Akira (1988)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
When it received a limited release in US theatres in 1988, Akira was by no means the first exposure Americans had had to Japanese animation. Animé had a small but continuos presence on American television screens since at least Astro Boy in the early sixties. But it’s undoubtedly true that no one in the West had ever seen anything like this movie before. Shows like Astro Boy, Battle of the Planets and Kimba the White Lion were exported to the West because they were children’s shows, and they fit into Western perceptions of animation as being entertainment for the man cubs. Darker, more mature animé for adult audiences simply did not have a market outside of Japan, and in fact even Akira only received a limited release after Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas passed on it, considering it “unmarketable” to American audiences.  While there had been a fandom for Japanese animation in the States since at least the seventies, Akira was a seismic event, massively swelling the ranks of fans in the US and other Western nations and hugely increasing the genre’s visibility in mainstream pop culture. Why? Well, the animation for starters. Over a quarter of a century later and it’s still one of the greatest technical achievements in cel-animation ever drawn. It’s jaw-dropping. When fans of animé want to induct new members into the church, Akira is more often than not the movie they reach for. Now, I know I’ve already reviewed one animé movie on this blog before, but honestly Studio Ghibli are very much their own little sub-genre with very distinctive tropes and styles that don’t really hold true for the rest of animé. Akira is much closer to what people picture when they hear the word “animé”, which is not surprising given how big a role it played in shaping the genre. With that in mind, and since this is a blog usually devoted to Western animation, now is probably a good place to talk about animé in general and address some of the more common questions.
“Manga”, “Animé”, what’s the diff?
Short version: Manga is comics, Animé is animation. The two industries are much more closely linked than in the West. Many comicbook writers work in animation and vice versa, and the director of Akira was no exception, the movie actually being Katsuhiro Otomo’s adapation of his own manga series.
Why does everyone in animé look white and how guilty should I feel about it?
All animé owes a debt to the work of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy. Tezuka’s was hugely influenced by Western animators like the Fleischer Brothers and of course Walt Disney.
"Did you really think you could escape me?"

“Did you really think you could escape me?”

The big round eyes of so many animé characters are not  as a result of some kind of ethnic inferiority complex, but because they’re drawn in a style influenced by Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse. Also, everyone has different colour hair just because it’s more interesting visually. Not all animé comforms to this however. A lot of more naturalistic animé will have characters that are more recognisably Asian (Akira for example).
So much of animé seems obsessed with huge explosions and the end of the world. What’s up with that?
Oh wow. I can’t imagine why that would be. Let’s just sit here for seven days and nights and see if we can crack this inscrutable conundrum.
Animé seems to be so full of sex and violence. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Also, the Japanese are clearly all perverts.
Thought experiment. If you sat an alien down and screened for him all the movies made in America in any given year, their first question would be “why do most of these have close up shots of dicks going into various orifices?”  See, a huge percentage of films made in North America are hardcore porn because it’s cheap as chips to make and very lucrative. But when we think of “American cinema”, My Ass is Haunted is not usually part of the conversation. We compartmentalise porn and regular cinema, while filing Japanese hentai simply under “animé”. Japan’s porn tends to be animated, but other that there’s no real difference. The Japanese are no more “weird” or “sick” than we are.
Um…tentacles?
Yeah, okay, that shit’s pretty weird and sick.
What’s good against steel-type Pokémon?
I don’t know. No one does. And anyone in the comments who says they do is a liar.
That’s the basics. Keep in mind though, I’m just a casual fan, not an animé expert by any stretch of the imagination. If you do want to go deeper down the anime rabbit hole allow me to recommend Anime Reporter. Oh, and while I usually don’t put up spoiler warnings (it’s a blog where I recap the entire plots of movies in detail what do you think is going to happen?) I should mention I’ll also be discussing plot points from the manga as well, so fair warning.

***
Katsuhiro Otomo began work on the comic Akira in 1982, and only finished it eight years and 2000 pages of meticulously detailed artwork later. The comic took so long to complete that the movie version of Akira was actually begun, animated and completed before the comic had wrapped up (yeah, and you thought League of Volunteers was dragging its ass).  The comic is a much grander affair, with tons more characters and subplots in the movie and taking place over many months. It’s also, if I’m honest, the stronger of the two versions of the story and as we go on  I’ll be comparing the movie and the animé to see where they differ. And yes, I have actually read all six volumes of Akira in preparation of this review, even though I refused to read Hunchback of Notre Dame before that review. What can I say? Hunchback of Notre Dame may be a classic of world literature, but Akira has boobs and Tokyo getting blown up three times. Can you honestly tell me I made the wrong choice?
Alright, so the movie begins with a panorama view of Tokyo in 1988. There is a flash of light in the distance and a massive ball of white hot energy destroys the entire city.
akira-08-080-081
Well. That was a short movie.
NEXT TIME: Join the Unshaved Mouse as he straightens out Tangled
No, no, I kid. We fast forward 30 years where Japanese Public Works have done a pretty amazing job of rebuilding the city, which is now called “Neo-Tokyo”. Otomo is famous for amazingly precise, incredibly detailed architectural renderings.
Otomo

I mean, look at this.

