“Akira” holds a special place in the hearts of many, and for good reason. If you’re Japanese, “Akira” represents a moment in time where Japanese animation could for the first time slug with the likes of Disney both in terms of global impact and quality of animation, with the budget of the film translating into roughly $20 million in today’s money thanks to a mega-collaboration between Kodansha, Mainichi Broadcasting System, Bandai, Hakuhodo, Toho, Laserdisc Corporation and Sumitomo Corporation. If you’re from the west, whether you know it or not, “Akira” was the trailblazer that opened the door to worldwide distribution that allowed a world of anime to reach you, from “Dragon Ball Z” to “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.”
And if that’s not enough, “Akira” is a masterpiece in of itself. It tells a unique story of a world desperately trying to rebuild after imminent destruction, only to realize some things can never be fixed, and this is painted in almost every frame of the movie. We meet characters like Shōtarō Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima who live in the slums of Neo-Tokyo, desperately trying to cobble a life for themselves, fighting against the fact the environment that they grew up in already pre-determined their fate. In “Akira,” there really isn’t one set good or bad guy; all of its characters are deeply flawed and in the end, the film’s dismal conclusion is a product of all of its characters, who refuse to work together even in the face of annihilation.
For all the throngs of tales that pose to address the human condition, “Akira” hits the nail on its head, and has remained to be as socially relevant today, if not moreso, than it was when it came out in 1988, especially in the face of the global crisis of climate change and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Like the characters in “Akira,” world leaders and the individuals that allow them to stay in power, whether through obedience or through an electoral process, all have their own agendas and goals, and worldwide a lot of people just don’t have any sympathy for one another. Everyone has their group, everyone has their people, and despite the fact that the world has problems that could potentially end life as we know it, there is a great reluctance in society to work together.
- From left, our antiheroes, Kaneda and Tetsuo.
The world of “Akira” shines a spotlight on a distinct few group of people, many of whom are given greater roles in the manga the film is based on. Our main protagonists are delinquents in a biker gang that get caught up in the mysterious power of “Akira” and the Japanese government’s attempts to control it, the most important of which are the gang leader, Kaneda, and his jealous friend/follower, Tetsuo. Their lives take a turn for the worst when they cross paths with the escaped physic test subject Takashi, an encounter that leaves Tetsuo with physic abilities, leading to the government’s interest in him.
- Neo-Tokyo’s incompetent Supreme Executive Council.
Like real life, Neo-Tokyo’s government isn’t exactly unified, with it being ruled by a Supreme Executive Council that can’t agree on anything and puts on display such distaste for another that they act arguably more rowdy and immature than Kaneda’s biker gang. As a whole, the council is incompetent, and ends up forcing the city’s military leader Colonel Shikishima, to orchestrate a coup just so he can have clearance to protect the city from Tetsuo’s newfound abilities, as well as the mysterious “Akira,” which is synonymous with a weapon of mass destruction.
The colonel, along with his chief scientist, Doctor Onishi, and the council, represent two distinct sides of government. The colonel and the doctor, who serves him loyally, put on display the efficiency of totalitarianism, even if it comes at a human cost. It also helps that the colonel is level-headed and is a pragmatist, as throughout the entire leadership structure of Neo-Tokyo, he is the only one that consistently exercises proper caution when it comes to the Akira project. Neither the colonel nor the doctor’s hands are clean, but they exercise what the council lacks: common sense.
The council represents democracy gone awry. They are corrupt, crude, and they even have a traitor in their ranks. Unlike the colonel and his doctor, who believe what they are doing is for the betterment of Neo-Tokyo, the politicians in “Akira” are driven by greed and self-interest, unable to put their differences aside for the sake of working together.
The last few groups of people “Akira” focuses is the rebel group that Kaneda gets wrapped up in, who hope to steal the Akira test subjects away from the government, the many protesters of the current regime who mostly serve as a backdrop to this chaotic world, and the test subjects themselves, who for the most part just want to maintain their way of life and safety, even if the government has or might be violating their human rights for the sake of science.
There’s a lot to unpack in this movie, and I’m not going to attempt to break it down better than those who have already done a far better job than I ever could have. If you want a full in-depth analysis of the film, I recommend watching this great piece by YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqVoEpRIaKg
What I’m writing to you today is why you, and everyone else, should watch it at least once in your life, especially if you’re from the West and aren’t familiar with it. And it has a lot to do with the film’s conclusion, so if you haven’t watched it, consider this a spoiler warning.
The answer as to why you should watch “Akira” is this: It goes somewhere you will not expect an animated flick or a movie in general to go. “Akira” is masterful into tricking you into thinking what kind of film it will be. It sets up clear main characters (Kaneda and Tetsuo), who are both antiheroes with clear love interests. In addition to this, they are both children, with Keneda and Tetsuo being 16 and 15 respectively. So despite them being involved in a gang that routinely sees its members get caught up in deadly biking accidents, there is a perceived level of protection for our main characters, due to their status as the protagonists, as well as their age (Mind you, this was more than 10 years prior to “Battle Royale,” and more than 20 years before “The Hunger Games” would popularize dystopian tales in which children are the main characters). So when we see Tetsuo’s arm get burned off in painstaking detail, there is legitimate shock from the audience as he clutches his dripping red stub. In general, it is uncommon to see the level of gore put on display in “Akira” in an animated flick, even today.
