Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.
Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.
Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.