Normally when you’re translating a comic book into animation you have to simplify the designs to make it flow more easily. Otherwise you’re just forced to do an absolutely insane amount of work to keep the models consistent from one frame to the next. Otomo is the kind of guy who always considers “insane amount of work” to be “Option A”. Coupled with the amazingly detailed backgrounds, most of the movie takes place at night which means a ton more paint is required for shading and different gradations of colouring. This is why Akira cost a cool billion yen to make. Which is around $10 Million in eighties dollars. Or. Y’know, a sixth of the cost of Foodfight.
And every yen is up onscreen.

And every yen is up onscreen.

Alright, so we’re introduced to two of our main characters, Shotaru Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima. Kaneda is the leader of a bike gang called “The Capsules” (cool name, bro) and as the movie begins he’s told by his lieutenant Yamagata that another gang called The Clowns are moving into their territory and that it’s time to rumble. They go outside where Tetsuo is trying out Kaneda’s bike and Kaneda tells him that he couldn’t handle it and that if he wants one he should steal his own. In the Princess Mononoke review I mentioned how amazing it was that Miyazaki managed to make a compelling story centred around such a morally flawless character as Ashitaka. Otomo manages the opposite. He manages to make a great movie despite the fact that his main character has literally no redeeming characteristics at all. Seriously, Kaneda is just the worst. He’s a violent, loud mouthed, arrogant, stupid, obnoxious a-hole and the only good thing I can say about him in this movie is that in the comic he is SO MUCH WORSE. Seriously. Look at this scene from the comic with him and the assistant nurse at his reform school who he’s been banging just so she’ll supply him and his buddies with free drugs.
Kaneda
Oh, and there’s also the scene where he almost rapes Kei, the comic’s absolutely badass female protagonist. In short, Kaneda is a…how did Kei put it?
No, but it is a four letter work ending in "K".

No, but it is a four letter work ending in “K”.

Okay, so The Capsules chase the Clowns through the streets of Neo-Tokyo. The Clowns are led by Joker.

Just one of his many aliases.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.

Cheese it

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.

"Im going to crack this case wide open. After nap time."

“I’m going to crack this case wide open. After nap time.”

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…

Oh for fu...does NO ONE on the Olympic committee watch anime?!

Oh for fu…does NO ONE on the Olympic committee watch anime?!

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.

And those hamsters are assholes.

And those hamsters are assholes.

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.

"Oh movie. I can't stay mad at you."

“Oh movie. I can’t stay mad at you.”

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.

Ancient-Aliens

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.

Yeesh.

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.

Chiyoko

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.

Thanks...for that...

Thanks…for that…

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.”

SHOOT HIM NOW! SHOOT HIM NOW!

“SHOOT HIM NOW!
SHOOT HIM NOW!”

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?!

LADY MIYAKO?!

LADY MIYAKO?!

 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!).

Bear

He knows.

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….

Oh crap

Oh crap1Oh crap2Scary car

Nightmare fuel

Goat

Ham! Ham! Ham!

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.

Cos that that that that dont kill him, can only make him stronger.

Cos that that that that don’t kill him, can only make him stronger.

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.

LAZY BASTARD KOOKABURRAS!

LAZY BASTARD KOOKABURRAS!

 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.

How long before he develops the power to create rainbow hula hoops that turn people into glass?! HOW LONG?!

How long before he develops the power to create rainbow hula hoops that turn people into glass?! HOW LONG?!

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.

I think.

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!

Oh my God. Andy and Lana Wachowski, you whores!

Oh my God. Andy and Lana Wachowski, you whores!

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.

Thats right, Empire. Akira is important because it led to the creation of an American science fiction movie. Go fuck yourselves.

That’s right, Empire. Akira is important because it led to the creation of an American science fiction movie. Go fuck yourselves.

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?

Oh.

Oh.

Kei and Tetsuo battle and there’s a massive explosion that casts Kei away and shatters the cryo-chamber, finally revealing Akira.

Huh. I thought hed be .

Huh. I thought he’d be taller.

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.

New spittake

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.

