Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic manga series Akira was originally released over an eight year period within the pages of Kodansha’s Young Magazine. It is often cited as one of the most influential works of all time, hailed by writers, artists and fans alike. Much like the manga, the 1998 animated adaptation of Akira, directed by Otomo himself, is of massive significance across the world.
For many, the film adaptation was the first contact with Japanese anime, opening a door to a wider culture of art and entertainment. Akira, to the many young people in the US and UK unfamiliar with anime and Asian cinema, felt like something new, something dangerous, a whole new subculture for future sci-fi fans and cyberpunks to become a part of.
Historical context aside, Akira - released on Blu-ray for the first time - remains as important today as it ever was.
Neo-Tokyo, rebuilt from the ashes of the Third World War, is going through an unprecedented time of societal disorder and rebellion. Left with little to aspire to and losing confidence in government, the people of Neo-Tokyo live in a fragmented manner, caught within a power struggle between groups attempting to bring about change in their own image causing society to implode amidst chaos and confusion.
Biker gangs terrorize the streets while guerrilla groups attempt to destabilize oppressive authorities and religious cultists pray for the return of Akira, a powerful force believed by its worshippers to be the saviour that will return to cleanse the world of its depravity and chaos. The brash and impulsive Kaneda exemplifies the generation of teenagers who the system betrayed, and along with the rest if his crew, waste their lives away in a never-ending cycle of violence. During a street battle with a rival gang, a freak accident involving a mysterious child causes Tetsuo, the put-upon runt of the group, to be taken in to custody by a secretive and shadowy military force after being exposed to the mysterious youngster.
The subject of increasingly brutal tests, Tetsuo discovers burgeoning psychokinetic abilities and powers that swiftly grow beyond a level he can control. Under observation by a typically untrustworthy scientist of government employ, Tetsuo’s new found abilities prove to be massively destructive, potentially rivaling those of the prophesied Akira. Upon trying to rescue Tetsuo from his captors and attempt to stop his increasingly dangerous behaviour, Kaneda and friends fall in to a vortex of events that they can barely comprehend, leading to a conflict that will either save or destroy the citizens of Neo-Tokyo.
From its opening scenes Akira rattles the senses. The intense detail of Otomo’s obsessively drawn artwork are recreated effectively, capturing the atmosphere and style in a motion form. To consider the age of the film is a little unfair, but comparatively to modern animated work, Akira’s level of detail and unique art design still set it apart, and remains truly iconic within international cinema. Neo-Tokyo itself is beautifully rendered throughout the films most kinetic scenes of motorcycles cutting their way through the neon blazed night, and the crescendo of devastation and destruction as the film reaches its end.
One commonly cited criticism of the adaptation is its failure to flesh out the characters met along the course of the narrative. Considering the task of truncating Otomo’s sprawling masterpiece in to a running time of just 119 minutes, some loss of characterisation can be forgiven. While often sparse in specific details, we understand each characters motivations and standpoint enough to believe in their actions. The final act of the film does get bogged down somewhat by some clumsy backstory that brings the viewer up to speed regarding the deeper machinations behind Kaneda and Tetsuo’s lives. While absolutely necessary to the story, it does disrupt the momentum of the film.
Despite its occasionally uneven pacing, Akira distills an expansive plot that interweaves the lives and motives of the factions at work within Neo-Tokyo, from the top of ladder executive committees of the government, to the people on the streets fighting for a life while their world collapses around them. The action sequences are believable and impacting regardless of their increasingly fantastical nature.
The film has a relentless atmosphere that has rarely dissipates, and provides an incredible example of what animation can convey in terms of drama. While a little impersonal, the grandeur and scope of the films intentions in portraying how a world gone crazy can affect those at the very bottom, and how those who were previously disenfranchised can bring about irrevocable change, far outweigh its anemic characterisation. Even those unmoved by the story, can revel in the timeless animation and art design.
Akira has been the recipient of many releases on several formats over the years from a multitude of distributors. Even for those fans who have purchased the film previously, the Blu-ray release represents an essential choice in any collection. While aged, the visual fidelity of the film is as clean as one could hope, featuring an impressive HD transfer. High Definition can be particularly cruel to older animated films, but Akira stands up to inspection with the unique colour palette of the movie appearing vivid and strong, and scenes like the famous bike chase though the tunnels and highways really pop on screen.
This Blu-ray presentation really shines in the audio department in particular. Both the Japanese and English audio tracks are astoundingly clear, with an intelligently produced 5.1 “Hypersonic” mix. The English language dub is the version recorded in 2001 by Pioneer, and while much internet debate continues to this day over which was the better recording, the English voice work works well, both accurate to the original Japanese script and the mouth movements of the onscreen characters.
Minor squabbles aside, the overall audio-visual quality of the Blu-ray means that this is the definitive presentation of a classic work that no fan should be without.
The Blu-ray collectors edition is available in a limited pressing steelbook casing with a bonus 32 page booklet detailing the impenetrably technical process behind the audio restoration, and previously published interviews with the creator. The two disc edition also features a DVD copy of the film. Extras include trailers, and the Production Report behind the scenes documentary that has been available in other releases of Akira.
Akira is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Manga Entertainment