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Empire List #440: Akira

The least you can say about the Japanese people is that they are a resilient bunch. They were bombed twice with nuclear bombs at the end of World War II, their economy was left in ruins, and their empire was crumbled by the new emerging American one. How did they recover? They became the world’s best provider of electronics. Read the end credits of any Nintendo game, most of the names are Japanese. But video games weren’t enough. They also emerged as a global influence on comic books and cartoons with manga and anime. If you are ever interested in learning about these two art forms, you couldn’t do better than Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime movie “Akira,” based on his own best selling two-part manga.

I saw this movie as part of my Friday night film club at the University of Sherbrooke in the fall of 2008. That night OMASUS (Obscure Movie Appreciation Society of the University of Sherbrooke) was showing a double feature comprising of “Blade Runner” and “Akira.” Appropriate, since “Akira” has shades of an animated “Blade Runner.” Both films feature a dystopian future, massive cities, and a-many flying vehicles. This was one of my first anime movies so I didn’t quite know what to expect. In retrospect, I am still not sure of what I saw.

Since our club president is as big a film fan as I am, he chose to show the movie in the original Japanese with English subtitles. That never bothers me, and it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. “Akira” is a visual treat, featuring 1980s hand-drawn animation that depicts a sprawling metropolis of the future, bike chases, satellites firing laser beams, and a character that morphs into a gigantic blob of skin and muscle.

The plot as a whole is difficult to describe, but it begins simply. In the far-off future of 2019 (not so far-off anymore), a bike war is taking place in the city of Neo-Tokyo. Young Shotaro Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) and his best friend Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaki) are racing across the streets at night on hover bikes, while fighting a rival gang that wears clown masks. Suddenly Tetsuo crashes his bike when he almost runs over what looks like a boy, except the boy has grey hair and wrinkly skin. Then things start to get really interesting

Army helicopters arrive to capture the boy. With them is a girl in a hover chair with the same condition as the old boy, who convinces him to come along peacefully. The troops are led by Colonel Shikishima (Taro Ishida), an imposing figure who has a lot on his mind. It turns out the colonel was part of an army program that 31 years ago performed medical experiences on Akira, a boy with extraordinary mental powers. The result of the experiment was the destruction of Tokyo, and the beginning of World War III. And wouldn’t you know it, the colonel discovers that the hospitalized Tetsuo has similar powers to the late Akira, whose remains are buried under an Olympic stadium.

Fearing that Tetsuo could repeat history, the army decides to capture him and kill him if need be. Bad idea. As his powers grow, Tetsuo loses control and wipes people out in fits of anger. Shooting him doesn’t solve the problem it makes it worse.

Meanwhile, Kaneda learns the fate of his friend and decides to rescue him. He joins forces with a terrorist faction, tries to flirt with Kei (Mami Koyama), one of their members he met in prison, and infiltrates the massive government building where Tetsuo is held. Unfortunately, by the time he reaches him Tetsuo is no longer his friend.

Tetsuo goes mad with power and develops a god complex. He wants to make Kaneda pay for every time he looked down on him or made him feel unworthy of the gang. He also learns the fate of Akira and decides to unearth his remains at the stadium to gain as much power as possible. Then the destruction increases exponentially.

The army does everything it can to stop him, but Tetsuo is seemingly indestructible. Scientists scramble to understand what their readings are telling them. Religious nut-jobs run into the streets saying it’s a sign of the end. Chaos reigns in the streets. The colonel stages a coup against the government. Tanks fire everywhere. It’s a load of fun.

By the time we reached the last frame and the dust settled I wasn’t quite sure of what I had just seen. As amazing as the story might be visually, the third act does get confusing when it goes into overdrive. The conclusion also left me confused, but at least I thoroughly enjoyed the ride getting there.

This film definitely fit its cult status and I am glad I saw it with other film fans. I have read that Hollywood has been trying to make their version of the movie for years. Best of luck to them. I would hate to be the guy writing the script for this crazy story. Could be worth it for the wide shots of New Tokyo, or as it will undoubtedly be the case, New Manhattan.

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