Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 23rd 2013
BD+DVD - 25th Anniversary Edition
In 1988 scientists experimenting with human evolution succeeded to a catastrophic degree, resulting in an explosion which devastated Tokyo and triggered World War III. 31 years later a rebuilt Neo-Tokyo is rife with corrupt politicians, biker gangs, violent revolutionaries, and religious fanatics, while a secret military project seeks to renew the human evolution experiments in hopes of understanding the mysteries of what happened thirty years earlier. Juvenile delinquents/biker gang member Tetsuo get caught in the middle of that mess when his encounter with a strange, wizened boy with the number 26 on his hand leads to him being the unwilling subject of the new round of experiments, while his fellow gang member Kaneda gets involved partly through trying to find out what happened to Tetsuo and partly from chasing tail with a pretty revolutionary. As Tetsuo is driven to the brink of sanity by the awesome new mental powers he has been endowed with, the stage is set for the return of Akira, the immense psychic force responsible for the original destruction of Tokyo.
In the summer of 1989 I had some downtime while attending a major gaming convention, so I wandered over to check out the video room. The placard advertised an animated science fiction movie called Akira, which I had never heard of before, but what intrigued me even more was the additional note that the presentation had been moved to another location due to overflow viewer interest. I tracked it down to a commons area where several dozen people were gathered around a 25-inch television raptly watching the movie. I came in at about the point where Kaneda first confronts Tetsuo with the laser rifle, and within a couple of minutes I was as transfixed as everyone else. This was something new: a movie animated as well as Disney films but with a gritty, graphically violent approach and complex narrative definitely not intended for kids. That and its spectacular action sequences and novel musical score fascinated me so much that I tracked down a copy of the early Streamline Collector's Edition VHS release at my comic book store a few weeks later and watched the whole thing through multiple times. That was the beginning of my excursion into anime as a distinctly Japanese entertainment medium.
Innumerable anime fans who came into fandom during the late '80s or first half of the '90s can probably relate similar stories, for claiming that Akira was the original gateway title is no exaggeration. It was the first title released by Streamline Pictures, the first to make real penetration in the U.S. video market as a distinctly Japanese creation, and one of the first to gain significant attention from American movie critics. (Roger Ebert once recommended it as his “Video Pick of the Week,” for instance.) Its role as a gateway title would eventually be subsumed by the advent of titles like Dragon Ball Z, Ghost in the Shell, and Sailor Moon – and who that was active in the anime scene in the '90s doesn't remember the Akira/Ghost in the Shell debates that were every bit as fierce as later Dragon Ball/Naruto or Neon Genesis Evangelion/RahXephon debates? – but its role in exposing Americans to the existence of anime, and the influence it had on Japanese illustrators and even American productions like The Matrix, forever guarantees its place as one of anime's landmark titles. Hence it finally getting a proper Blu-Ray release is long overdue.
The movie is a greatly condensed adaptation of director Katsuhiro Otomo's epic 2000+ page manga, one which largely drops the second half of the manga, which was not finished anyway at the time the movie was made. As a result the narrative can be hard to follow at times and some details beg to be explained more than they are; exactly how the explosion which opens up the movie leads to World War III is never explained in the movie, for instance, although admittedly that detail is not directly relevant to the story being told. No scene in the movie feels like it is wasted, however, as every shot directly contributes either to the plot, to establishing the environment in which the story is set, or to an action scene relevant to one of those two. The basic story told is a classic tale about a character obtaining immense psychic power and gradually being overwhelmed by it, a theme commonly brought up in American comic books (shades of the X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga can be seen here), which doubtlessly contributed to the movie resonating with American viewers. That theme gets fleshed out considerably by the actions of the revolutionaries, the motivations of the Colonel in charge of the Akira project, the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, Tetsuo's long-standing frustration over being treated deprecatingly as a little brother by Kaneda, Kaneda's desire to look out for Tetsuo, and even the interests of the Strange Ones Takashi, Kiyoko, and Masaru. In the complicated way in which these interests coincide, conflict, or even alternate between the two lies much of the meat of the movie.
For viewers inured to the more stock archetypes of the last decade, the cast may also be a refreshing change of pace. Kaneda is an ill-mannered, self-absorbed, skirt-chasing punk whose only redeeming quality is that he does genuinely care about Tetsuo. Though hardly an indomitable fighter, he has the charisma and athleticism necessary to make him a convincing action hero. Tetsuo, meanwhile, chafes so much at being treated as a junior in the gang that the way he uses his newfound power to lash out at people is convincingly shown as an outgrowth of his earlier attitudes. A character like the Colonel (he has a name but it is never used in the movie) would normally be a primary antagonist, but here he comes off more as a pragmatist who is trying to keep the whole situation from unraveling to a dangerous degree, while Kaneda's love interest Kei shows that she has more grit than just being a boyishly pretty face. Lesser members of Kaneda's gang, the chief scientist behind the Akira project, the Strange Ones with their mix of childlike and adult demeanors, and the conniving politician Nezu also all have their own distinct characters which contribute at least in small ways to making this a colorful and memorable cast.
