My Review of Akira!

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The year is 2019. It’s been 31 years since a mysterious explosion happened in Japan, which somehow triggered World War 3. In the current society, a version of the city has been restored, and dubbed Neo-Tokyo, not to be confused with Tokyo-3. But as it turns out, what was supposed to be a new haven for humanity has already become dilapidated and worn down, with the new government at odds with the people, sparking violently destructive protests that are in no way helped by the scourge of anarchistic youths waging war with each other one the backs of their motorcycles. See, this is why we can’t have nice things. Two of these gangs are called the Capsules, a handful of middleschoolers with the image of a pill emblazoned on their jackets, and the clowns, a gang of… Other thugs… Who wear weird masks and stuff. Existing somewhere between The Sharks vs. The Jets and The Bloods vs. The Crips, their rivalry is a notoriously violent one, and their fights have terrorized an already restless population.

In any case, it’s during one of these particular skirmishes that the Capsule Corps, led by the main character-ish young man named Kaneda, stumble upon a strange little Benjamin Button boy who inflicts another member, Tetsuo, with some sort of abnormality. The local government snatches up Tetsuo and the little geezer, and they disappear them to a secret facility to perform experiments on them. In order to rescue Tetsuo, Kaneda must work his way into a rebel faction in order to infiltrate the facility… But strange things are happening to Tetsuo, within whom a dangerous entity has begun to awaken, granting him power beyond his control… Power that attracts the interest of Button and his friends, who antagonize him in order to bring about his full potential. When Kaneda finally does manage to reach Tetsuo, what kind of reunion will await the two of them? Can Tetsuo be saved from the destiny that’s begun to develop around him, or is it too late for anybody to be saved?

Akira was animated by TMS, also known as Tokyo Movie Shinsa, one of the oldest known Japanese animation studios. They’ve produced not only anime over the five decades that they’ve been in operation, but plenty of western animation from their subsidiary company Telecom. I’ve seen a bunch of Telecom’s titles, with a particular highlight being the fucking Ducktales(Ooo-Wooo-Ooo), but out of their anime work, I’m honestly not that familiar with them. They’ve produced some iconic titles that have been around for impossibly long periods of time, like Lupin(the only installment of which that I’ve seen was The woman Named Fujiko Mine) and Detective Conan, which I only saw the first season. Beyond that, any title they’ve released is either something I saw very little of, or something I haven’t seen in over a decade, so it’s kind of hard to get an accurate grasp on them in regard to their oeuvre of work.

Whatever they’re like, they clearly had a ton of money to burn when they were producing Akira, and boy does it show. The animation in this movie is insanely fluid, especially for a title that was released in the late eighties. The quality is consistent throughout, but it only takes a few minutes to see that this isn’t your average production. Just as we’re dumped into the interior of a seedy, suspicious bar, we’re shown that not even such an arguably unnecessary visual as channels being changed on a TV is still given the kind of lavish treatment that would suggest that they really spared no expense with this one. To be sure, the movie then quickly moves on to one of it’s biggest highlights, the motorcycle race war… Yes, a literal race war… Between the Capsules and the Clowns, which may be one of the single most well-animated sequences in anime history. It’s several solid minutes of gritty dudes racing through town on their various models of bikes as they try to kill one another,r to varying and somewhat vague levels of success. This sequence is so fast and fluid that even the residual trails of their taillights in the night sky is beautifully present.

It’s weird looking back and thinking that an anime from 1988 could look as good as this one does, but it was just as weird for the world back then, as Akira was considered groundbreaking with it’s visuals. The kind of facial animations and fluid movements it featured were unimaginable at the time, even though they’re more or less commonplace today. Most anime of the time was stiff, with limited articulation and frozen faces with moving mouths, which made this particular piece all the more breathtaking. Now, having said that, it’s kind of understandable, but I just can’t help but feel they might have gone a bit too far overboard with this achievement, as the characters’ facial expressions are so over-exaggerated that it’s kind of hard to take what they’re saying seriously at time, but that’s just a nit-pick on my part.

