeed in scaring Tetsuo out of his gourd but he stumbles on broken glass, cutting his foot. The sight of blood scares the three kids and they run off. This is another thing I don’t get. The three esper children are still kids because the drugs they’ve been taking to control their abilities have stunted their growth, fine. That I understand. But these three were brought into the programme at the same time as Akira, which means they should be in their late thirties or early forties by now. So why are they still scared of blood like regular children? I dunno, maybe it’s because they’ve been treated like children all their lives so they were never able to develop the emotional maturity that people their age would normally have.
Tetsuo is now starting to properly level up as he psychically busts out of his room and smushes the orderlies that come to restrain him. Down on ground level, Kei and Kaneda have infiltrated the facility with the other rebels and overhear over the guards’ radio that Tetsuo is headed to the children’s nursery to pay them back for their little visit earlier. The soldiers throw everything at him, tear gas, bullets but nothing works.
Tetsuo arrives in the nursery and the three espers try to fight him but he’s already far too powerful for them. He knocks Kiyoko around which is seriously uncool because she’s a little kid and an old lady. Kaneda and Kei arrive and Kaneda tells Tetsuo that they’ve come to rescue him. Tetsuo gives a laugh that conveniently lets everyone know that he is now receiving his orders direct from the mothership and tells Kaneda that he doesn’t need saving any more and lashes out at him. Tetsuo reads Kiyoko’s mind and learns who Akira is and where he’s buried and decides to awaken him because…I dunno. For a larf.
Tetsuo then teleports himself out of the building and finds himself plummeting towards the earth.
But then he discovers he can fly because the dude is basically developing new powers faster than Superman in the fifties and flies off cackling madly.
The Colonel arrives and sees the devastation. Kiyoko tells him that Tetsuo is going to try and awaken Akira and the Colonel rallies the troops to stop him. The Colonel is waylaid by cops sent by the government who tell him that he’s been stripped of his rank and that they’re there to arrest his incompetent ass. The Colonel orders his men to shoot the dude and when the other cops try to open fire he barks at them “Enough! Open up your eyes and look at the big picture; You’re all puppets of corrupt politicians and capitalists. Don’t you understand, it’s utterly pointless to fight each other.” They apparently never really liked that guy, because this little bit of student union rhetoric is enough to get them to switch sides. The Colonel then orders the executive council arrested, initiating a military coup against the democratically elected government of Neo-Tokyo. And I’m just placing my bets here now; this will end terrifically. I cannot think of a single historical instance where this kind of thing did not end in the mutual satisfaction of all affected parties. Relax Neo-Tokyo. It’s all gravy from here on in.
Meanwhile, Kei and Kaneda have been locked up and Kaneda asks her just what the heck Akira actually is. Kei gives the longest, airiest, most pseudo-scientific spiel you will find outside of a homeopathy forum but it basically boils down to this (and hands in the air, I only actually understand this now because someone on TV Tropes explained it in plain English). By creating Akira, the military essentially did the equivalent of giving an amoeba the power and abilities of a human being, Akira is that far above the rest of humanity in terms of potency. They kicked him several billion years down the evolutionary ladder but without all the safeguards that would naturally evolve to help control that power. You have strength, but also intelligence to know when and where to use that strength. However, as Kei says “amoeba don’t build motorcycles, they just consume.” So…Tetsuo is just going to get really, really fat.
Suddenly the door unlocks and Kei and Kaneda escape, unaware that they’re actually being helped by the three Espers who’ve decided to use Kei because she’s a perfect psychic medium (I know this because I’ve read the manga, they never mention it in the film). And this right here is why I am a little dubious about the success of the Colonel’s coup. The dude literally has one job, to stop people escaping from his super secret facility, and there are maybe ten minutes in this thing where someone is not escaped or in the process of escaping from his custody. At this point I’m starting to think he got his job based on who had the best haircut.
Tetsuo starts on a rampage through Neo-Tokyo, and the army are powerless to stop him. A tank fires a shell at him and Tetsuo just uses his powers to freeze it in mid-air and wait just a damn minute here!
Nah, just foolin’. The Wachowski’s have always been upfront about the influence that Akira had on The Matrix, to the point that the one might not even exist without the other.
Tetsuo fights his way through the army to Akira’s cryo chamber deep under ground only to be ambushed by Kei, who’s now been possessed by all three children and has their powers combined. She and Tetsuo psychically bitch slap each other around and the massive cryo-chamber gets dragged to the surface. So tell us Colonel, just how terrified should we be right now?
Kei and Tetsuo battle and there’s a massive explosion that casts Kei away and shatters the cryo-chamber, finally revealing Akira.