But the biggest selling point of the movie is and always has been its spectacular and imaginative action sequences. Supported by beautiful animation, these efforts continue to impress even 25 years later, whether it be the early motorcycle chase scenes which lead to Kaneda's famous game of chicken with the Clowns' leader and Tetsuo's encounter with Takashi, the Strange One's attempts to kill Tetsuo with childish manifestations of their powers, Tetsuo's battles against military forces, the machine gun-mounted flying sleds in the underground tunnels, or even Tetsuo's later showdown with Kaneda and the laser rifle that Kaneda has acquired. Even a satellite-based military laser gets involved with dramatic results. These scenes can sometimes get brutal and are often very graphically violent, but that only heightens their impact and they never feel like they are being graphic just for the sake of including graphic content.
The artistic effort by Tokyo Movie Shinsha was in some respects a dramatic departure from how anime is normally made, as it is one of the rare anime titles where dialogue was recorded first and the lip flaps animated around that (as American animated movies typically do) rather than the other way around. In other ways it set new standards for visual quality and futuristic design in anime movies, and it has been compared favorably to movies like Blade Runner in that regard; the late scenes where Tetsuo loses control of his body in particular still serve as a standard and inspiration for such scenes even today. Its unconventionally high budget (for the time) of 1.1 billion yen can be seen fully in the roughly 160,000 cels used in the movie's production, which delivers impressive cityscapes, detailed vehicle designs which include Kaneda's iconic bike, and mind-blowing special effects. The visuals become even more impressive when one considers that fantastic scenes like those of the falling shattered glass early in the movie or expanding clouds of pinkish tear gas at various points were done largely without CG help. Character designs have a look about them indicative of the time period in which the movie was made but also are notable for having very distinctively Japanese features and hair colors. The movie lacks the slick look commonly associated with the digitally-drawn and colored productions of more recent years, but while that may be a negative for some, undoubtedly it will be a plus for others. Overall the age of its production does show a little but the visuals still hold up very well and the animation is still top-notch by anime standards.
The movie does not distinguish itself with visuals alone, however. Some of the credit for that also belongs to what is easily one of the most distinctive of all anime soundtracks. Nothing else really sounds like Akira, in part because Otomo called upon the Geino Yamashiro Gumi, a Japanese musical collective whose specialty is fusing traditional musical styles from around the world with modern instrumentation, for the project. Their production is a unified sound consisting primarily of Indonesian percussion, synthesizer-produced organ, and choral vocals which are used strategically to punctuate important or impactful scenes rather than being omnipresent. It is an attention-catching approach which definitely gives the movie a different feel than most.
The metal boxed special DVD edition of Akira put out by Pioneer in the early 2000s had one of the most copious sets of extras seen before or since on an anime release, and while this new Funimation Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack does retain some of those, it does not have anywhere near all of them. Retained are an interview with Otomo originally made for the 1993 laser disc release, narrated sound clips of the Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi, clips about the early 2000s restoration effort, a storyboard collection, original trailers and commercials, some stills of translated wall writings, and an extensive glossary of movie terminology and characters. Gone are a lengthy production report, thousands of still images, and a special capsule mode which would provide more extensive translations of on-screen writing. While the visuals and sounds are just a little sharper on the Blu-Ray version, the big picture quality upgrade happened with the step up to DVD a decade ago, so no additional big improvement should be expected.
What this release does have that the metal box release did not is the original Streamline English dub as a complement to the Animaze dub done for the metal box release. Switching back and forth between the two creates some quite interesting comparisons and contrasts. The Animaze dub is certainly more accurate, both in terms of translation and matching up with the lip flaps, and its corrections of some minor errors in the original dub allow certain points to make a lot more sense this time around, such as replacing a reference to “centrifuge on level 6” with “level 7 capsules.” At times, though, it is a little too accurate, resulting in characters saying some things that sound more awkward and/or unnatural than the more liberally-translated original. One example:
Kaneda (Streamline dub): “Just when my coil's reaching the green line!”
Kaneda (Animaze dub): “Ah, damn it! And my motor coils were just getting warmed up.”
Which one sounds more like something that a biker punk would say? Preferences here will, of course, vary widely, but having that option is a great addition, especially for fans first introduced to the title via the Streamline releases.
For those who have a previous release of the movie on DVD, the only real reasons to pick up this one are if you want the Streamline dub and that slight jump in visual and audio quality that the Blu-Ray provides. Otherwise this is more a purchase for those who have never previously owned this piece of anime history. The very graphic nature of the content (the movie is officially rated R) does not make it a good fit for all audiences, but few anime titles more keenly and precisely illustrate how anime can step beyond what American animation typically offers while still holding a strong appeal to American audiences. Granted, its writing may not be perfect, but there are good reasons why this one has long been one of anime's standard-bearer titles.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Impressive artistry and animation, distinctive musical score, new release include both original and more recent English dubs.
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