Cult Films – Akira: TETSUOOO! KANEDAAA!

akira11AKIRA needs no introduction. I’m going to give it one anyway. Released in 1988 (1990 in the West) to rapturous acclaim and assembled scratching of heads, this adaptation of writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo’s monstrous 2000-page (at the time unfinished) manga became an instant mainstay at midnight screenings and cult nights, prompting audiences to forever ask, “Seriously, dude, what the **** is an Akira?”

Sadly I cannot answer this ultimate query without spoilers, but it’s probably for the best as any explanation of the film’s deeper plot would be rendered incoherent dribble by the end. That’s what happens when you condense 2000 pages into two hours, I suppose, but I can’t imagine this tale of psychic Smurfs, motorcycle gangs, dystopic (Neo-)Tokyo cityscapes and imperiously moustachioed policemen would be that much more articulate in the original.

Suffice it to say that Tetsuo (Nozumo Sasaki) develops incredible telekinetic powers beyond his control and it’s up to his best friend Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) to stop him with the power of a rockin’ motorcycle and a laser cannon while they scream each other’s names a lot but, of course, it runs much deeper and much crazier than that. To the film’s credit, its plot isn’t as labyrinthine or baffling as its reputation suggests; much of the confusion I’ve heard stems from the cryptic serenity of its ending.

The Alpha of anime films

Either way, this is the Alpha of anime films to Ghost in the Shell’s Omega, the film that laser-blasted anime as an artistic medium into the Western consciousness. Prior to Akira, most Western people’s understanding of anime revolved around the bright and peppy adventures of Speed Racer and Astro Boy, if that. Akira is two whole hours of brooding futurist anxiety, tipping its hat to Blade Runner among others as it barrels, neon-lit, into the sable heart of a fascistic night.

Crammed onto a big-screen, it’s the sharpness and dense of detail that impresses the most, even to those who have already seen it (myself included). Famously known as one of the most expensive anime films ever produced (roughly $8.5 million, eclipsed only by Otomo’s own Steamboy), Akira’s budget is printed loudly and proudly on every painstaking frame of film. The super-fluidity of its animation and pre-scored dialogue – the first ever for an anime production – are astoundingly precise, drawn from over 160,000 cells of animation.


The doom-prophet spouting apocalyptic messages of the titular Akira, the riots in the streets, the authoritarian police-state, the waiter serving a patron as a motorcycle smashes through the window… every aspect and every minutiae of Akira receives the same prodigious degree of attention. Its soundtrack is wonderful as well, punctuating the action with pulsating bass and gamelan percussion, instilling a constant sense of anxious exhilaration. And then there’s the “DAAA” choral soundbite that hurls you out of your seat every damn time you hear it. The film’s ability to immerse you wholly in its darkness is quite terrifying, and it’s a testament to the talent of its makers that such an effect was achieved.

Perhaps even more striking than its aesthetics is the durability of its relevance. Having been re-released in cinemas last year to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the images of tear-gas canisters and faceless soldiers brandishing riot shields chime uneasily with recent images in the world’s capitals. It’s exhausting, it’s incoherent, it’s emotionally-draining and it’s been an inestimable touchstone for a thousand lesser imitators. Despite its flaws – the lack of development for Kei and Kaori primary among them – Akira remains as bold and as memorable as ever.