Without too much hyperbole, 1988 is probably the most important year in the history of Japanese animation.
It's the year it boomed in a way unforeseen up to that point, and it made western audiences and critics sit up and take notice for the first real time in history. And right at the center of this, celebrating its 30th anniversary on July 18, is Katsuhuro Otomo's landmark science fiction epic, Akira.
Akira came out on the heels of Studio Ghibli's first major offerings, the double feature of Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. But while those films looked back at Japan's past with melancholic nostalgia (read my essay about them here), Otomo used the nation's past to look to a future, in a terrifying and frenetic way. Based on his own six-volume manga which ran from 1982-1990, Otomo adapted the massive tome for a single film that is as pure a spiritual experience as the cyberpunk body horror story could be.
That experience remains so pure to this day because, like the greatest Ghibli works, the viewer can see the guiding hand of its director on each and every frame. Otomo only agreed to adapt Akira into a film if he retained complete creative control, something which was almost unheard of for someone who had only directed segments of anthology anime up to that point. And in order to do his 2,000 page manga justice, the movie would require a budget unheard of for anime: the equivalent of about $10 million. This cost was footed by a consortium of several of Japan's largest entertainment corporations, including Kodansha, Mainichi Broadcasting System, Bandai, Hakuhodo, Toho, Laserdisc Corporation, and Sumitomo Corporation.
So Otomo had a huge budget and complete control, and to his total credit, he knew how to use it. Akira consists of over 160,000 animation cels, more than twice what anime usually employed up to that point. The dialogue was also pre-recorded so the animators could animate mouth movement to the performance, rather than the usual case of the actors having to post-sync to general lip flapping. The result is an animated movie with the smoothest and most precise action available. It feels as though you're watching a live-action movie at times, just with animated characters and settings.
But even all of this wouldn't have amounted to one of the greatest anime ever made if not for the brilliant story and concept. Set in a then-distant 2019, following Tokyo's forced rebuilding to the dystopian, military-complex-controlled Neo-Tokyo, Akira explores themes of disaffected youth, corruption in government, rampant religious zealotry, nuclear-energy-caused telekinesis, destruction, and rebirth.
The film opens with a mushroom cloud obliterating Tokyo in 1988. We don't know for awhile, but we learn it was caused by someone named Akira, a young person imbued with unheard of telekinetic energy. 30 years later, Neo-Tokyo has become a cesspool of street violence and police state rule. Our heroes are a gang of motorcycle thugs who begin the movie by getting into a massive and deadly high-speed war with a rival gang. Kaneda is the de-facto leader of the group, with his iconic modified red motorcycle and jacket with a drug capsule on the back. His best friend is Tetsuo, a slightly younger kid who both looks up to Kaneda and resents his power over him.
At the same time, a strange, grey-faced child is being led through a traffic jam by a man with a gun, chased by dogs and government agents. A gunfight ensues and the man is eventually shot to death. Tetsuo nearly crashes into this grey child after bashing the skull of a rival gang member, but a psychic shield protects the kid, forcing Tetsuo to crash. This crash, we soon learn, awakens latent psionic energy within him, and the government takes him and the grey child into custody and Kaneda and the rest of the gang are taken into police custody.
While Tetsuo realizes his powers, and has utterly nightmarish visions thanks to the three grey children, all of whom have enormous powers, Kaneda meets a teenage girl named Kei, a member of a revolutionary group intent on overthrowing the corrupt bureaucracy. But it's all a ruse, and the revolutionaries actually work for a disgruntled member of that very corrupt government. The only one who seems to care about the implications of these psychic youths is Colonel Shikishima and Doctor Ōnishi, but even they can only watch as the true power of Tetsuo means, as the movie's tagline states, Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.
The world of Neo-Tokyo is so clearly defined through the storytelling of the movie, but Otomo rightly doesn't get too bogged down in setting this up, instead choosing to focus mainly on the melodrama of teen angst. Kaneda and Tetsuo's strained brotherhood is the alpha and omega of the story, and Kaneda's juvenile love affair with Kei, the proud and focused revolutionary, provides some of the movie's lighter comedic moments. Kaneda is a much more a fool commenting on the ridiculous nature of the movie's uber-serious events than you might expect, and it makes the actions of the government and the rebels seem all the more futile.
Tetsuo allows the power he has to go to his head almost immediately, and it's all the more terrifying that this godlike energy is utilized by a petty and envious teenager. He only wants to show Kaneda and the world that he's not some little kid who needs saving, or can be pushed around. He's able to take on the entire military himself, and this causes him to become the new savior for the group of religious zealots who've spent the past 30 years worshiping Akira as the destroyer of worlds. And all of this because he's jealous of his surrogate big brother, even though they clearly love each other enough to want to kill each other.
And like Akira, Tetsuo ultimately loses himself to the technological revolution, using inorganic material to create a new, devastating body that ultimately grows to terrifying sizes in the film's climax, where Kaneda, Kei, the Colonel, and the Doctor are powerless to stop the next doom of the city. The future is the disaffected youth, and there's no telling what more powerful beings will wrought going forward. The movie ends with apocalyptic destruction, and lighthearted camaraderie between friends as they motorcycle away.
Akira is a movie I think people need to watch once a year (much like Dark City), to bow at the grandeur of near-perfect science fiction. 30 years after its initial release, the movie seems more prophetic than ever, as technology has made life "easier" but more troubling, and the youth of the world more and more disenfranchised by those in power. Katsuhiro Otomo's singular vision, never sequelized nor--as of this writing--remade, remains the absolute pinnacle of the anime artform and its influence continues to be felt the world over.