In anticipation for the upcoming DVD release, I decided to revisit an old favorite, and take a look at one of the very first laserdiscs I purchased: “Akira, the Criterion Collection edition.”
Every once in a while, you come across a movie that restores your faith in film. It’s not because of a particularly well written line of dialog, or because of an intricate, well formed plot. No, every once in a while, a film wins you over just out of pure energy and momentum, reminding you of the simple power of moving pictures. “Akira” is probably the finest example of that, an animated movie from Japan that opens with some of the most amazing, pulse-quickening scenes ever put to film.
Rival motorcycle gangs are battling it out on the highways and streets of a futuristic Tokyo. Like knights in an apocalyptic kingdom, they fight with speed, clubs, and their wits. The speed of the brawl, all of it drawn by hand (a real feat when compared with modern animation), is seen with th fading glow of tail lights, which burn across the frame like comets.
And then, suddenly, the fury and violent beauty of the highway duel ends, one of the heroic bikers laying on the ground, injured.
Just as suddenly, military helicopters drop from the sky, stealing away the injured biker and disappearing into the dark sky above.
The plot takes several strange turns from there. We learn that the injured biker, Tetsuo, has powerful psychic powers that rival those of a legendary psi named Akira. When Akira finally achieved the zenith of his abilities, something Tetsuo also seems destined to do, a huge section of Tokyo was destroyed in an explosion of energy. The military, struggling to keep a society bent on revolution in place, wants to harness Tetsuo’s powers. Violent revolutionaries want to free Tetsuo and other people like him from the powerful military. And Kaneda, Tetsuo’s best friend, fellow biker, and role-model, simply wants to get his friend back. Meanwhile, Tetsuo becomes obsessed with meeting his destiny, so much so that he won’t let anyone stand in his way.
I’ll be honest, the plot isn’t very easy to decipher, especially if the version you’re watching has a questionable translation (either in the dubbed version or the subtitled version). But, like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” repeated viewings bring new rewards, as little bits of the convoluted plot begin to make sense, and a greater understanding of the political motivations come into focus.
The first time I saw “Akira” was baffling, the times after that fascinating, and then, after several viewings, I found it deeply moving.
What kept me coming back, time after time, was the visuals. There are images in this film that you won’t soon forget. Stuffed animals coming to life, growing to massive proportions, and attacking a fevered Tetsuo. The fury of an enraged psionic shattering a city block, raining glass down on the people below. The strange, tranquil beauty of Tetsuo’s trip into orbit. And finally, Tetsuo’s horrific transformation into what he is becoming. The film is filled with moments unlike anything ever seen before and its these visuals that leave such a lasting presence.
I’m sure that on some level, the admiration I feel for this film lays in its toys and action. The futuristic motorcycles, huge energy cannons that require battery backpacks, and the exceedingly cool satellite weapons platforms are all the stuff of little boy fantasies. I realize this, all while watching it, but the truth is, I don’t care. It’s too much fun to let go of, and yet, I can understand how some people just don’t get it. The CD jukebox in one of the bars is shown with painstaking detail, so much that we understand how it works, and it is this jukebox that explains a great deal of the film’s pleasures and limitations. It takes the eye of a gadget fetishist to truly appreciate much of what this film will show you, and without that eye, much of it will be lost.
And yet, when the toys are gone, when all the gadgets are taken away and we’re left with only the characters, the film continues to exceed expectations. The end of the movie, a moment between two friends, is filled with more empathy and sincerity than most films, animated or not, and its this moment that gives the film weight. The images are breathtaking, yes, but there is a heart to this movie that is even more surprising.
I don’t suspect that my experience with “Akira” is unique. I believe that most people who see it will fall in love with the cyberpunk touches, the otherworldly images, and then later find themselves equally drawn to the story of friendship at its core.
On a technical note, I always felt that the color definition of this edition of “Akira” was somehow “off,” looking a little too punchy in some spots, and then appearing washed out in others. I’m eagerly looking forward to the remastered edition, coming this July. Considering the care that is being put into this coming disc, I’m sure it will make a lot of fans happy.