Before I go off reviewing this anime, I'll share my personal history with it, which dates back nine years ago.
I remember staying up late at night and at the stroke of midnight, the date of July 15, 2002 just started (I wanted everyone to be asleep in my house). I put a Streamline Pictures VHS copy of Akira into my VCR and had no idea what to expect out of it since I had virtually no experience with anime, with the exceptions of watching Pokemon from 1999-2000 (I'm not proud of this) and Gigantor back in 1992-93. Since I never really watched any animated material of Akira's magnitude, I was overwhelmed by it and sat around the house in a complete daze for about a week. It was also so impressive, it turned me on to the whole anime genre and even convinced me to pursue a career where I can put my drawing skills to work. After watching Akira for the first time, I came out a changed teenage boy. For a really long time, I considered Akira not only the pinnacle of animation, but also the pinnacle of cinema. However, after the crash increase of my anime consumption in the last year that's nearly parallel to Stalin's crash industrialization of the USSR, and an all around more serious focus on film in general, I've noticed some flaws that keep this from being the masterpiece that many anime fans claim it as.
Akira is set in Neo-Tokyo circa 2019, 31 years after World War 3. Underneath the gigantic, glowing skyscrapers and neon signs that dominate the metropolis, Neo-Tokyo is a cesspool of filth and crime. Bike gangs are constantly at war and people are constantly protesting the government's actions and a feeble economy. During a biker battle, Tetsuo gets injured in a crash caused by a mysterious, blue-skinned boy. Soon, his mentor and childhood friend, Kaneda, gets involved with a terrorist group trying to stop the government's dangerous experiments on these mysterious children. Tetsuo soon gains unbelievably strong psychic powers and can possibly go mad with them.
One of Akira's best strengths is its visuals. For an anime made in 1987, the animation is unbelievably smooth and the artwork has no shred of compromise in even the smallest details. Over 300 colors of paint were used in the production of this anime and the scenes taking place at night are impressive in that so many shades were used to render the imagery instead of just using black and maybe one or two shades of blue, which was a common practice back then. Even the most menial “extra” character will move to bring life to the environment. There's even some flashy visual effects with the motorcycles' tail lights with a dragging illumination effect when they move quickly in the night. Since Akira takes place in the fairly distant future, it's certainly looks like it concerning the architecture of the city and the technology of weapons, motorcycles, and other devices; the army even has nifty laser rifles that actually look like what would be realistic laser weapons instead of the laser weaponry we'd think of when watching the original Star Wars Trilogy. However, I noticed that the characters in this anime absolutely reek of 80's fashion and cultural trends. The best example of this would be the biker groupies since they look like fashionistas plucked right out of 1987. Though admittedly, the 80's-looking characters do add some sort of nostalgic charm to this anime, that is if you're an 80's junkie like myself. Akira was also the first anime to incorporate decent-looking computer effects into cel animation (Golgo 13 was technically the first, but those effects looked quite bad). The computer effects are shown in the “mental growth” projector in the head scientist's lab, and they look fantastic since they don't look like blocks, but rather tye-dyed waves that perfectly fit the context of the technology employed in that particular scene.
For me, the characters could use some significant tweaking, hence why the rating for this is faily low compared to, say, Battle Angel. The only two really developed characters in this anime are Kaneda and Tetsuo. This is so because they're the only two characters that we really sit down and get to know, so to speak. Kaneda and Tetsuo both had to live as orphans throughout their lives. Tetsuo was always a runt while Kaneda has had to act like the “big brother” and bail him out of trouble when needed. When Tetsuo's goes mad with his psychic powers and takes it out on everyone, it feels completely understandable as to why he'd act like this given his rough upbringing. That's really were the well-developed characters end because unfortunately, it feels like the rest of the cast was there just to keep the story flowing, which is a shame because these characters were well developed in the original Akira manga series (which I own). Examples of half-baked characters would be Kay and the Colonel. All we really know about Kay is that she's a terrorist trying to stop the government from destroying the city much like they did over 30 years ago, and that the Colonel is really cynical of the government's experiments on the “Numbers,” or the psychic children. Sadly, some characters exist solely for extra “mature content.” The best example would be Tetsuo's girlfriend, Kaori. She seems to be there only for a rough topless scene and a grizzly fate, which is unfortunate since in the manga, she was really important in preserving some shreds of humanity within Tetsuo. I honestly don't know why people quickly bash Doomed Megalopolis for its violence and sexual content but overlook that previously stated observation.
This is where people have gone overboard in fabricating artificial claims to inflate the status of Akira. While there's certainly more intelligent content in this one than the typical Hollywood fare and to justify the intense focus on visuals, I feel it's underwhelming compared to superior anime titles like Grave of the Fireflies and Ghost in the Shell. Lots of people have been saying that there's “really thought-provoking themes about Zen and Buddhism” and all that other jazz, but I have not seen anything in this anime to justify those particular claims. However, it does have some thought-provoking elements about what life can be like if people attained massive powers, making them somewhat god-like. This is almost exclusively elaborated upon when Kaneda and Kay get incarcerated for a failed break in to the government facility, where Kay is fed through one of the numbers about the energy that flows through life and to give some insight using an analogy with an amoeba having a human's power, which is somewhat like an analogy to a human having a god's power.
