AKIRA: animating light and the art of Japanese post-apocalyptic cyberpunk

To say the least, Japanese cyberpunk is one of the most riveting and important evolutions of science fiction in the past 40 years. Rooting in the 1980s, this subgenre of sci-fi often has themes of a “low-life, high-tech” setting with metallic, industrial imagery transporting you to a different world. Tropes like these still occur in recent media such as Alita: Battle Angel, The Matrix, Chronicle, and Looper, but none of these iconic films would have been the same if it wasn’t for Akira, a 1988 Japanese anime film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo based off his 1982–90 manga series.

Figure 1. Akira screencap (Pinterest, n.d.)

The seismic impact this film has made on the industry entirely is like no other, not only paving way for anime to enter mainstream media but also fuelling people’s hidden dystopian curiosity. As you watch it, you may notice that this does not feel or move like modern anime today; if you were to compare another Japanese animation such as Hayao Miyazaki’s work you would see little to no similarities, giving this film more impact and importance than it had already. When Akira was released, it had set foot in one of the most innovative times for animation, the Golden Age of Anime. Mirroring Japan’s economic growth during the 80s, more income came more time and effort put into art being made and Akira definitely lives up to its groundbreaking impact. The child of experimental and boundary-breaking anime, Akira is the precipice of this era in history.

Figure 2. Dirty Pair screencap (FandomSpot, n.d.)

Set in a 2019 Neo-Tokyo, Akira tells the story of biker gang leader Shōtarō Kaneda and his childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, as the latter acquires supernatural abilities, leading to a rebellion against the military sprawled against a bustling dystopian metropolis. Despite how disastrous the setting comes to be, it’s almost beautiful in a sense; making you can’t help but glorify the neon lights and dark alleyways of Neo-Tokyo. The culprits of this were the animators, of course, with over 160000 animation cels drawn, along with using CGI to animate Doctor Ōnishi’s pattern indicator, falling objects, lens flares, and a bit of lighting. Speaking of lighting, despite this film being over 30 years old its sensible use of technology and its expensive 5.5 million USD budget (at that time) really pays off when looking at the beautiful spotlights, neon signs, and moonlight. Every scene, character, or object drawn in Akira has a personality, down to a lamppost. Different qualities and textures of light serve as a motif for the amount of time, effort, and genius put into 124 minutes, adding depth to mise-en-scène.

Figure 3. Tetsuo Shima (Pinterest, n.d.)

An example of utterly gorgeous lighting is the opening shot of the explosion during the war when a painful glow erupts from nothing in the epicenter of Neo-Tokyo. Initially covered in a dome of black, the glow brings the city to rubble in less than a second until flooding the screen with a bright white. With a complete absence of score or dialogue, this scene gives you enough backstory to Neo-Tokyo despite being less than a minute. Not having a score, in the beginning, adds to the tension, but in some parts, the score is what makes the animation more captivating. Taking influences from Indonesian gamelan and Japanese noh, soundtrack producer Shōji Yamashiro gave Akira its trademark suspense and thrill.

Figure 4. Infamous Kaneda bike scene (Imgur, n.d.)

As much as the animation and score bring to this beautiful work, the voice cast also did a tremendous job. Actors Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Tarō Ishida, and Mizuho Suzuki play Shōtarō Kaneda, Tetsuo Shima, Kei, Colonel Shikishima and Doctor Ōnishi respectively voice their characters with passion and purpose that it’s no wonder this film is hailed as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. When watching Akira, the best way to do so is to watch it in Japanese with subtitles, because English dubs don’t ever do this film justice. With Japanese dialogue, you can feel the cocky yet empathetic nature and use of sarcasm in Kaneda’s words, yet it doesn’t feel right in English. The same problem exists in Tetsuo’s character dub, with his issue with feeling inferior to Kaneda not being felt. Important aspects to the story like these lead to the dub just not living up to the original. That’s how you tell the original voice cast did a tremendous job — without their sound, the experience of watching Akira is completely different. A prime example of this is comparing the scene where Tetsuo beats up a member of the Clowns, Kaneda’s rival gang. Both Tetsuo and Kaneda in English sound annoying and stupid when dubbed. Animation for this scene, however, the few seconds where Tetsuo heavily breathes is just another one of the reasons why this film is a must-watch — it feels real as if he was a real person being exhausted. Akira rides the line between actuality and ingenuity, with equal elements of supernatural dystopia and social commentary. Again, the opening shot serves as a direct reference to atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, leading to Japan’s surrender from World War II. Akira is not the only piece of media that derives parts from this very event, but it’s elements like these in Japanese pop culture that make it unique. It’s a collective memory to Japan, taking trauma and evolving it into art. Some will claim that this is built on creating sympathy and victimizing themselves, but it’s an explicit critique of how society corrupts and misuses technology, and how social values are gone in the face of war. The narrative of abandonment and isolation is also prominent in Akira, with Tetsuo and Kaneda meeting in an orphanage.

Figure 5. The Deep influence of the A-bomb on anime and manga (Digg, 2015)

Marxist film theory is also noticeable with the representation of class discrimination. The corrupted, rich military and the violent, poor biker gangs of Neo Tokyo contrast each other in terms of intent and motive. Kaneda’s character acts before he thinks, while Colonel Shikishima thinks before he acts, creating a divide between both worlds. This film is important in terms of cinematic wonder, but it’s also important because of how large of a cultural impact it has on music and film. Because of this, it’s not hard to find a reference. Art3mis’ bike in Ready Player One, the throne in Grimes’ music video Delete Forever and Officer Jenny’s bike slide in Pokémon, all pay homage and bring people back to this iconic marvel of a film. For a tl;dr: that’s a 5/5 for Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 film Akira.


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