Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Note: The following review is based on the HD remaster of the 2001 Pioneer/Animaze dub of Akira, as seen on Adult Swim’s Toonami block.

In 1960, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai known as The Magnificent Seven came out, which transplanted the plot and themes into the form of a Western; as a sort of counterpart in animation, a dub of Osamu Tezuka’s Journey to the West would be released the following year and given the new title Alakazam the Great. These releases marked the beginning of the Japanese Invasion, which is like the British Invasion except that this movement would influence American animation rather than music. During the sixties, more feature films, especially those by Akira Kurosawa, who can be considered the Japanese counterpart of Stanley Kubrick, would be remade and also released later in the original form. Anime would also be brought over, including the well-known Astro Boy and Speed Racer. The seventies would see an increase in American releases of films and anime, to the point where animation later got outsourced to Japan due to the proficiency and inexpensiveness of the animation. Eastern influence in storytelling eventually led to the creation of Star Wars, which helped the Japanese Invasion greatly extend its life.

And thus, an entire movement was born.

Dubs of Space Battleship Yamato, known in America as Starblazers, and Science Ninja Team Gathcaman, known in America as Battle of the Planets, led to a combination of Japanese and American animation influencing pop culture of the eighties. Original shows to spawn from this influence include The Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats (all of which are still relevant right now because media is always two decades behind), while dubs of Voltron and Robotech (which is really three completely separate anime stapled together) also hit the scene.

And thus, an entire generation will not stop moaning.

However, the biggest moment for Japanese animation came when Akira, the subject of this review, hit the silver screen in 1988. Based on Kastuhiro Otomo’s manga of the same name, the 1988 dub of Akira, rated PG-13, played in American theaters completely unedited with no localization and set in place the idea that Japanese animation was wholly separate from Western animation. As a result, the Japanese Invasion has continued to this day, though some may see it as winding down at the moment (and that’s another story for another time).

Akira’s release in 1988, as dubbed by Kodansha/Streamline, left a big impact and the series has continued to enjoy popularity to this day. In 2001, Akira would get dubbed again by Pioneer/Animaze for a special rerelease, though this time rated R. Those who enjoyed the earlier dub would later be satiated by Funimation’s more recent release of the movie, which includes both dubs as well as the original Japanese audio.

This month, Toonami has been airing movies throughout December as part of their Month of Movies, the first of which was Akira. Having never seen this landmark in Japanese animation, I decided to TiVo it and view it once I didn’t have to worry about College Finals anymore. Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I’m not really sure I get it.

On July 16, 1988, a mysterious explosion destroys Tokyo and kicks off World War III. 31 years later, in 2019 AD, the rebuilt city of Neo Tokyo has fallen into disarray, with crime and gang activity on an upswing. Two rival biker gangs, the Capsules and the Clowns, engage in a turf war one night, which ends when Tetsuo Shima (Joshua Seth), one of the younger Capsule members, almost literally runs into an escaped government test subject: a child possessing powerful psychic abilities. Mere moments after this event, the army arrives to retrieve the child, but they also decide to take Tetsuo with them as well, much to the surprise of the other Capsule members, especially their leader, Shotaro Kaneda (Johnny Yong Bosch), who is also one of Tetsuo’s friends. Tetsuo ends up becoming a new test subject in the “Akira Project”, under the belief that he has latent psychic abilities and may have power on par with a mysterious boy named Akira, who is believed to have caused the explosion in Tokyo three decades prior. As the tests wear on, Tetsuo is slowly driven insane from a combination of his powers coming to the surface and an inferiority complex he has harbored since he was a child. When he becomes unstable enough, his abilities are enough to cause death and destruction wherever he goes. Once this occurs, it is up to Kaneda, his new ally Kei (Wendee Lee) and the remaining Capsule members to find him and put a stop to his powers before he destroys Neo Tokyo.

The explosion that started it all.

Akira’s story is rather interesting, as character relationships are explored and the scientific and political aspects are interwoven such that we know just how serious Tetsuo’s abilities threaten the state of living. There is a lot that the plot wants to show and it does so in a fascinating way. In the end though, I found the execution to be a little lacking. The story moves at a rather slow pace, though thankfully it picks up in the third act, and some minor characters, despite being given our full attention, are ultimately useless. What I noticed the most however is that throughout the entirety of the story, the interesting characters and plot threads seem to be going somewhere to try and tell us something, but when it’s all over I’m not entirely sure what it was. To clarify, the final moment in the film is Tetsuo transforming into a new universe, which happens to be the only way to stop him, with the visuals and final bit of dialogue hinting at something the director, Katsuhiro Otomo, seems to think is important enough to tell us, but I’m still puzzled as to what it might be; I feel a little stupid for not being able to figure it out and I’m not a fan of films which do this. Still, at least a particular Harry Partridge animation is now more hilarious than it was before.

Kaneda on his signature ride.

Visually, Akira couldn’t do anything to not impress me. The style is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, with Neo Tokyo having a highly detailed look and a run-down feel. I always liked the streaming effect applied to the lights of the motorcycles when they drove away and the way the animators rendered the flowing smoke is very amazing. The character designs are good as well, with (almost) completely realistic movement to help feel like a natural part of the world. I’d also find myself getting lost in tiny details such as scientific charts printing out at a certain speed and then folding on the floor in real time. Most impressive of all is the fact there is not a single computer-assisted animation in sight, which says a lot about the abilities of the animators. However, I thought that camera pans, and even the end credits, were a little choppy, though I don’t know if that’s the way the movie was made or if it’s caused by how the movie was broadcast. I must say as well that when people are shot or die, they show things in very graphic detail, so perhaps watching this isn’t for the faint of heart (it is rated R after all). In any case, I’d say that the animation is definitely Akira’s best attribute.

This effect is always cool.

Of course there’s also the audio, which is just great all around. The sounds of the city aid the atmosphere and guns and motorcycles sound pretty realistic (at least for the time). The voice acting in this 2001 dub is also very good, with enough variety so that everyone sounds distinct. Characters also have their lines spoken with a lot of emotional range, which is good for what they see and hear during their odd and sometimes beautifully disgusting journey. Also, the music is varied and pretty emotional, with dark techno or percussive pieces adding to the already dark atmosphere of the film. I have no complaints with the audio.

Before I end this review, I’d like to share something interesting. Akira occasionally mentions the 2020 Olympics, which are set to occur in Neo Tokyo in the movie. By an amazing coincidence, Tokyo has been selected to host the 2020 Olympics in real life. It’s amazing what movies can accidentally predict sometimes.

As a piece of anime history, it’s hard to ignore Akira’s popularity and influence. It feels like the Japanese answer to Blade Runner, with an interesting story set in an interesting world with interesting characters. Admittedly, it’s a very fascinating movie because its elements blend together in a way that you want to go on the ride it takes you on. However, also like Blade Runner, the story is pretty slow overall and in the end it doesn’t seem like it has much of a point. You might want to watch Akira for the sake of viewing a landmark film, but by the end you’ll know whether or not you’ll want to go on that ride again. I probably would, but not for a good while.

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