Akira’s visual prowess doesn’t just limit itself to the fluidity of it’s animation, either. It’s also pretty well directed, with the man in the director’s chair being Katsuhiro Otomo, whom, if you didn’t know, was also the creator of the manga, so in terms of the presentation, nothing was lost in translation. His sense of direction isn’t perfect, as some of his action scenes can stray into a feeling of sensory overload, but there are moments in the government facility and especially in Tetsuo’s room that feel downright chilling with the way they’re framed. The backgrounds of Neo-tokyo are so extensively detailed that it’s almost sad how much of it you’ll miss if you’re not constantly pausing to check out the environment, with it’s variety of different buildings and gorgeous lighting effects. It almost feels like a real city, and one that you could actually imagine living in, thanks to the level of immersion it manages to hit. I’d keep going on this topic alone, but I’m struggling to find the right words to do it justice, and you kind of have to see it for yourself in order to appreciate it.

Although, to be perfectly honest, my favorite thing about Akira is the music, which is uniformly unconventional in it’s orchestrations, and carries a level of depth to it that kind of evades the story itself, as composer Shoji Yamashiro, which is actually the pseudonym of Tsutomu Ohashi, and while further work of his is hard to find, Akira is his most renowned project, and with good reason. The music for Akira is stunningly powerful, full of hard percussions and haunting vocal effects, some of which tell us more about a character and their arc than the story itself does. For example, the most popular track in the movie is probably Tetsuo’s theme, which uses bells and flutes to signify the titular character’s younger-brother relationship to Kaneda, showing frustration in the beginning while slowly becoming more unhinged and unsettling as it builds up to one of the most famous vocal spike notes in anime, the infamous DAAAAAA DAAAAAAA DAAADAAA that heralds the arrival of his powers later in the film.

The rest of the ost is just as creative, however. Kaneda’s theme isn’t as long or involved as Tetsuo’s theme, but the instrumentation is still like nothing I’ve heard before from an anime, as it’s decked out with lightning sound effects and shifting percussive beats that sound like they were taken from a traditional Japanese festival, complete with chants of Rasse-Ra, a chant used to welcome the summer. Other noteworthy tracks include Battle Against Clown, the battle theme for the opening gang war that somehow managed to take the sound of a guy breathing too hard and make it sound epic; Winds Over Neo-Tokyo, a tune that starts out slow and dreamy only to sound more ominous and carnival-y as it goes on; And Dolls’ Polyphony, a damn creepy track that’s used appropriately in the film, as it’s use of a female voice uttering the nonsense word “Perom” over and over again sounds like it was taken right out of a slasher movie, and that’s before the deeper male chanting starts to drown it out. All in all, I highly recommend picking up this soundtrack, whether you’re a fan of the actual movie or not.

To my knowledge, there are two English dubs for this movie… An old one, which was really awkward sounding and badly acted, and a newer one that sounds a lot more natural and human. The drawback is that while the old one at least managed to fit the insane mouth movements from the characters, the newer one doesn’t even try, which in turn makes the over-animation look even more obvious and silly. I don’t really think either dub is that great, but i kind of prefer the older Streamline dub, just because it sounds more interesting, even as terrible as it was. Don’t get me wrong, the Animaze dub had a cast of much more talented and well-respected actors, and they did act out the roles a lot better than their Streamline counterparts did, but like I said, the natural sound and grounded delivery doesn’t really feel like the right fit for the movie’s style of facial animation, whereas the Streamline one just feels like a better fit for this world.

