It seems incredible that Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk epic Akira (アキラ) – a landmark not just of anime or cinema, but of cinema – is 25 years old. Its detailed world-building and production design forever in the future, albeit it a future that seems to have grown steadily closer.
The boiling over of the bloated Neo-Tokyo – a cluttered hive of decaying infrastructure and no-shits-given hedonism – the religious fundamentalism, lawless gangs, and heavy-handed security forces ever more prescient as the Occupy movement enters its third year, and a new capital grinds to a halt every week under the boots of protesters.
For most of us, our first encounter with Akira was no doubt a well-loved VHS, a late night Channel 4 broadcast, or even 2011’s superb HD conversion, but to see it return to the big screen for its 25th anniversary is a chance to experience its apocalyptic ultra-violence and surprisingly old fashioned sense of adventure anew.
In the theatre, it’s the bleak asides and crisp detail that stars as much as the pulsing blob monsters with his fingers upon fingers and high-octane, neon-lit bike chases. The small details come to the fore – the moment a waiter flees a table moments before a spinning motorcycle crashes through the window and into a patron he was previously serving, and the protester who emerges from a fog of tear gas to get a further canister fired point-blank into his chest by a masked policeman.
Much has been made of the influence of Japan’s own atomic tragedy on the likes of Akira – and the themes of a culture stubbornly refusing to learn from its mistakes is still at the fore – but with all its high definition detail laid bare, it’s increasingly clear that Akira draws from a older artistic tradition than post-war protest, that of pre-war Futurism.
This is a world of constant motion and energy, where the true heroes is the sleek, angular frame of Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata)’s iconic, red and black motorbike – a constant badge of status that Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki) covets, and Kaneda fiercely guards – the simplistic sincerity of his youthful rebellion, and modular punch of his laser cannon.
Faces tremble with fear or rage, Kaneda rocks on his chair, and rotor-blades whip up a storm of debris and fluttering cloth – Akira wallows in its atmosphere of absolute anxiety, still unsafe, uneasy and utterly captivating 25 years on.
There’s only one way to really appreciate sheer exhausting scope of it – in the cinema.