While not one of the most extreme anime titles I've seen in this area, this is certainly not an anime I'd let kids see. Akira has a pretty significant amount of bloodshed, especially towards the beginning where a terrorist operative is gunned down by the army and blood just sprays everywhere. As stated before, there's even an unsavory scene where enemy bikers sexually assault Kaori, rendering her topless and with a bloody nose. Tetsuo's hallucinations are quite disturbing to watch, because some of them involve him falling through crumbling concrete and because of the fall's intense impact, his entrails just spill all over the ground, while he's desperately scooping them back into his belly. Even some hallucinations aren't particularly violent, but are quite messed up because it's not everyday that you see a giant teddy bear, bunny rabbit, and toy car try to attack someone. Towards the end of the movie, Tetsuo's body mutates into a giant cybernetic blob that looks like nothing within the confines of simple explanation, but all I can say is that it looks REALLY gross.
Akira actually has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard in an anime. So much so, I actually got motivated to buy a CD copy of it (same with Ghost in the Shell and Doomed Megalopolis). Geinoh Yamashirogumi did a fantastic job composing the music for Akira because he employs a huge variety of instruments such as keyboards, steel drums, and ethnic Japanese instruments to create heart-racing sounds beyond description. The music creates a large variety of moods that perfectly fit the scenes they're used in. There's creepy yet ponderous ambient keyboard passages to give the audience a feeling of dark uneasiness, such as when Tetsuo makes his way to the room where the Numbers reside. There's tracks that sound aggressive and bizarre, such as the music played when Tetsuo mutates into the giant blob. Even if you're not a hardcore fan of Akira, you may want to get the soundtrack because on its own, it makes for great listening.
Akira, being an action anime, delivers some pretty awesome action scenes. This is probably the only anime where you see biker fight each other, psychic juggernauts fight other psychics, and psychic juggernauts fight arrogant punk biker leaders armed with laser rifles. Seeing the opening where Kaneda's gang chases and fights the Clowns is still exciting today and for the most part, the two fights between Kaneda and Tetsuo towards the end still get my heart racing. The only part I didn't like is that after the SOL gets destroyed, they had to throw in a completely pointless comedic bit where Kaneda has to run away from a bunch of falling debris that would be more appropriate in a Roadrunner short than a serious anime. All in all, the action scenes are cool.
OLD DUB VS NEW DUB
If you don't know already, two English dubs exist for Akira. One being created back in 1989 by Streamline Pictures, which most notably features Cam Clarke of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, and the other being made in 2001 by Pioneer, which notably features Johnny Yong Bosch of Power Rangers fame. I consider myself extremely lucky to have watched Akira with the Streamline dub first because the Pioneer dub for it is absolutely deplorable. Many people have slammed the Streamline dub for it's “cartoony” aesthetic and that the lines don't fit the original Japanese script. I don't think these are solid points because while yes, the Pioneer dub has a translation closer to the original script, any respectable translator will tell you that quality translations aren't word-by-word, otherwise they'd be really boring. To reinforce this point, there's a line in the Streamline dub where Kaneda says “Just when my coils were hitting the green line.” In the new dub, he says “Just when my motor coils were heating up.” The former has more character and sounds like something a hardcore biker would say in an English-speaking context, the latter sounds dull. As for the previously-stated “cartoony” aspect to the Streamline dub, I don't really care because I loved the Ninja Turtles back in the early 90's, and that Cam Clarke gives Kaneda a much needed “arrogant punk” tone to his voice, and that the other cast in this dub feels just right for their roles. However, in the Pioneer Dub, Bosch makes Kaneda sound like a whiny upper class kid in Burbank, completely sucking away any grittiness or coolness his character might have had; and that in general, Bosch has a terrible voice. I even remember buying the “special edition” DVD about five days after first watching Akira and was ready to murder someone after hearing the new voice overs, so I sold it and bought an old Streamline VHS copy to introduce my friends to it until the Aussies got it right on DVD. I know there's some old-time fans who loathe the Pioneer dub and I don't blame you. If you guys have a regionless DVD player or a computer that can play DVDs from other regions, the Australian (Region 4) DVD of Akira has the Streamline dub on it with the remastered picture quality. If you don't really care about dubs, I urge you to only watch this in Japanese, which is on all the DVDs and the Blu-ray releases.
Akira really could have been the masterpiece many people see it as. Katsuhiro Otomo, if you're reading this right now, swish the following in your head and give it some deep consideration. Please remake Akira into a four part OVA series with each installment being an hour long. You can use the same story you wrote for the movie adaptation and even keep many of the plot points the same, but please use the extra allotted time to develop the characters much better and to flesh out the intellectual themes much better.
Akira ISN'T the untouchable masterpiece that people claim it to be, but it's a good anime nonetheless, and if you like fairly intelligent action anime, then it'll probably sit comfortably in your collection. However, you're better off reading the Akira manga. If you're just starting off with the anime genre, here's some masterful anime titles that make Akira pale in comparison to.
Grave of the Fireflies
Ghost in the Shell
Shigurui: Death Frenzy
What did you think of this review?