The Colonel tells Tetsuo that these cannisters are all that’s left of Akira, preserving his organs and brain tissue. Because Akira has been dead for thirty years.
If you read the manga first, this is a pretty jaw-dropping twist. Believe it or not, in the comic called “Akira”, Akira is actually a character and plays a fairly substantial role in proceedings.
Alright so Kaneda arrives and steals a laser rifle that’s been dropped by one of the soldiers. Kaneda taunts Tetsuo, saying he expected to find him sobbing like a little baby and Jesus Kaneda, what’s your next bright idea? Telling Godzilla he’s got a tiny dick?
Tetsuo says “You’ve always been a pain in the ass, you know?” proving that he has indeed ascended to a new plane of understanding of the basic truths of the universe. Tetsuo chews out Kaneda for always bossing him around and Kaneda says “So you’re a boss too? Of this pile of rubble?!”
Tetsuo yells “KANEDA!” and Kaneda yells “That’s MISTER Kaneda to you!”
They scream each others’ names at each other for about five minutes and then are interrupted when the Colonel orders SOL, a special military satellite, to open fire with its lazer beam. It shears Tetsuo’s arm clean off and he flies up into space and starts messing with the satellite’s aiming mechanism so that it thinks that it’s Neo-Tokyo season and not Tetsuo season. After using the satellite to rain down destruction on Neo-Tokyo, he smashes SOL and uses the wreckage to create a new arm. He then retreats to the Olympic stadium with the vials of Akira’s tissue. Kaori, who’s seen news reports of Tetsuo’s rampage, goes to the stadium to talk to him because despite knowing that he’s there, the Colonel hasn’t thrown up a security cordon around the stadium and my GOD this guy is awful at his job. Case in point, the Colonel just shows up at the arena alone with only a handgun to take on the guy that an entire army, three incredibly powerful psychics, a trillion dollar military space-death ray and the infinite power of Kaneda’s assholery couldn’t destroy.
By now, Tetsuo’s power has grown to the point where his body physically can’t contain it and he begins to warp and mutate. Kaneda and the three espers arrive at the stadium to stop Tetsuo once and for all and the movie’s most infamous scene begins.
Tetsuo’s transformation is one of those scenes where you’ve probably heard about it or seen a parody of it even if you’ve never seen the movie, like the chestburster scene in Alien. And like that scene, the fact that it’s so famous kind of leaves you unprepared for just how horrific it really is. Tetsuo bloats into a massive, unspeakably vile mound of flesh and tendrils and pulsating tumours.
Seriously though, screencaps don’t do it justice. The animation here is so gorgeously awful, with every inch of Tetsuo’s mutated body squirming and writhing. In probably the most horrific moment in the entire film, Kaori and Kaneda are absorbed into Tetsuo. Tetsuo desperately begs Kaneda to save Kaori because he can feel her dying in his mind as he crushes the life out of her. The death is shown as Kaori trapped in an increasingly tiny space in Tetsuo’s body before she bursts and the pocket instantly fills with blood. It’s honestly some of the most graphic and terrifying body horror I have ever seen which of course brings me neatly to the subject of puberty. This, of course, is what Akira is actually about; the rage and horror and frustration of a young man coming of age. Tetsuo is treated like a child, constantly being oppressed by authority figures all his life, the foster system, teachers, police, the army and even his best friend. Then suddenly he comes into a great power he can’t understand or use wisely and his body is wracked with terrible changes that he can’t control and he ends up hurting a girl that he loves. It ain’t exactly subtle.
While all this is going on, the three espers sit around the cannisters holding Akira’s remains and his…spirit? Ghost? Appears to them. This creates a massive orb of light like the one that destroyed Tokyo in the first scene and it starts to spread. Kiyoko teleports the Colonel to safety outside the city limits but Tetsuo’s massive gelatinous form gets drawn into the white light. Tetsuo pleads with Kaneda to help him and Kaneda runs to somehow pull the 70 ton mutant to safety with his bare hands. Takashi even tries to bar his way, telling him not to go near it but he roughly pushes him out of the way. And then Kaneda gets enveloped by Tetsuo again and dragged into the white light. Because he’s an idiot. Takashi wants to go after him and Masaru says that if he goes he’ll be trapped in the light with them. But Takashi says “But none of this is his fault at all!”
Takashi goes into the light, and Masaru tells Kiyoko that if they went in after him they wouldn’t be strong enough to come back out. But Kiyoko says that the three of them working together might be able to save Kaneda, and if that’s not a cause worth dying for…then it’s not a cause worth dying for.