The Greatest Anime Ever? Akira.
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Akira is epic to the point of making Ben-Hur look like an after-school special. Incredibly violent, insanely detailed, deep and at times heart wrenching, Akira is one of the few films that has everything. Whether you'll understand it the first time is irrelevant. Even after you absorb the overlapping plot points spanning everything from motorcycle gang wars to ESP to political backstabbing, you'll still find yourself coming back to the film for its incredible visuals. I've seen Akira countless times, and I spot something new on every viewing.
I was introduced to Akira by way of the following commercial for the quasi-legal Columbia House. The company was hawking their latest VHS tapes, the Streamline Pictures dub of the movie being among them. This was back in 1998, when anime wasn't a widely-known commodity in the States, sometimes being referred to by the cringe-worthy term "Japanimation." Thankfully, this TV spot doesn't go there.
When I was in high school, I borrowed this tape from my friend Graham. I couldn't follow any of the storyline, and I later learned I wasn't alone; the dub was completely mistranslated from the Japanese. But the look of the movie was stupendous, and stuck with me on its own merits. In 2001, my college classmate Andre, who also introduced me to the Breakin' films, picked up the Pioneer Special Edition DVD set for me at a convention. I remember my excitement when he told me me over AOL Instant Messenger that he was able to score it; only 5,000 of the tins were produced. This release included a translation so faithful, it carried over to the twenty-fifth anniversary DVD from Funimation in 2013. The Pioneer version of Akira changed my entire perception of anime.
This dub features Johnny Yong Bosch of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers fame as the voice of Kaneda. With an accurate translation and a flawless widescreen transfer, it was like seeing Akira for the first time. My preferences have since since shifted to subtitled anime, but good dubs can be an effective gateway drug, and I wouldn't dissuade anime newcomers from watching them.
Akira may well be seen as the definitive example of animation. If this film escaped some bizarre accident in which all other animated programming perished in flames, Akira alone would be testament to animation's power and promise. Akira is a triumph of OCD, being rendered almost exclusively by traditional cel animation. So many colors (327) were used in this production that theatrical exhibition was for years the only way to see everything this masterpiece has to offer: The televisions of the '80s and '90s couldn't display the nuances of Akira's different hues, fifty of which were exclusive to the movie. Thankfully, today's HD televisions can effectively process the Akira spectrum, giving audiences a theatrically-correct experience.
Akira speaks for itself with its brilliant narrative and gorgeously graphic animation, which makes a fine art of mass destruction. Many colorful, complex characters reside in the sprawling, high-tech labyrinth of Neo-Tokyo. The primordial score by Geinoh Yamashirogumi makes the experience unforgettable and visceral. I've included the following scene (from the superior Pioneer dub) to illustrate some of the great music found in the film. The action is so fluid and detailed, you'll need to remind yourself it was drawn by hand. Incredibly, all of Akira's fantastic music was recorded before the composers had read the script or seen any of the film! And here's something really crazy: Back in 1988, this film correctly predicted that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympic Games!
Here's my Akira score, purchased at a defunct store called Made in Japan. Casey Wales, the owner of that shop, went on to create Robot City Games, the largest arcade in New York State. Be sure to check out my review of Casey's setup, which also includes a store dedicated to console gaming, both retro and current.
In an incredibly stylish move, Akira begins with on-screen text stating, "1988.7.16 TOKYO." This was the opening day of the movie. How cool it must have been to attend Akira, and have the first few seconds take place in "real time." From there, the story jumps to the year 2019.
Akira brings life to the tired cliche of teenage angst. The film relays the story of a juvenile delinquent motorcycle gang and their chance encounter with a kidnapped government test subject. The gang's weakest member, Tetsuo Shima, is injured during the incident, and taken into custody by military forces, who are in pursuit of the subject.
After bizarre tests are performed on Tetsuo, the government determines he may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of Akira, the legendary test subject whose abilities grew to unfathomable proportions, and destroyed Tokyo in the process. Tetsuo has been bullied his entire life, and now that he possesses destructive psychic powers, he's not inclined to cooperate with authority figures. Can Tetsuo rid himself of his most determined rival, his best friend Kaneda? Akira details decisions and consequences.
Akira made its debut as a recurring manga in Japan's Young magazine, encompassing 2,000 glorious black-and-white pages. For story purposes, the animated film makes some changes to the manga, which was still running at theatrical release. If you want to see Akira in its full scope, you can pick up the six-volume set released by Dark Horse comics. The volumes are massive, even more graphic than the movie, and will keep you enthralled for days. I've had mine for so long, the glue has deteriorated. My main gripe about these volumes is that the artwork has been flipped to be read from left to right for English-speaking audiences. I didn't know any better when I purchased the manga, but it's kind of annoying now.
I bought this Dark Horse Akira manga promo poster back in 2002. It was supposed to go in my dorm room, but it never made it that far. (Don't mind Mac McMannequin, modeling my Ghostbusters uniform. He's always photobombing me!)
Akira makes live action look like cinema's lazy alternative. The movie contains 160,000 individual frames, about twice the norm for anime films of the time. It was also one of the first anime to be drawn after the dialog was recorded, allowing for more accurate lip movements. Akira is frequently ranked by fans and critics as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever, and has been credited as the inspiration for The Matrix.
The cultural impact of this movie cannot be overstated. For example, the 1992 Neo-Geo game Last Resort sets its first stage in an unofficial Neo-Toyko. (Neo-Geo. Neo-Tokyo. Coincidence?)
Another Neo-Geo title, The King of Fighters 2002, features a character named K9999. The video game character is voiced by Nozomu Sasaki, who played Tetsuo in Akira. K9999 bears more than a passing resemblance to anime's favorite troubled teen.
It should be obvious by now that Akira is one of my all-time favorite movies. A few years back, I purchased one of Akira's 160,000 animation cels, along with its corresponding pencil sketch, known in the anime industry as a douga. I had the set framed locally, and it's on display in my game room, along with the other items pictured in this review.
I recently saw Funimation's Akira DVD at Wal-Mart for $5.00, which is a contender for the best retail deal in history. If you've never seen the movie, don't wait any longer.
Finally, although I don't have an Akira-worthy bike, I do love my scooter. The pill decal on the back is synonymous with the franchise: It references the recreational drugs in the manga and anime, and in fact Tetsuo's gang is known as The Capsules. And check out my license plate! If there was ever a doubt that I'm a nerd, this should settle things.