#1 The quintessential cyberpunk dystopia
Taking place in the distant, futuristic era of 2019, Akira is a cyberpunk classic that needs little introduction. The film is set in Neo Tokyo, after the original Tokyo had a bit of an accident which kickstarted a new world war. The city that arose from its ashes embodied some of the same grandeur, but a glance behind the scenes betrays its rotten nature.
Neo Tokyo is governed by selfish politicians and those with the money to purchase their loyalty. Many live in squalor as the city and its services deteriorate around them. Violent protests ravage the city day after day, while outlaw biker gangs fight each other in the streets. Even a heavily-armed police force with little regulation is unable to stem this unrest. In fact, it’s only motivating people to organize a more efficient resistance against their authority.
The story follows Kaneda and Tetsuo. Two teenagers who attend a rundown school where little actual teaching gets done. Kaneda is the head of a motorcycle gang, who regularly get into violent conflicts with rivals over turf. During one such encounter, Tetsuo is left hospitalized when his bike explodes just before he would have run over a strange-looking kid. But this is no ordinary hospital and Tetsuo’s wounds are not just physical. Something is changing in him, something that the government and other powers are keenly interested in.
Kaneda’s attempts to find out what’s happening to his friend end up getting him involved with a band of rebels. Just as the house of cards comes tumbling down and all of Neo Tokyo is plunged into chaos.
#2 Legendary art direction
35 years later and Akira still looks absolutely stunning. I know it’s cheesy to call anything a “masterpiece” these days, but damn does Akira deserve such a label.
That cyberpunk setting I described above really comes to life thanks to the movie’s visual splendor. There are so many beautiful shots of the city rife with intricate details. Whether you’re looking at the grandiose skyline from a distance or get to see the dilapidated innards of the metropolis up close. I was constantly taking screenshots, so I’ll let them do the talking.
#3 Shouji Yamashiro’s soundscape
Surprisingly, the soundtrack for Akira was provided by an unusual artist. Shouji Yamashiro had never worked in anime before or since; Akira is his only soundtrack that I could find. Considering the amazing work he did, I can’t believe that nobody ever tried getting him to compose for any other anime.
The music in this movie is mystical and imposing. It incorporates a lot of tribal influences; soft percussions and wind instruments to create mystery, or war-like chanting to add impact to action scenes. Mixed in with this music are a lot of strange, often-unsettling soundbytes. For example, in “Mutation” there is human wailing in the background of the song. It gives the scenes where it is used a pronounced horror vibe.
I am also big fan of Tetsuo’s theme, where soft percussion is suddenly overpowered by loud chants and organ music. A great fit for the character.
#4 Tetsuo’s decline
From the moment they are first introduced, there is an element of rivalry between Tetsuo and Kaneda. At least a one-sided one. They are undeniably great friends, but in every respect Tetsuo lacks behind his friends.
He is smaller and weaker, looking almost like a kid brother as opposed to a peer. Their bikes are bigger, their girlfriends sexier, and everybody has so much more presence than him. Especially Kaneda, who is a charismatic leader that everybody looks up to. Tetsuo wants to prove his worth to the gang, to earn their admiration. Only for his efforts to frequently cause more trouble for them.
This spirals into tragedy after his hospitalization, when Tetsuo finds himself awakening to amazing new powers with horrific new side-effects. He goes through painful ordeals both mental and physical, which Tetsuo does not take well. He becomes erratic and angry, but finds that he now has the power to do something with all that rage. This realization emboldens him, in turn transforming his teenage anxieties into genuine anger towards Kaneda and the gang. Even as they do all they can to try and help their friend.
What makes this all the more tragic to me is that Tetsuo already had what he coveted so much. He just didn’t realize it. His friends always respected him, he always was a part of their group. He wasn’t popular with the babes like they were, but he was the only one with a girlfriend that genuinely cared for him. Life was pretty dang good. Rather than fix his problems, Tetsuo’s powers risk destroying all that he had.
Can Kaneda and his gang snap their friend back to sanity or will they have to accept that this is no longer the Tetsuo they once knew?
#5 Unnerving violence
Being a movie about teenage thugs on motorcycles, you might believe that the violence would be fairly modest. That is most certainly not the case.
Even before the superpowers come into play, this is visceral anime. Those gang fights are all too real, with explosions, weapons, and blood aplenty. You can see (and hear!) bones being broken as people get run over. Elsewhere, at the protests, people get absolutely shredded by gunfire and beaten to a pulp by police. There were no shortage of scenes that had me wincing at just how impactful the violence was.
Then the superpowers and terrorism come in.
Holy shit does Akira get messy. Intestines get liberated from bodies, faces are ripped open, and people get completely gored left, right, and everywhere. Later scenes get into some serious body horror, which still has me recoiling every time I rewatch those scenes. The detailed animation really sells these moments. At the same time, these scenes don’t feel as random and cheap as they did in so many other movies from the time. There is a deliberateness to it all that makes the violence feel like an intrinsic part of Akira.
At the same time, there are also scenes that don’t rely on gore necessarily to be unnerving. There is this one part where a guy chokes to death on an overdose of his medicine. You get see stumbling about for so long, trying to do something about it to no avail and finding nobody to help him. The frothing and sounds he makes, it’s intense for such an understated moment in the film.
More like this…
Jin-Roh: Grim dystopian story revolving around resistance fighters.
Roujin Z: Cyberpunk epic by Katsuhiro Otomo.
The Rolling Girls: Motorcycle gang solves all of the world’s problems.