Pros:Beautifully animated, slickly composed, amazing soundtrack
Cons:Brutal violence, gotta pay attention (which aren't cons for me)
I decided to watch Akira again after playing it up so much in my top ten animated films article. I feared that perhaps I'd played it up too much, that the years had been too kind on my memory. But memory has served me well. Akira is as spectacular as it ever was.
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It opens with a long overhead shot of Tokyo, July 16, 1988. Silent. A white sphere appears in the center of the screen and grows to devour the entire city. Cut to an overhead shot of Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after World War III. In the space of a minute, the film has given us place and given us backstory on the conflict that is to occur. This minimalist pairing of scenes is brilliantly evocative and indicative of the film making style of the movie.
From there we are introduced to the main characters, a group of bike punks, who are going after a rival gang, the clowns. Again, in its wonderfully spare and lean film style, the movie tells us who these characters are by individual lines of dialog. The focus is on Kaneda, obviously the leader of the group, and Tetsuo, the loner and runt of the group. These are character stereotypes and presented intentionally so, as to let the viewer get a sense of the characters and understand their personalities before thrusting them into action. But like any introduction, these initial glimpses of the characters only reveal the surface of their personalities.
We get a taste of the style of action that Akira presents in the ensuing biker battle, as well as a subtilely presented glimpse of the society that the story takes place in. The action is frenetic, stylized, and brutal. Bright, leaping splashes of red trail every strike and explosion are billowing bursts of flame and smoke. All around this biker war is social upheaval amid a dirty and decrepit city. The city is somewhat Blade Runner-esq, but not nearly as dark and dreary. That these bikers exist and are basically accepted as normal as potholes is very telling of this world.
In this biker battle, we get our first taste of the larger plot -- a gray and wrinkled boy is led by a man whose dripping blood leaves a convenient trail for the police dogs to follow. The police eventual gun the man down, while the boy runs and comes across Tetsuo, in pursuit of the clowns. Tetsuo bags a clown and finds himself headed straight at the boy. The boy raises a hand marked 26 and Tetsuo's bike explodes a foot from the boy. This is no ordinary boy, to be sure, and the military comes to take him back. They also take Tetsuo, and the rest of the movie concerns his experience at the military hospital and Kaneda's efforts to find him and get him back. I promise, no more plot information, as the discovery the plot afford the viewer is part of the pleasure of watching the movie.
Akira is both thematically broad and specific, abstract and concrete. It is a story about a vast experiment that could change the face of mankind and the government's efforts to control and cover it up. It's about Kaneda's effort to rescue and save his friend, a personal tale of relationships amid a barely sane society. It's a warning to humanity on the dangers of trying to wield a power that we cannot control, a la Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. It's a revelation that people, even friends, may not be who you think they are. It is all of these at once and more.
Visually, Akira dazzles. The film looks and feels as if it was not animated, rather it is a parallel dimension where people and things look like realistically rendered cartoons. The animators use several techniques culled from non-animated movies: unfocused foregrounds, backgrounds that move at different speeds than the middle ground, and fuzzy flashbacks all make this film a visual feast. The animation is stunningly detailed and realistic. We see every shard of glass, every twist of the biker's body as it slams against the moving pavement, and the reaction of every person in the crowd.
The soundtrack, like the storytelling, is minimalist and moody. Sparse drum beats and eerie chants make Akira's music all the more effective. I've heard the soundtrack before and it's brilliant, though very difficult to find.
When it's all said and done, Akira is one of the greatest feats ever performed with animation. It's not cartoons, but storytelling of the highest degree, film making at its most precise. If you haven't seen this already, I suggest that you pick it up and pay attention to the important details that its filled with.