ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Akira (1988) Collector’s Edition Blu Ray & DVD & Digital Download (Manga)
This Japanese anime (adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from the Manga comic of the same name) is set Tokyo in 2019, 31 years after it has been destroyed during WWIII - and now rebuilt as a high-tech dystopia. Tetsuo is a member of an adolescent biker gang who is desperate to prove his worth in the shadow of the leader Kaneda. While they are racing around the streets of Tokyo they have a run-in with a rival gang named The Clowns, resulting in a high-speed battle on an elevated highway.
Meanwhile, a mysterious child with the wrinkled complexion of an elderly man is being rushed through the streets by an adult, while the military pursues close behind. When they reach a blockade the adult gets involved in a gunfight with the soldiers and ends up being riddled with bullet holes. The child however, possessing some telekinetic powers that are capable of causing large-scale destruction, uses them as a distraction and then disappears in a cloud of smoke.
When Kaneda’s gang have seen off their rivals Tetsuo suddenly runs into this mysterious wrinkled boy - narrowly avoiding accidentally crushing him as the latter uses his powers to push the bike away. At this moment the military catches up with the child and takes him back to the lab, along with Tetsuo. Kaneda and the rest of his gang are taken to the police station - but are then subsequently discharged. Before leaving he spots an attractive young woman named Kei in the line of apprehended suspects. He manages to get her out along with his gang by claiming that she is one of them.
Back at the lab Tetsuo is sectioned off for examination by a group of scientists. He manages to escape and get back to Kaneda and the rest of the gang, but when he does he experiences a range of odd visions such as the ground opening up below him and his own innards falling out. He is soon recaptured and back under observation. While there, he experiences some even wilder visions and starts to discover that he can manipulate and destroy objects around him using only the power of his mind. It seems that some of the extraordinary powers demonstrated by the wrinkled boy (whom the government team calls Subject 26) have been passed onto him. Meanwhile, Kaneda has another run-in with Kei, who it turns out is a member of an anti-government resistance movement. The group plans to storm the complex where Subject 26 and Tetsuo are being held. However, little do they realise that Tetsuo’s powers are starting to take on a truly dangerous dimension under the control of this rash and impulsive adolescent.
Watch a trailer:
Akira has a fervent and particularly significant following. While it was far from being the first Japanese animation, it was the one that really entrenched the cult of “Anime” and “Manga” in the Western world. It is also generally regarded, alongside Blade Runner, as one of the most significant movie entries in the “Cyberpunk” ethos. When I first saw Akira back in the early 1990s I can remember having two distinct impressions: firstly, being blown away by the jaw-dropping visuals and secondly, being baffled by the convoluted storytelling and frequent unannounced jumps between real and imagined occurrences. Indeed, this is a film that does have the propensity to perplex the first or even second (or for that matter, more times than that) viewer as a lot of events are experienced “out of the blue” only to be explained later - or requiring a bit of connective imagination to fathom.
However, understand it or not, Akira is clearly a stunning piece of filmmaking. Visually it’s superb, in part because of the imagination and attention to tiny details that goes into everything from the vast cityscapes that tower as far as the eye can see, through the ever-swelling magnitude of the powers the film’s gifted children possess, to the iconic bright red bike that Kaneda rides everywhere. Another big part of the visual impressiveness however comes from how three-dimensional and physical it all feels. Coloured light sources cast their own convincing ambience and shadows, right down to the refractions on the shiny surface of Kaneda’s bike as it dashes past them. When gunfire hits water and bodies, the flumes of water and blood tear across the screen. Metal objects twist and turn convincingly. While this doesn’t seem like such a big deal in today’s CGI-enhanced world, there was very little CGI used in this film as the technology simply wasn’t there. What is has that a computer can’t provide however is a sense of artistry and dynamism, and more fundamentally a sense of imagination that makes the unfolding events dazzle for their sheer audacity.
The setpieces that unfurl at a furious rate throughout the runtime are consistently spectacular and phenomenally violent. The opening bike chase conveys the giddying sensation of high-speed pursuit superbly as it stays close-in on the front of the bikers while they tear up the highway. The flying scout vehicle attack in the sewers makes maximum effect out of hails of bullets filling up the tight corridor from far in the distance right into near vision. A hallucinated scene involving cute childhood toys coming to life, backed by an eerily minimalist electronic score, starts off with a charming restraint before the manifestations grow to vast proportions and become truly terrifying monsters. Later on, things escalate (as is so often the case with Japanese fantasies) to vast-scale apocalyptic destruction that’s clearly rooted in Japan’s own experiences with the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.
While the storyline may not be the easiest to follow, the film does touch on a range of timeless themes: adolescent insecurity and the resultant uncontrolled aggression, the ineffectuality of bureaucratic politicians, the significance of childlike idealism and how it can become corrupted, the futility of blind faith in higher powers, the perils of allowing unfettered urban expansion to dwarf the residing human element to the point where they are mere dots in a vast tsunami of concrete. There’s so much thematic richness to be explored that those essential repeat viewing reward in ways far more fulfilling than merely “understanding the story”.
It’s a landmark of Japanese cinema, animation and science fiction.
Runtime: 124 mins
Dir: Katsuhiro Otomo
Script: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izo Hashimoto, from a Manga comic by Katsuhiro Otomo
Detail and colour are stunning. Some shots do have a little grain but it's a rarity. It's well worth the investment on visual quality alone.
We get both the original 1988 English dub and the superior 2001 fan dub (set by default) as well as Japanese with subtitles. Sound is in Dolby True HD and sounds clear and vibrant.
A lavish clear slipcase box complete with poster and postcards.
On the disc itself we get the following:
Akira sound clip
A run through of the main musical themes with optional English narration about the composer Shoji Yamashiro and his musical collective Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi, exploring how they composed the imaginative soundtrack using a mix of traditional Balinese instruments and modern technology and the human voice.
A worthy if somewhat dry interview with Katsuhiro Otomo made shortly after the film's completion. He discusses the influences behind his comic career (even including American films such as Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid with their themes of freedom and leaving home), as well as the key differences between working on the Akira comic and anime.
He also discusses the various techniques and technologies used in production. For example he used the technique of prescoring for the dialogue (recording the actor's lines before production and then syncing the character's lips to match it), and the Quick Action animation recorder to preview sequences. (Dating the documentary) he also talks about wanting to get involved in forthcoming developments in CGI animation for future projects.
A slideshow with about 30 minutes' worth of storyboards accompanied by the film's soundtrack.
The Writing on the Wall
A few stills with translations of the Japanese graffiti seen in the film’s backdrops. It’s a nice little extra for the curious and buffs without Japanese language experience.
A look at the various technologies used during the restoration of the picture and interviews with the actors who voiced the 2001 English dub. Only 11 minutes in total length, it’s a rather brief and unremarkable effort.
There are also several trailers and a glossary (basically a wiki of the various terms, characters, entities and locations in the film), rounding out a bunch of extras that, while ok, aren’t what they could have been. There is a really great documentary crying out to be made about this landmark in Japanese animation, but unfortunately such a thing isn’t present here.
It’s a stunning, powerful piece of sci-fi cinema and (alongside the finest works by Studio Ghibli) is one of the defining pieces of Japanese animation. The restoration is superb but the extras, sadly, aren’t quite.