Hey there Anime fan! Do you like DRAGON BALL Z? What about GUNDAM WING? SAILOR MOON? FLCL? If you live in the western world and you’ve seen any or all of these shows, you’ve really got only one movie to thank. That movie is AKIRA, the film that completely changed anime as we know it.
It was no accident. AKIRA is one of the most ambitious anime films ever conceived. Several different production companies, including Bandai and Toho, came together to raise a billion yen (ten million USD) to help fund the film. This enormous animation budget meant AKIRA could compete with western animation. Where many anime movies cut corners, AKIRA’s animators drew between 12 and 24 pictures per second in places and produced over 160,000 cels of animation in total.
This hard work paid off. Even though George Lucas and Steven Spielberg labeled the film unmarketable in the US, the film would go on to gross $80 million worldwide. This total would make AKIRA the second highest grossing anime film of all time until 1997, and the first time Japan had produced such a successful film with a western audience.
What’s It All About?
The story of Akira is a bit of a complicated one, but here’s the watered down version.
Our first images in AKIRA show us a nuclear-type explosion in the heart of Tokyo. We learn that this event causes World War III, and suddenly, we flash forward thirty years in the future. AKIRA takes place in a dystopian version of 2019 Neo-Tokyo. There are many characters in AKIRA, but our focus rests on two orphans: Shotaro Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima.
These two friends are members of a motorcycle gang, “The Pills.” One night, Tetsuo crashes his motorcycle into a young boy. This child, however, turns out to be a top-secret government project with psychic powers. After their encounter, the government takes Tetsuo hostage when he begins showing signs of similar telekinetic abilities.
As the movie progresses, Tetsuo grows insane from trying to control his powers. While searching for Akira, the boy whose psychic powers destroyed Japan 30 years ago, Tetsuo goes on a rampage through Neo-Tokyo causing severe damage to the city. Meanwhile, a group of other psychic children and Kaneda rush through a city on the brink of disaster to stop Tetsuo, who has become power-mad and single-minded in his pursuit of answers and revenge on the deeply flawed society in which he was raised.
AKIRA Is A Masterpiece Of Epic Proportions
Although released in 1988, AKIRA has maintained a strong following nearly 30 years later. Overall, there are tons of little things that’s contributed to this long-term success.
For starters, the animation is absolutely spectacular. Older anime, like MAISON IKKOKU, typically struggle with voice acting, soundtracks, cinematography, and overall animation quality. AKIRA, however, doesn’t run into any of these problems. It looks years ahead of its time, even against Studio Ghibli films. Films like MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES are renowned for their plots and animation quality. However, they still look and feel like 80s anime. If you asked someone to identify the year AKIRA was from, they would probably guess the early 2000s. That’s what makes it a cut above the rest in terms of animation quality.
It’s soundtrack, comprised of Japanese percussion and techno music, blends together beautifully and creates a futuristic yet austere movie atmosphere. Lastly, AKIRA’s cinematography is just so impressive. There’s honestly too many breathtaking scenes to list, but the transition shots are what sticks out. There’s a small scene where we see a dog barking. It’s only 2-3 seconds long, but the fluidity in animation rivals any modern anime. This extremely high level of production made for an easier transition to American audiences, who were used to the big-budget animations of studios like Disney.
A Japanese Story Coming To America
These things are all important, but not nearly as important as the symbolism behind AKIRA’S storyline. It’s hard to believe that AKIRA’S explicit content could resonate with people, but for Japanese citizens, it was like looking through a mirror. On August 6th, 1945, Japan suffered a casualty their nation will never forget. That, of course, was the atomic bomb. An estimated minimum of 129,000 citizens died. Thousands more were poisoned by radiation, and Japan’s morale was completely crushed. Even with this inconceivable hardship, however, the citizens of Japan continued to push forward, just like the characters in AKIRA. These characters had their homeland demolished several times, but they always fought for a brighter future.
This national tragedy has come to deeply affect the culture of Japanese storytelling. Nuclear war nearly led to the destruction of their entire way of life. Just as the film takes place thirty years after WWIII, it released a mere forty years after WWII. Though today we don’t think much about WWIII, in 1988 the United States was still in the midst of an arms race with the USSR. The threat of nuclear war was an ever-present danger, and this kind of story clearly resonated with Americans of the time.
While given limited theatrical releases in Western societies, it was the widespread availability of the VHS which helped AKIRA reach the heights it did. Unlike any other time in the history of film, the mid to late 80s saw a western world in which VCR technology was affordable for most middle-class families. This gave films a second life they never had before, for a much larger audience. This was the case with AKIRA, especially in the United States.
A Legacy to Remember
AKIRA is beautiful, different, and above all else, insane. The United States, for example, didn’t have anything of this caliber at the time. Yes, we had animation films, but our popular ones were THE LITTLE MERMAID and MICKEY’S MAGICAL WORLD. That’s not to say they’re bad movies, but they exclude a large percentage of the adult demographic. After AKIRA came to the US, people became more aware of what Japan was doing with their style of animation. Their content was morbid and dark, but also alluring. People flocked to this style, as evident by AKIRA grossing $80 million worldwide. This money alone was enough to launch the production company Manga Entertainment. This company would go on to co-produce legendary titles like GHOST IN THE SHELL, DRAGON BALL Z, and NARUTO.
So, AKIRA might just be a film, but it means more than that to anime fans like Chris and I. At first, neither of us really understood the hype behind the film. I found the story to be disjointed, and Chris imagined the film differently. However, a lot has changed since the first time we watched the film. I started reading the expanded manga, which details the storyline much further. This filled in some of the gaps I noticed and helped me appreciate the story more. Chris, on the other hand, had completely different taste in shows when he first watched AKIRA. After re-watching it recently, however, he understands how the film unlocked Japanese animation in the west.
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying this film’s impact on the world. And 30 years later, film-lovers still admire everything AKIRA brought to the table. It truly is the film that changed everything.
Featured Image Courtesy of Crunchyroll