Not to mention, as talented as the newer acting pool is, it’s not made up of the most compelling actors in the industry. The perfect example of this is Kaneda, the apparent star, who’s played by Johnny Yong Bosch, a highly talented actor who can give stellar, engaging performances when given the right material, but he has way too wide of a comfort zone, and once he’s in it, he falls right into typecasting hell. It’s a shame that he can be so boring at times, but here, he just sounds like a less interesting version of Ichigo. On a similar note, there’s Wendee Lee in the role of Kei, whose performance output is almost fifty/fifty in terms of quality, with just as many awesome roles as terrible ones, and since Kei isn’t that meaty of a character, she falls somewhere in the middle here. Michelle ruff, a personal favorite of mine, is wasted in the role of Kaori. The exception to this trend is Tetsuo, who’s played powerfully by Joshua Seth, a Digimon veteran who plays up his character’s youth and frustration, wearing his torment and rise to power on his sleeve. Either way, I’d still recommend sticking to the sub.

All right, I’m going to try to keep this brief, because I don’t really have all that much to say about Akira. To give this review a little background, I’ve never read the manga this movie was based on. Honestly, I don’t read that much manga in general. My reading is reserved for books, mostly by Stephen King, while I’m passing time on my lunch break at work. Yeah, I’ve gotten into a few series, but I can probably count on one hand the amount of titles I’ve read to completion, or at least to the point of being caught up. I’m sorry, but I’d rather absorb a story visually, where it takes less time and money to do so. Having said that, it means that I was essentially going into Akira blind, and taking it completely at face value, with no source material or outside information to explain it’s story, universe or world view to me. I’m reviewing this movie in a vacuum, as any title SHOULD be reviewed, and I’m not going to do any research to augment or explain the material. A good adaptation should do that for you. So how does Akira hold up under these conditions?

Well, frankly, this movie doesn’t make any fucking sense. From beginning to end, it doesn’t do any more than the bare minimum in explaining anything. To start right at the beginning, we’re told that Japan accidentally bombs itself(I won’t tell you how, as it’s a spoiler), and that this event was the spark that caused World War 3, and that the story takes place several decades after. Okay, so, how did World War 3 start? And yeah, I hear you guys saying “With that explosion,” but that’s not what I mean. How did Japan accidentally bombing itself lead to the third World War? That’s not a small detail. You know what a World War is, right? It’s a war where a group of allied nations fight against the rest of the world. Did Japan blame the explosion on another country? Who were it’s allies? Who were it’s enemies? Did it win? Did it lose? How long did the war last? How did it end? Did it even end? What was the death toll? You can’t just throw World War 3 into your narrative because it sounds cool, damn it, you have to explain that shit!

Okay, here’s another one: What are people protesting about? What is the government doing that’s got the people so pissed off? What’s the conflict there? Or here, I’ll give you an easier one: Who’s the guy we see leading the Benjamin Button kid through the crowd? Did he help him escape the facility? How? Or instead, I’ll tell you what… How did Tetsuo get his powers? We see him crashing his bike right in front of Button’s face, only to have it blow up between them, hurting neither of them… i mean, sure, Button was probably able to protect himself with a force field, but the explosion happened right in front of Tetsuo, who wasn’t even scratched. Was it contact with Button that triggered his change? Is that a normal side effect of interacting with Button? Can he just do that, or was Tetsuo a special case who just happened to have dormant apocalypse inside him? Was it the experiments at the facility that changed him? Is there some piece of equipment they have that gives people apocalypse tumors? Would all of this crap have been avoided if Tetsuo were released with his friends? Or died when his bike blew up?

I could throw it a bone if it had a cast of memorable characters, but guess what? I have no idea who any of these bastards are! I want to start by bringing up Kaori, because while she may not be one of the main characters, her role in the film is memorable for all the wrong reasons. She’s Tetsuo’s… Sister? girlfriend? Stalker? I have no idea. She’s barely in the movie, gets maybe five minutes of screen time, and her only big scenes are where she gets her face punched in and her top ripped off by a Clown member, and when she’s gruesomely axed off towards the end of the movie. Her only contributions to the film are suffering, dying, and adding two seconds of nudity to the film’s content rating, and it’s all so undeserved that it’s honestly kind of uncomfortable to watch. She had no reason to be in this movie. She’s not the only female character, but Kei is so underwritten that I’ve heard hardcore fans of the movie just refer to her in passing as ‘the female.’ She’s a terrorist, but why? What’s her connection to the government? What are her motivations?