And by "fairly substantial" I mean "orders Tetsuo to blow up the friggin moon."

And by “fairly substantial” I mean “orders Tetsuo to blow up the friggin’ moon.”

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 call me MISTER PIG!!!"

“They call me MISTER PIG!!!”

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.

Pity the fool.

Pity the fool.

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.

He got really, really fat. Called it.

He got really, really fat.
Called it.

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!”

An innocent victim of his own idiocy.

An innocent victim of his own idiocy.

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.

Alright well, they follow him in and while Neo Tokyo is slowly devoured by the ball of energy, Kaneda sees Tetsuo’s memories and the memories of the three esper and even Akira himself. Outside, Kei watches the destruction and calls out for Kaneda. He hears her and then Kiyoko tells him that Akira is going to take Tetsuo “away”.
The ball of energy dissipates, having only half-destroyed Neo-Tokyo (progress!) and Kei finds Kaneda on the shoreline of the crater caused by the explosion that’s now been filled by the ocean. He tells her that he heard her calling for him in his mind (indicating that Kei is starting to develop psychic powers so who, knows, maybe they’ll be doing this all over again in a few weeks). They drive away on Kaneda’s bike into the wrecked stillness of the city, and far, far away a new universe bursts into blinding light and we hear three whispered words:
“I…am…Tetsuo…”

 ***

The difference between a good movie and a “Great Movie” is that a Great Movie is such a seismic event, so utterly unlike what has come before that it doesn’t really matter if the movie has huge gaping flaws. A good movie has to have good or at least competent writing, direction, acting and so on and if it doesn’t, well then it’s not a good movie. A Great Movie, though, can still be great even if it’s missing one or even all of those things. Think of some of the great movies of the past hundred years. Were they perfect? Hell no! In fact, some of them had really serious fundamental problems:
The writer cannot write dialogue.

The writer cannot write dialogue.

The story makes no sense.

The story makes no sense.

The lead actor is doing a very, very, silly voice.

The lead actor is doing a very, very, silly voice.

A tad racist.

A tad racist.

Fatally lacking in both tits and explosions.

Fatally lacking in both tits and explosions.

And yet, these are still Great Movies. Seminal. Genre redefining. Akira is a truly great movie, even if at times in some key areas it’s not always a good one. Character motivations are often nonsensical, the lead’s an ass, the story doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense and all of this is entirely beside the point because this is just an amazing, breathtaking, jaw-dropping piece of cinema. Strongly recommended.
Scoring
Animation: 20/20
Like nothing that had ever come before, and very rarely equalled since.
Leads: 12/20
Kei is awesome. Kaneda is awful. It’s a wash.
Villain: 13/20
Tetsuo suffers in the translation from page to screen, going from a terrifying and layered villain to more of a whiny brat with a god complex.
Supporting Characters: 13/20
Again, a lot of awesome characters from the manga didn’t survive the journey over. Character arcs are compressed and by and large the supporting characters are pretty flat and one-dimensional compared to their manga counterparts.
Music: 20/20
This is, no lie, probably my favorite movie score of all time.
FINAL SCORE: 78%
NEXT REVIEW: 14 August 2014.  Join Mouse as he reviews Tangled, a snarky, pop-culture referencing laugh fest about a girl with hair that she can control like Doctor Octopus all set to “Trouble” by Pink…what? That’s not what the movie’s about? You mean…Disney’s marketing LIED TO ME?!?!
Neil Sharpson aka The Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer living in Dublin. The blog updates with a new animated movie review every second Thursday. He’s also serialising his novel The Hangman’s Daughter with a new chapter Saturday. This review was made possible by the kind donation of my erstwhile housemate and American brother from another mother Andy Russell. Cheers dude.

35 comments

  1. Like you said, Tetsuo’s transformation scene left the biggest impact on me. In fact, now I use Akira as shorthand for “gross-ass body horror transformation.” Since I saw this movie, I’ve noticed a lot of movies, games and shows have Akira-ass crap.

    All that aside, I like the movie. I didn’t understand some parts of it, but that can probably be fixed by watching it again. Also, me being sick when I first saw it might have had something to do with that.

  2. Good review, Mouse.

    Got a question for you that also concerns movies. A lot of times throughout your blog I hear people saying things like “Oh, this movie is too safe. It needs to take more risks” on one movie then say “The movie is doing too much. Less is more. Just focus on telling a good story, even if it’s one that’s been done before”. My question to you is: What kind of movie do you prefer? Let me elaborate.

    There are two films: film A and film B. Film A is, on a technical level, a good film. It has a good story, good characters, good music that flows well, etc. But at the same time, it does feel safe. Like it’s not trying to go out of the box and try something new.

