Akira Retrospective: "There is No Final One; Revolutions are Infinite."
"Anime" is one of the few genres left that still conjures up a largely negative connotation. Once you remove the Miyazaki films from the encyclopedia Japanica, the associated stereotypes range from the childish (big large robots) to the unsettling (they like rape...) to some downright deplorable sexual deviance (oh I think you guys know). But to dismiss the contributions of the genre, due to the hand-drawn nature of the art form, or preconceived notions can close you off to a few treasures. Ghost in the Shell has influenced a slew of sci-fi material, and its most notable influence was The Matrix. Enjoyed Inception? Go find yourself a small bag of sprouted hallucinogens and check out Paprika. Films such as Perfect Blue pay homage to Hitchcock and a fascination with the tense mysteries of film noir. Anime's ability to transcend the physical limitations of cinematography and CGI can be liberating, allowing our 90 minute sojourns to look past the lack of dramatis personae when a visually arousing world becomes populated with relatable issues of morality, evolution, and science.
The animation adaptation of Akira helped bring on a greater appreciation for the genre, and helped show people that anime could be more than big giant robots ruining each other's shit. Not to mention the film was amongst the first to penetrate American psyches; unaided by the internet machine, it still found a passionate audience, and was briefly tied to an American version adapted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas far back in the day. Even Roger Ebert recommended the video release, and has used Akira as part of his wide gulf of references to other films that have come to pass.
So why does Akira hold such a place in film? What made it so impactful 20 years ago? Let's follow the not-so-little brown teddy bear.
While you could make the argument that all films are tapping into parts of the cultural zeitgeist, that zexy German word can get thrown into the conversation a bit too much (perhaps a bit too less if you're looking to wasted near the corner of Duboce and Valencia). But the backdrop to Akira is rooted in the isolation and overcrowding of Japanese islanders, as the monstrous city of Tokyo is wiped away in a silent flash of light, an image of historical context (World War II) and modern paranoia (the last days of the Cold War). From the ruins, Neo-Tokyo is conceived, and in this cavernous colonnade of skyscrapers and city highways resides the Capsules, an underage motorcycle gang that drives forth the film's wheels of motion.
The Capsules are generalled by 16 year-old Kaneda, zipping around Neo Tokyo on stolen motorcycles and engaging in tribal gang wars with other like-minded adolescents. They are one part Mad Max, one part The Black Rebels from The Wild One, with just a good measure of video-game like violence mixed in. And while this iteration of a motorcycle gang may seem like an homage evolved for the 21st century, it parallels the problematic growth of the Bōsōzoku sub-culture, which at its height counted over forty thousand members. The problem in Japan grew beyond inconvenience, with riders consistently pulling people out of their vehicles to beat the crap out of them, and many gang members eventually joining the Yakuza upon maturity.
While the teenage tales of modern cinema are cringe-worthy attempts at recreating the magic of the Capulets and Montagues with a top 40 pop music playlist, Akira gave us an incredibly wonderful portrayal of maturity in a sci-fi backdrop. At the onset, our protagonists are invincible, cocksure, and uninhibited by the upheaval going around them. The city of Neo-Tokyo is too busy rebuilding itself and charting a course for the future to pay attention to the children of the present. Void of parental influence, locked in a school system that would make a South London Comprehensive look like Wittenberg, the Capsules have bound together into a tribal bond of fraternity, loosely held together by whoever has the fastest motorcycle. The anti-government rioting and guerrilla tactics (as embodied by the female revolutionary Kei) mean nothing to these kids, because those kids mean nothing to the systems that seemingly exist solely to ignore them.
As we move through the story, the personal growth of the protagonist (Kaneda) and his ever-evolving adversary (Tetsuo) is perhaps obscured by the action and MacGuffin that is the titular character, but nevertheless essential. Kaneda's attraction to Kei is curious in that we never view her as a sexual object; Kaneda has plenty of short-skirted succubae at school, but he's intrigued by the politically mobile and driven rebel. She's out of his league, not because she's a bombshell, but because she has no time for an arrogant punk. No dance or single stare define their relationship, it's Kaneda's increasing attempts to ingratiate himself with her cause and prove himself worthy.
His former lieutenant, Tetsuo, has his own personal journey to navigate. While certainly making Kaneda's maturation seem subtle, there are layers to what Tetsuo must go through as well. While Kaneda has the charisma to act beyond his years as the gang's de facto leader, Tetsuo struggles as an underdeveloped child, not hardened by the neglect of the city but left more impulsive and child-like. The massive strain on his body and mind brought on by the mental abilities manifesting within him are in a constant push and pull. His confusion is rooted in the awkwardness of puberty, full of phallic symbolism and delusions of grand prowess. Subconsciously, he can't help but his abilities to show his power and dominance, but he's still locked into a mindset focused not on the larger world, but that of the small pocket of friends who slighted and took him for granted. Compare him to the "Espers", the small and sickly blue telepaths. Their abilities, while less than Tetsuo's, are controlled, because they have been insulated from the outside world and contained by a social developmental ceiling. Tetsuo is all testosterone rage and rebellion, and it is his eventual downfall. His transformation is grotesque, but you have to consider the mind that it is painted from. The forms are spontaneous and formless, reactionary yet uncontrollable. And the accompanying gore, while certainly a staple of anime in general, can help the experience when taken into the context that is it necessary to remove that sheen of invincibility from the free-wheeling teenagers.
I can't speak for you guys, but I place a huge stock in how a film's soundtrack sets the atmosphere. The epic failings of Watchmen's score highlight director Zach Snyder's inability to connect with what the audience wants. Compare one of the first trailers, that used a tone-perfect Smashing Pumpkins song that was all kinds of industrial doom and gloom, and then try to conjure up a positive use of song in the actual movie. Akira, on the other hand, is a brave use of sound and layered harmonics. There is an underlying old world feel, with electronic percussion drawing images of taiko drums, augmented by the clinks and clanks of metallic reverberations. The sound echoes, bouncing off warped steel and claustrophobic alleyways, evolving with new patterns before shuttering them off to be recalled spontaneously. There is even a poetry to be found in the names of the major players; three-syllable names with a strong emphasis on the middle note (ah-KEE-rah, tet-SOO-oh, ka-NAY-dah). No use of bubbly J-Pop here, either; choruses chant in audible and unrecognizable expressions, one that gives Akira an ecclesiastical motif. The film mixes these dynamically Japanese elements, of electronica, historical allegory, and spirituality into a cauldron. From this comes a new religion, mysterious, terrifying, and yet ultimately a rebirth in this new iteration of the ancient country.
Dan Saipher eventually moved past recognizing that no one closes their mouths through the entire damn film