And it’s a sad state of affairs that I have to say this, but speaking of Kei, who the fuck is Kaneda? Why am I supposed to be rooting for this person? What’s supposed to be so interesting about him? I think he’s the leader of the Capsules, right? And he’s just… Main character material, or something? What does he want with Kei? Does he just happen to spot “ooh, female,” and decide right on the spot that he’s going to get her out of trouble and pork her? Like, half the movie he’s just trying to get laid, and when he’s not trying to guilt her into it, he’s going up against armed adults in her honor. This is coming from an asexual person, mind you, but is a random girl who doesn’t seem interested in you really worth taking a bullet for? I get the whole devotion thing, but when your life is on the line, dude, there are other fish in the sea. You shouldn’t ally yourself with literal violent terrorists over someone until you’ve at least established a relationship with them.

I mean, okay, I tried to assume that he was just sniffing her ass because he thought getting involved with terrorists could help him to get closer to Tetsuo, but he would have been enacting this plan way too early for there to be a believable amount of desperation, and besides, he hounds her about turning herself in, going straight and dating him afterwards. That sounds a little counterproductive, don’t you think? And moving onto his relationship to Tetsuo, I didn’t know what kind of connection they shared until that random exposition dump at the end. Apparently they were orphans together. Up until then, I had no idea if they were friends, brothers… Even lovers could have been possible… or if Kaneda was just super dedicated to his gang members. The most fleshed out character is Tetsuo, but the only thing we get from him is his frustration over his connection to Kaneda. The changes that happen to him over the course of the film are it’s only, yes, only, source of character development. I’m sorry, but you need more than faces and names to have characters.

The only real concession that I can make for Akira is that it has a really well pronounced cool factor. Seeing gang wars waged on the backs of motorcycles against a vaguely post apocalyptic setting is really cool to see, and the movie would probably be better if that were all there were to it, but it gets so involved with it’s muddled, convoluted plot that it’s impossible to know what’s going on without reading the source material or making a ton of assumptions. It’s like this huge, thousand piece puzzle where none of the pieces fit. I didn’t even bring up the other two Benjamin Button kids, as their plans involving Tetsuo are so confusing and inconsistent that I’m hesitant to even call them spoilers. But like I said, regardless of what it was they’re actually trying to accomplish, their efforts still play into the movie’s cool factor, as they manage to bring us some truly trippy and surreal visuals when they’re using their powers to attack him in his room. It’s not much, but I guess if you’re just watching Akira for spectacle and it’s gritty adult tone, I can understand the appeal.

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Akira is available stateside in a number of different home video releases, most recently from Funimation is a very cheap DVD/bluray combo pack. Other releases are available, such as the limited edition steel case that I’m currently borrowing from a friend. The original manga has also been available in numerous printings, with the most recent being from Kodansha comics back in 2009. Each volume is still relatively cheap, or you could splurge and spend a little more money on the box set. At the very least, I’d recommend grabbing a copy of the soundtrack Cd, which is available from Milan records, and is fairly inexpensive online.

I’m sorry, guys. i know this is one of the most popular anime movies in the medium, but I just can’t get into it. It’s not a terrible movie by any means… The pacing is really good, and it never gets boring. I’m the kind of guy who literally can’t stay awake through a single showing of Empire of Corpses, but I’ve never fallen asleep during Akira, which at least speaks to it having some kind of entertainment value. I understand that adapting a phonebook thick manga collection into a two hour movie isn’t an easy feat, but at the same time, I don’t want to have to look up footnotes and plot synopsis just to figure out what the bloody hell I’m watching. The version of the movie I watched had a sort of pop up feature that was designed to give you extra information at random points, but after like twenty minutes, all it had been showing me was a map and some Japanese text translations, and I was relying on THAT to try and be fair. I like movies that challenge me to figure them out, but not like this. For the animation and music alone, it deserves it’s place in anime history, but I guess I’m just not a fan. I give Akira a 5/10.

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