Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: Akira

Sam Harding reviews the re-release of 1988's groundbreaking cyberpunk classic.

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Image Credit: Island Visual Arts (UK)

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Starring: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama
Running Time: 2hr 4mins
Rating: 12

A featureless city of pale high-rises and highway overpasses is consumed in an instant by a blinding white light, leaving behind only windswept ruins as craterous drums summon the title: AKIRA. Thirty-one years in the wake of this catastrophe, we are introduced to Neo-Tokyo — a mesmerising metropolis of towering neon that looms in every direction, bathed in the futuristic glow of progress. But beneath the sweeping spotlights and lurid holograms, a flickering tide of broken glass and discontent is brewing, setting the stage for one of the most iconic and influential pieces of anime ever made.

In seedy bars and graffitied alleys, a generation has been left in the shadow of Neo-Tokyo’s rebirth, alive only to pills and TV screens as the flaming antics of motorcycle gangs and student riots set the darkness alight. A restless, chanting score infuses this disorder with apocalyptic fervour, where the voice of the city seems to gasp for rapture between lungfuls of riot-police tear gas. Amid calls for tax reform and social progress, a messianic undercurrent of doomsday is foaming, awaiting the second coming of Akira.

Kaneda and Tetsuo are two delinquent youths, out for speed and ultra-violence on their motorcycles, when a supercharged pursuit of a rival gang sees Tetsuo’s fate collide with those of the test-subjects of a secret government weapons programme — setting in motion a new chain of events that expose the fault lines in this fraught society. Director Katsuhiro Otomo weaves a web of corrupt politicians, scientific pawns and military might, all vying for the illusion of control over forces beyond understanding. For past the inorganic LED of Neo-Tokyo, something is alive in the city’s entrails of subterranean vaults and freak playrooms, waiting to be awakened.

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Akira, in which awe-inspiring cyberpunk action competes for attention with scenes of disturbing surreality. The hand-drawn frames incandesce with colour as crimson blood, bikes and bomber-jackets burn against the sci-fi sprawl of industrial architecture. Otomo had Dr. Shoji Yamashiro and Geinoh Yamashirogumi compose the film’s score before a single frame was drawn, resulting in an immersive momentum and sonic scenery that captures Akira’s world in one fell suite.

Kaneda and Tetsuo are both orphans, brutalised by Neo-Tokyo’s neglected and overcrowded institutions, and their brash energies are at the centre of its destructive trajectory. But across a nearly-two hour runtime, the exhilarating and bloodied sequences that propel the film forwards are met by an equal emphasis on the past, where glimpsed flashbacks of a lost youth, buried by decades of rubble and trauma, call into question the stupor of unbridled development that marks our near future.

Or perhaps I should say past, because Akira is set in 2019 — with an incipient Tokyo Olympics and relentless protests in the face of a world on fire. In a masterpiece that established new aesthetic and conceptual boundaries for anime and cinema, who can blame Otomo’s predictions for being off by just one year?

Editor’s Note: This film was screened at City Screen York.

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