    On the other hand, film B is far more ambitious than film A. It takes risks and chances. But the execution of it (story, characters, etc) fails.

    You don’t have to use use these examples, but say that film A is Beauty and the Beast and film B is Atlantis (In this match-up, I think I know which you’d choose).

    So which do you prefer? Do you prefer the film that, while it has its faults, is more ambitious than the other and you can appreciate it more? Or do you prefer the film that, while it might feel a little “safe” or “buttoned up” and “white”, as I have heard in the past, does it job well enough to keep your attention?

    So in short, if you had to pick ONE type of movie overall, do you prefer the safe success? Or the ambitious failure? And why?

    The reason I ask this is because I have heard people say “No good characters or story=bad movie” then turn right around and say “Even though this movie doesn’t have a strong story or characters, it does takes risks and I can appreciate and respect that” (not all the time though). It has just made me curious, is all.

    If anyone else wants to answer, feel free.

    1. I would choose type B based on my favorite movies. An American Tail, Land Before Time, Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Toy Story, and Pinochio, and Ratatouille would be Bs. The only favorite of mine in A would be Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Bs are what change me as a person and really affect me. That really makes me enjoy the movie and I choose the ambitious one. My least favorite would be films that think they are being ambitious (Cloudy and 2), but are not ambitious at all.

    2. B, B, B always B. I mean okay, there are a few A movies that I really love (Mask of Zorro springs to mind which is just a really well made little movie) but in general I’ll take “fascinatingly flawed” over “blandly perfect” in terms of people as well as movies.

      1. So, if the movie has no flaws, then it becomes “too good”? You must have flaws to make a good film otherwise it’s “not relate-able” or interesting?

        Interesting.

      2. I suppose I have seen movies that seemed a little too polished for me to really enjoy. But honestly I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie with no flaws. It’s like pushing down a bubble under wallpaper, you work too hard addressing one flaw, you create another.

    3. I go against the grid and say A. Ideally someone manages to do both, but if I have to pick, I take a good movie over a pretentious one. Because a good movie, I can enjoy from start to finish, while with one which is mostly based on style, I always find it frustrating that the creator focussed so much on his vision that he forgot the most basic aspects of writing. And in the end, I think even with an animated movie story and characters are everything. Stunning animation can make up for a lot, but not for everything imho.

      Thus said: I usually take an ambitious movie which failed over a bland one. But above both of them is always the good movie…and above the good movie is always the outstanding one, the few in which ambition lead to success.

    4. Depending on how many responses there are, I might post this same question on the Tangled review. It seems to me that more people read the Disney reviews than the non-Disney reviews. I’m just curious to see what other people’s responses are. Great view-points though, guys!

      1. I think you are right. I think this is why-
        The Disney movies are more famous and have been seen more. It is easier to enjoy the reviews if you know the movie and can compare and contrast your opinion with the commentors and mouse.

    5. I find myself sort of in the latter, though I do kind of lean more towards type B films than type A films, a film that takes risks in its direction, characters, and style is likely to get my full attention, though there are type A films that I really like and enjoy and at times, some films end up being both, namely what comes to mind as type AB films for me is the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
      Type B don’t always work for me, namely the transformers films which are sort of both A and B films in the fact they’re both safe and ambitious, but the ambitions are sorely lacking and it’s obvious the people making those films generally only care about putting soulless action and nothing else on screen and making loads of cash at the box office. For me, I think ambition only works if there is EFFORT put into it.

    6. Btw, I wouldn’t consider Beauty and the Beast a type A movie…the movie is pretty revolutionary in it’s use of the Cap system and the camerawork. It might be based on a proven concept, but it also overhauls said concept.

      1. I wasn’t necessarily talking about cinematography or anything like the CAPS system or camerawork. I was talking mostly about story, characters, writing, music, etc. If you go back and read Mouse’s review of Beauty and the Beast, you’ll find that he, as well as a lot of other commentators, feel that BatB is a type A movie, describing it as “white”, “buttoned up” and “safe”, to name a few. I personally like the movie (second favorite Disney movie, by the way), but I think I can see why people would classify it as a type A movie.

  3. I fully recognize this as a hugely important and influential film, but it’s not one I enjoy very much. It’s just so unpleasant to sit through a large portion of the time. Mostly a matter of personal preference I guess. I’m glad I saw it and I would recommend it to any fan of anime but I don’t really know if I’d ever care to watch it again because it was just not a fun viewing.

