I am writing this review from the relative safety of my house, while half a world away a whole swath of countries are convulsing with violence. Small wonder some people look to total destruction for answers to difficult problems. If we wipe the whole slate clean, maybe something better will emerge, and our enemies — whoever they are — will be decimated. Of course, the logic of mutually assured destruction guarantees that we will never be certain.
Few societies are as fit to speak on the subject of Armageddon as Japan, given that they lived through their own microcosmic version of it at the end of World War II. They have a cultural perspective on mass destruction that few others do, and they have introjected it into their popular culture in ways that could be seen as either strikingly self-analytical or downright fetishistic.
Akira is not the only animated Japanese production to deal with the subject of holocaust — the X-rated Legend of the Overfiend, of all things, also comes to mind — but it may certainly be the best of them. Even after Ghost in the Shell and Jin-roh and Princess Mononoke have all been accounted for, Akira still ranks as one of the single finest animated productions from Japan and certainly one of the finest anywhere. There are other movies with better plotting or more absorbing stories, but for sheer spectacle there was never anything like it, not even in the ranks of Disney, and it broke new technical ground in terms of how far animation could be pushed. If anything, it is even more of a nightmare vision now than it was when it first appeared in 1987, with its images of cities being leveled and civilizations laid to waste.
The film is set "31 years after World War III, Ad 2019, Neo Tokyo." After Tokyo itself has been devastated by a (nuclear?) explosion, the new city that rose in its place is already overcrowded, filthy, crumbling, crime-ridden, and overrun with every manner of human refuse. Economic collapse is imminent and a largely ineffectual government is divided against itself. Motorcycle-riding gangs of kids tear up the freeways, doing brutal war with each other. Almost by accident we are introduced to a gang that are, more or less by default, the heroes of the story. Most prominent are Kaneda, the disaffected punk kid with the killer bike, and Tetsuo, the "runt" of the gang, who's first seen coveting said bike and reciting its litany of features to himself like a prayer.
Kaneda's gang tangle with a group of rivals, the Clowns, not too far from where a violent anti-government protest is taking place. Then Tetsuo almost runs over what looks like a young boy, although he looks rather like a victim of one of those diseases that causes premature aging. Before anyone can figure out what's going on, the boy is whisked away by government agents, and the gang is arrested and hauled off along with the other protesters. The authorities aren't interested in them per se, though — they're more after folks like the type who pulls the pin on a grenade in the interrogation hall (with unexpected results). (The interrogation hall itself is a very clever piece of "set design", erected hastily in a gymnasium.) Kaneda winds up singling out a girl he spotted in the protesters and connives the police into letting her go with them. He claims he wants to talk "revolution" with her, but she sees right through him.
Outside of the violent quasi-family of the gang, the boys have no life. School is nothing more than the most marginal set of rules held together with insults and face-slapping. The boys hang out in loose collectives, attracting and losing girls about equally. Kaori, Tetsuo's mousy, terrified-looking girlfriend, gets a shock that night when Tetsuo reappears suddenly at her dorm after having broken out of the hospital. There, the doctors and a mysterious eminence grise named the General have been scoping him out and making strange references to "Akira" and his "power." Disgusted, Tetsuo jacks Kaneda's coveted bike, rides into Clown territory, and almost gets pulped before Kaneda and the others save him. But Tetsuo is anything but grateful: "Why do you always have to save me?!" he howls while beating one of the Clowns to near-death. He's feverish, hysterical, nothing like the mouse they remember. Then Tetsuo collapses, hallucinating wildly in a scene of Grand Guignol horror as he imagines his insides spilling out and the ground opening up to swallow him.
Something dormant has been unleashed. Tetsuo manifests various powers, growing in volume and destructive potential as his own rage accelerates. Like in Cronenberg's movies, the fury of one's emotions becomes manifested physically. Tetsuo is tormented by horrific, nightmarish images. but in his case it's hard to say if those are a by-product of his power or a spur to accelerate their growth. One of his visions — a whole roomful of toys turning lethal and monstrous — is put together in a way that exploits the power of hand-drawn animation to convey subjective emotion. If photographed literally, it would have looked ridiculous. As a hand drawing, it freezes the blood.
As it turns out, the girl Kaneda is after is in fact part of a terrorist cell trying to bring to light a whole slew of information suppressed by the military about "Akira." Without giving away too much, I can say only that "Akira" has to do with a government project involving human evolution, possibly the cause of WWIII — and which Tetuso has become an unwitting guinea pig to. Before long, Kaneda and the others are drawn into a plot to expose the whole thing to the public, while the government's security council disintegrates into infighting (with members either punching each other in the face or falling asleep in their chairs) and the city implodes around them. The General, bitterly accused of fomenting anarchy to consolidate his power, stages a coup and seizes power long enough to try and turn the tables against Tetsuo's accelerating growth. It isn't long before Kaneda and the others are attempting to put up their own fight with literally whatever they have lying around.
Akira's vision of humanity is as virtually irredeemable, with the only salvation not lying in mundane human efforts — governments, families, societies — but in a transcendental leap of human evolution disguised as Armageddon. "The passion to build has cooled and the joy of reconstruction forgotten, and now it's just a garbage heap made up of hedonistic fools," says the General at one point. He could be talking about Japan's recovery from WWII, but I flashed unpleasantly to the sight of the Twin Towers being swept away as well. His sentiments are echoed by others: a mad street cult is seen begging for Akira (apocalypse) to come and sweep away everything they despise. The tax-protester and student violence used as backdrop for the story is a grisly echo of the collegiate protests that convulsed Japan in the late Sixties, dwarfing their American counterparts in ferocity and volume.
There is never a moment when the screen is not alive with detail; there are no throwaways. Every shot is planned with the care and attention to detail of a painting. In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas crammed the frame edge-to-edge with activity and motion, but the effect was bland rather than compelling. Akira uses the breadth of its imagery as commentary on its own subject matter, as when two angry dogs tear and snap at a victim while behind them, in a shop window, a goofy dog-food commercial plays as a sardonic counterpoint. The soundtrack (also probably the best-selling anime soundtrack of all time) is another way the movie distinguished itself from so many other anime — instead of cheesy pop songs and starlets, there is a thundering, neo-primitive chant / percussion score courtesy of the Japanese ensemble Geinoh Yamashirogumi.
Director Katsuhiro Otomo originally created Akira as a long-running manga, stopping just before the end to take two years to co-write and direct the film adaptation. The comic — which has become as much a landmark of manga as the film has in anime — runs to thousands of pages and several dense volumes, and includes a wealth of plotting and character details that the movie condenses or omits entirely. Characters like the General get much more depth in the comic, but the movie understands them enough to include the right touches. He treats the experimental children with fatherly affection, at one point favoring them over the scientists who exploit them callously. Otomo's distinctive character design — something he has contributed to other productions — is also preserved in the book-to-film transfer.
Otomo has made children gifted with violent power the focus of other stories. His Domu (which was recently considered for production by Darren Aronofsky) took place in an apartment complex of the same inhumanly large dimensions as Neo-Tokyo. Childhood toys and objects took on the same kind of totemic, fetishistic importance — and there was also much of the same variety of telepathic mayhem by children against adults (and each other). Akira was a more definitive statement on the same subjects, however, if also that much more impersonal.
To be honest, the joylessness and oppressive quality of Akira turns off a lot of viewers; there's hardly a smile or a simple moment of kindness anywhere in the film. That also helps it retain its focus: in a movie this looming and thunderous, a moment of humanity would almost come as a distraction.
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