Which gets into another reason why it is important to watch “Akira:” It shows that there are many different types of tales you can tell through animation. “Akira” shocked the world when it came out because cartoons were previously seen as exclusively for children, at least in the West, opening up a whole new world of animation for a generation. Akira’s world is dark even by the standards of modern anime, showing a lawless world where nothing has meaning, everyone is mostly only looking out for their own interests, and nobody cares. There isn’t some all-encompassing story arc that is trying to teach you a moral lesson, the film isn’t interested in that. “Akira” tries to teach you about the world, as it exists in certain contexts, and what it can become: A rotting hellhole choking on its own waste, developing the means of its own destruction. Even its main characters are morally compromised to a degree, with only Kaneda and the colonel looking out for what’s right for everyone, and Kaneda is only fighting on the right side arguably because he ended up developing a crush on a girl in the anti-government movement, and because his friend Tetsuo got wrapped up in it; as for the colonel, he helped create the situation as he oversaw the “Akira” project.
- Tetsuo in the government’s secret test facility.
And that’s the center point of this tale: A secret government project that is trying to control a weapon of mass destruction for its own benefit, and that weapon just so happened to be a little boy with the titular name, as well as a slew of other children. They cross every line they can to reach their goal, but in the end it blows up in their faces due to incompetence. It’s also a classic “You don’t know what forces you’re messing with” tale, with Tetsuo’s power, as well as Akira’s, far surpassing every limitation the government tries to throw at them.
The effect of “Akira” is shock and awe. Remember how I said this film was masterful in its setup? That also applies to its character design. Most media puts special attention on its main characters, which makes sense; they should be one of the central reasons why you are watching it. An unlikeable main character can be a death sentence to a movie or TV show, and this also applies to aesthetics. For a cartoon in general, anime or not, usually this takes the form of a main character design that borders on the simplistic, but is indistinguishable from any other character in the anime, or other media. A show or movie that has a main character that looks too similar to another show or movie’s main or side character might take the viewer out of the experience, after all.
As such, Tetsuo and Kaneda are designed handsomely. Tetsuo might have an abnormally large forehead, but it makes sense for his character, who constantly plays second fiddle to Kaneda, who despite his rough history, looks like he could fit perfectly into a Japanese clothing commercial if he were live action. In most media, you simply don’t get ugly main characters, and there’s a good reason for that: Attractive main characters draw the viewer in visually. A movie poster with someone attractive doing something cool might get you to watch the movie, and it certainly was and is the case for “Akira,” which is often advertised with Kaneda holding a laser gun confidently while he gives onlookers a cocky smirk, despite the fact that some of the film’s most iconic moments come from Tetsuo.
But with that being said, Tetsuo is not ugly, and nor are the love interests of both main characters. In fact, Tetsuo’s girlfriend, Kaori, visually comes off as the most sympathetic, mostly from her body language, her small stature, and the way she carries herself, which carries a stinging irony.
Another rule with main characters: If they are maimed or scarred, it is usually done in a visually acceptable way. Think Anakin Skywalker’s lone scar in the prequels, think of all the slew of robotic hands In media, and the stabbing you’ve seen where a character looks shocked for five seconds before the blade is retracted and they fall backward, and barely a drop of blood is scene. In all of these examples, these deaths are honorable, they are cool, they are sexy. Our characters remain to look just as good, if only a little scratched, as they had before, even if they die.
“Akira” doesn’t follow this. When a character dies, it’s ugly, it is tragic, and it is ultimately meaningless. Perhaps the biggest reason why you should watch “Akira” is how it kills its darlings in a way that challenges not only animation, but film in general.
I’m going to put a particular focus on Tetsuo and Kaori’s deaths. Both are children who, if this was a live action movie, would probably be played by child actors who could double as models, even if Tetsuo arguably does not look as flawless as Kaneda. Tetsuo dies in a way that his body is blown up and disfigured in a wall of flesh, his organs visible, and Kaori is crushed by him almost instantly. There is little to no warning, it just happens, and the audience has to watch in shock and awe as it plays out. Kaori’s death in particular is a surprise, as the film sets her up as someone we should sympathize with; she has a good heart despite all of the abuse she goes through, and we see her almost get raped. If there was anyone you would expect to survive the film, it would be her, and she ends up getting one of the most horrific deaths in the film.
- Tetsuo’s horrific death.
The way Tetsuo dies is ugly and painful. It is not cool. It doesn’t have any meaning. Tetsuo never completes a character arc nor does he truly learn a lesson, until it’s too late. His whole character is driven by insecurity, especially when compared to Kaneda, and that insecurity kills him. Tetsuo also serves as a fantastic character study into the human condition when someone is given near infinite power, especially when they’ve grown up in an environment like Neo-Tokyo.
“Akira” subverts not only conventions of its form, but of motion picture stories in general, and challenges the basic idea that stories need to have some inherent message or endorse some moral compass, because its world, much like the real world, has none.
Sounds depressing ain’t it? Well, it sort of is, but it can also be exciting.
Here’s some questions “Akira” left me with: What other stories like this are there/can there be? Where can I find them? What would they be like?
And it made me more aware of the internal rules movies abide by. If anything, that is reason enough to give this film a watch, for it will enhance your viewing experience of just about any film you will watch.