I first saw Akira when I was in college. I’d heard about this animated movie, no one called it anime in those days, that I “just had to see.” Now in the early to mid-1990’s the only animated films widely available were Disney or Disney-esque films like 1981’s The Fox and the Hound or 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven. They were traditional hand-drawn cell animated films with children as their intended audience. Akira was different. It was a “regular” movie aimed at a teen and older audience; it just happened to be an animated movie. With the filmmaking technology available in 1988 when Akira first hit screens in its native Japan, there was no other way to bring such a story to the screen. Animation was the only solution for such a science fiction film as this.
Based on a wildly popular 2000+ page manga, Akira was an eye opener to me. The story only makes partial sense, but that is to be expected with the filmmakers attempting to condense such a massive and detailed source into a single lean 2-hour film. The visuals and the animation are the stars here. Where many anime are cursed with many static shots or poorly animated characters as cost cutting measures, the time and money were spent to great effect here.
The film was deemed unmarketable(in theaters) by both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I can see why. The film has a tremendous backstory which demands the audience has either read the manga or has a great deal of patience to knit together the disparate pieces of information. If the audience gets bored/distracted or just wants the big action film they were expecting, they’re lost.
Akira is a strange and violent film. One character uses his mind to explode a trio of guards. He later mutates and transforms into a huge confusing blob that nearly fills an Olympic stadium. The science fiction elements are engaging: the motorcycles, the orbital laser platform, the laser rifle, and NeoTokyo itself. NeoTokyo of 2019 is a city built upon the ruin of what appears to have been a nuclear blast, riven with motorcycle gangs and drugs, blasted by street protests and controlled by a government with secrets within secrets. But in the end Akira has been influential not because of the plot or characters or because it is a great film. It is influential because of the visuals created by a team of outstanding animators.
There have been talks off and on since the turn of the century about a live action version of Akira, but the high budget needed to produce the CGI elements needed seems to necessitate big-name Hollywood actors…all of whom are white. George Takai has stated, correctly in my opinion, that any casting of white actors will alienate Japanese audiences as well as fans of the original anime. In the meantime check out the trailer for the original Akira below.