Akira is the type of film that many have heard of, but not too many people have actually taken the time to sit and watch, which is understandable. The film was a big deal when it was released in 1988, but now it mostly comes up as a nostalgic centerpiece for those of us who enjoy anime and have a strong love for its roots. If I had to make a list of films that I would say changed the history of animation, Akira would definitely be one of them (hence why it ended up on this list). But the first time I saw it, I was really impressed – and truthfully, really excited. Let me explain.
I saw Akira when I was maybe 12 or 13. And I came from a pretty conservative town, so those of us with any kind of inkling towards anime were immediately pegged as oddballs. Anime was viewed as this weird fantasy world filled with way too much violence and nudity and way too little plotline. True, those anime shows definitely exist, but they shouldn’t consume the entire genre or make animated films that do have a smattering of nudity or violence immediately get the “fan service” label. But Akira avoided that label, and brilliantly. The films was definitely known for its violence, and the plot – a psychic teenager in a dystopian version of 2019 Tokyo in the year 2019 — gives a lot of room for a lot of blood.
But when I first saw this film, all I could think was “It’s like The Matrix…but better!” And I think this is why Akira has such a great following, because it was really, really ahead of its time. Even watching now, I often find myself lost in the visuals and character design. Even the way the violence is depicted takes a lot of skill and is worth mentioning as artwork. But I love Akira because it brings up the question of what’s counted as permissible in anime and what’s permissible in live action by making a good quality film that mirrors a landmark film everybody knows. I’ve seen plenty of live action films with way more blood than Akira, but because Akira was animated, some reviewers were willing to criticize director Katsuhiro Otomo’s decisions when taking on the original 2182-page manga epic. In terms of plot, if you’ve read the manga, the restructured plot of the movie differs considerably from the print version, pruning much of the last half. But that’s not a reason to avoid it. This movie knows what it means to create a world and drop you into it with gorgeous visuals, great characters, and a lot of action.
But if you’re new to anime, think of Akira as your 101 course. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it’s a landmark film, and it’s definitely one not to miss.
And speaking of animated films that were way ahead of their time, come back next week when I’ll be reviewing a thriller that dealt with performance personality before Black Swan’s Nina ever slipped on her ballet shoes.