by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Akira, released in 1988, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on the 1982 manga of the same name, tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda – the cocky leader of a biker gang whose close friend, Tetsuo, comes into possession of extraordinarily powerful, telekinetic powers. As the two-hour motion picture progresses, Kaneda and his companions are thrust into a world of top-secret government intrigue, mass destruction and non-stop violence.
But perhaps the most important part of that whole paragraph is that it’s based on a manga and, true to custom, is an animated film. Why is that important? In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the world of manga and anime was an almost exclusively Japanese custom, limited to dedicated fan groups and small-scale conventions. Anime wasn’t the global goliath it is today.
The simple truth is that, for many Westerners, Akira was the first real taste of anime they ever experienced. And what a baptism by swathes of fire it is, too. Theatrical releases in both the United Kingdom and US proved immensely popular, and the movie was made available on home media shortly after. For more than twenty years, it was the only animated film to feature in the Criterion Collection (a video-distribution company specialized in licensing ‘important classic and contemporary films’).
And Akira would go on to make its marks for many years to come. It would pave the way for the rest of anime to sweep the Western world – from timeless classics to obscurer pieces of media. Whether it’s the movie’s themes, such as existentialism, higher being and self-identity, or the iconography of the setting itself, you can see Akira’s influence in other works.
The classic anime of the 1990s for instance; Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion all sport homage and inspiration to the defining great. As does Hollywood, with films like The Matrix and Kill Bill counting on its legacy for their creation. Hell, even Stranger Things can’t escape that same fate. If you watch Akira, chances are you’ll see aspects of it branch out into all sorts of media.
It even created the iconic ‘Akira slide’ – referencing a scene where protagonist Kaneda slides his iconic red motorbike into the frame. It’s a shot that’s been recreated in countless movies, television series and video games over the years (most recently, perhaps, in Jordan Peele’s Nope). To call Akira ‘influential’ would be a gross understatement.
And it’s not just one of those films that should only be remembered for what it spawned. It is a groundbreakingmotion picture. Though it deviates somewhat from the source material, it remains a vast, sprawling world to endlessly navigate in just two hours. Every character, every motorbike, every swerve, every building, every neon sign, every piece of dialogue has been slaved over, refined and honed into the punchiest ingredient possible. The result is one hell of a drug. A wild, no-brakes ride through Neo-Tokyo, through dimly lit alleyways and shopfronts swimming in the iridescence.
I really don’t want to give too much of this film away. If you haven’t seen Akira, you should. Not solely because it’s a project that would define an entire movement, but because it’s one of the biggest, loudest, and strangest movies ever made, all these years later. Maybe you’ll keep up with it. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll reach the end of the credits still trying to work out what the hell happened. Just imagine how British households felt all those years ago, with not the faintest idea of what to expect.
It bewildered and enraptured audiences then. It does today. It will for another thirty years. Some movies are just made of special stuff, and Akira has shitloads.