  4. I am sometimes not sure if Akira helps or hinders the notion that one can do Anime movies for adults. I mean, yes it is gory (beautifully animated, but gory), and it tries to be philosophical (even if the logic doesn’t really make much sense to me) but I am not sure if it is particularly mature. It is for me the other extreme of the spectrum…I don’t particularly enjoy gory live-action movies either, unless I have the feeling that there is a point to the gore. I am not sure if that’s the case with Akira. The movie seems to be more about stylization than anything else.

    Bottom line: It is one of those movies I respect but don’t like. Neither is it what I would pick to introduce someone to animes (and mangas for that matter). But then, I don’t think that there is THE movie which represents Animes. It just represents this one particular genre of anime. I have no idea why post apocalyptic stories with a lot of destruction are so popular (aside from them offering an opportunity to draw weird images), though I guess it might have something to do with Hiroshima.

    Either way, great review. Most reviews I have read about the movie gush about the animation and the score, but only a few bother to point out why this one is certainly not for everyone.

  5. I love this movie. One can even see that it shaped the way anime looked in the 90s, at least the first half of the 90s. For instance, look at YuYu Hakusho, Gundam Wing and Ghost in the Shell and you’ll notice they have artistic similarities to Akira. However, I have to say that as much as I like this movie, I don’t see why it is held to be so influential. Probably because its tropes have become so standard that the Seinfeld is Unfunny effect occurs since by now people will have seen similar things in Evangelion, Dragon Ball and Gundam Wing.

  6. Oh god, I’ve been pronouncing ‘Kaneda’ as ‘Canada’ in my head this whole time.

    I am so glad you mentioned Kaneda’s incredible dickishness. I haven’t seen the film but when I read the first volume of the manga, that was exactly what made me not want to continue. I thought there was some redeeming quality I was missing. I do generally prefer boys’ manga and anime to seinen, though, so maybe it’s just that the overall darkness of it that wasn’t my thing. Is the rest of the story worth putting up with him?

      1. Well, let me see… it takes place after the annihilation of Tokyo, which would be safely classified as a catastrophe, which ties in with my eco/apocalyptic literature unit…
        Why, it’s practically recommended reading! To the Rowden Library!

  7. *sighs*

    First time I saw an anime movie was Ghost in the Shell, and particularly loved the Major as she tried to figure out if she was a real person, or was just a glorified shell allowed to believe it was human. I still got the “Urban Montage” song on my mp3 player and I remember her seeing the woman in the store that looked exactly like her, thus adding to her quagmire. Never having been a fan of comics, I never did get if she decided she was just a machine, or if she really was a “ghost in the shell.”

    *steals the Mouse’s soapbox*

    But back to Akira. There are some things I have a harder time to understand. Why some people seem to think rape is funny or humorous? It isn’t. It is the most degrading, irredeemable quality of humanity that should be an instant killing to commit. Sorry, it’s just my way of thinking, but I can’t abide a character that thinks she’s asking for it just because she’s dressed in beautiful clothes, or lands with her legs askew.

    SHE”S NOT!

    Guys, if a girl is dressed in beautiful clothes, especially your girlfriend, she’s doing it to look beautiful for you, nothing more! Beauty is hell. It takes hours to get ourselves looking that good, but there’s no ulterior motive behind it. Trust me, if we wanted a romp in the bedroom, we wouldn’t waste our time with makeup, just start dragging you that way and you’d get the idea pretty fast what was in store then you’d be dragging us.

    Sorry for yelling, but that’s my thoughts on it.

    Here’s your soapbox back, Mouse.

    1. Yes, yes, yes.
      The only thing I’ll add to that is that dressing in a certain way isn’t necessarily about trying to please anyone. Sometimes it’s for yourself. Sometimes you want to go out looking nice and feeling good about yourself. It’s hard to do that if you show up to a girls’ night out looking like a) a nun or b) a slob.

  8. Coming out from my lurkdome to say that I thought Winnie the Pooh was next in the canon, but I might be mistaken. I’ve been reading since around when you put up the Tarzan review (found the link on imdb’s page for Cinderella, thanks to Daniel), and this blog has been my favorite thing ever since. I know you must be so sick of people coming out the shadows to gush, amirite? Disgusting pests, the lot of us. 😉

  9. Actually, the Steel type has three weaknesses that are easily aquired. Also, they are lousy at Inverse battles :p
    I haven’t watched this movie yet since I’m not really comfortable with intense blood and gore, unfortunately.

  10. By the way, Lacey is now going by “Cinder-L-a”, just so everyone can see the continuity between my two previous comments.

  11. akira的确是一部不错的动漫,但是我却不怎么喜欢它,因为它的画面太过暴力。如果收视人群都是成人,这当然不算什么,但如果是未成年人,那就太糟糕了。

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