***/**** Image B+ Sound B (English)/A (Japanese)
screenplay by Katsuhiro Otomo & Izo Hashimoto
directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
by Walter Chaw What begins as a miracle of cinema ends as an obscure endurance test, but the visual landmarks that you pass along this strange animated journey's way make the trip one of value. Akira is two hours and five minutes of philosophical soup, a surrealistic melding of Blade Runner, X-Men, Firestarter, and Frank Miller's "Sin City" mixed by the melancholic sensibilities of the only culture that has experienced the Atomic bomb, with a healthy sampling of really fast motorcycles tossed in for visceral crunch.
The setting is 2019, thirty-one years after World War III has annihilated Tokyo. A "Neo-Tokyo" rises from the ashes, its teeming mean streets patrolled by religious fanatics, storm troopers, feral dogs, and irradiated freaks. One night, a small motorcycle gang led by tough-talking Kaneda is ambushed by a rival gang, with one of their members, Tetsuo, seriously injured and then, inexplicably, abducted by a government strike force. Aided by an anti-government terrorist, Kaneda's efforts to discover the fate of his compatriot uncover a military plot invested in genetically boosting children into beings of pure destructive energy. Tetsuo, seriously injured, older than the other test subjects, and rationalized as expendable street trash by his military abductors, is subjected at a whim to the consciousness-boosting experiments, with disastrous results.
The introductory scenes of Akira are dazzling and inventive. Neo-Tokyo is claustrophobic and alive, a strange cyberpunk high technology/decrepitude juxtaposition made familiar by the fiction of William Gibson and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The rain-slicked streets and endless highways provide the motorcycle battleground for Kaneda's bunch and rival gang "The Clowns"--their vehicles' taillights dopplering in exaggerated comet tails in the dank air as they attack one another at high speeds with lead pipes and well-timed kicks. They are futuristic leather-clad knight errants, lacking only a quest and a liege lord. The streaking lights act as an ephemeral counterpoint to the streaks and splashes of blood, the grace of the lightshow making the sudden violence of a motorcycle crash all the more startling. When you sit down to attempt this ultimately confusing film, you will be amazed at the innovation of the kinetic violence in its opening minutes.
Later, Tetsuo has marvelous hallucinations as he comes under the influence of the DNA-altering drugs (meant to simultaneously unleash and harness his nearly limitless potential). A giant teddy bear composed of a mountain of toys, a giant rabbit, and a giant toy car rear up around his bed and stalk towards the boy, all to the low strains of a guttural soundtrack that suggests a man having an intense physical encounter with a Hammond organ. The finale, in a shattered Olympic stadium as Tetsuo's flesh-and-blood body attempts to contain his ever-expanding and limitless energy, is at once grotesque, mysterious, and beautiful. Much of Akira is like this: an innovative and brilliant exercise in animation that tests the boundaries of entertainment while demonstrating the anime medium's infinitely malleable capacity to imagine science-fiction scenarios.
It is a shame, then, that the storyline is so difficult to follow. I don't mean difficult in a conventional sense, for the framework seems straight-forward enough: a child gets turned into a monster and is unable to control his impulses. What I mean is that the film mires down in endless scenes devoted to a scientist arguing with a general, and to graphics on a hologram table that seem to be of great importance, but are really just a vaguely-interesting sidebar to the pyrotechnics we suspect are occurring outside of frame. Much of the muddle is a result, I suspect, of director Katsuhiro Otomo and writer Izou Hashimoto's inability (or unwillingness) to condense and summarize fifty-some issues of Otomo's own Akira manga, coupled with their own overfamiliarity and the assumed familiarity of the audience with said source material.
There are times early on that Akira suggests A Clockwork Orange set to foreign rhythms and artistic sensibilities--a grim fable about a futurescape with little order and a notable lack of accountability. By the end, Akira evokes another Kubrick film, 2001, in its suggestion that humanity will one day evolve beyond flesh into beings of light and consciousness. What one ultimately comes away with, however, is the sense that Akira, for all its indisputable historical importance, is barely accessible to the average viewer. It is supremely entertaining in spurts, hopelessly incomprehensible in others. The result is a jittering patchwork of Babel-like ambition with flashes of breathtaking visual genius that lack a vital linear cohesion.
Akira is an unusually ambitious film that is overlong, philosophically ponderous, and at times deliberately obscure. Yet, the fact that it is so revered as a classic of its form speaks not to a strange blindness to its shortcomings, but to a heartening respect for groundbreaking works in any genre of art and the surprising championing of a movie that actually falters because of a surplus of ideas rather than a dearth.
The long-awaited Pioneer DVD release of Akira is a handsome package that provides a complete 1.78:1 widescreeen, 16:9-enhanced digital remastering of the image along with a freshly-recorded Dolby 5.1 surround English soundtrack. The entirely new dub provided smoothes out some of the choppier moments from the old one (the biggest improvement comes in the naturalization of the voices of the mutant children), but it still displays a stiffness born of voice actors working from a wooden translation and, ultimately, a loss of some nuance and meaning. The original Japanese Dolby Surround remains the preferable choice despite losing some of the bass and channel separation of the English 5.1 track. Although it is possible to switch between English and Japanese language tracks as the film is playing, the language menu must be accessed in order to switch on the English subtitles.
The visual quality of the DVD is exceedingly clean and free of artifacts and defects, if only ever as crisp as the original cel animation, now thirteen years old, allows. In some scenes, the picture is crisp and detailed (a brief scene in a glass elevator is a showcase, for instance, for Otomo's deep-reality cityscape); in others, it shows its age in grain. Akira's uneven video is forgivable in light of the obvious pains taken to restore the negative.
A nifty "capsule option" constitutes the bulk of the special features (a Limited Edition with additional bonus material was not available for review at press time), providing numerous opportunities throughout the film to click "enter" on the remote in order to access translations of street signs and graffiti. Long a shortcoming of import films, the vital ability to read written language is often overlooked in the subtitling process. Pioneer's recognition of the resonance lent Akira by an understanding of its written slogans is just another indication that they've taken the release of this seminal film very seriously indeed. Lucasfilm's THX Optimizer rounds out the disc. Originally published: July 25, 2001.