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Bikes, blood and brutality: A review of “Akira” (1988)

I have come to the conclusion that animated body horror is infinitely better than live-action body horror. This not only arises from how much of an aversion I have to live-action body horror, but because the animated medium provides enough distance between me and the gore  for me to actually stand watching it with both eyes open. Otomo and his animators were able to make flesh move and entangle in ways that both disgust and hypnotize me, and this is just one element of his film “Akira” that taps into his sadistic creativity. It’s easily one of the most violent animated films I have ever watched, but the genuinely interesting ideas and characters behind its adult ultraviolence keep it palatable.

The film follows Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), a tough teen living in post-nuclear holocaust Neo-Tokyo. He is the leader of a biker gang, and things go awry when one of his friends, Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaki), is kidnapped and experimented on by the government. Colonel Shikishima (Taro Ishida) of Neo-Tokyo’s military has been creating and training children with psychic abilities. He discovers that Tetsuo has the potential to develop powers rivaling that of the titular Akira, a nebulous being who was believed to have the power to destroy the entire world. “Akira” is a parallel narrative in which, as Kaneda works to rescue his friend, Testuo slowly becomes a monster while he hones  his psychic abilities. 

The animation not only allows the film to realize many of its fantastical ideas, such as the aforementioned body horror, but gives it a spine with which to send electricity down to its other parts. “Akira” does not boast the greatest animation put to frame (outshone, perhaps, by same-year contemporary “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), but it is some of the sleekest I’ve seen. The scenes in which Kaneda rides his iconic red motorcycle are particularly exhilarating, as they propel the film forward at a hand-drawn Mach speed that carries over into its non-action scenes. These are also some of the most expressive characters to come out of a Japanese animated film that I can recall, achieving a level of empathy only rivaled by Miyazaki. But it’s action which sets “Akira” apart, allowing each incoming “Clockwork Orange”-esque brawl to feel more visceral than the previous. This is one of the most brutal animated movies out there, yet the visuals allow the violence to both look as ruthless as intended and to feel as if crafted with a very careful touch. “Akira” is not made for the faint of heart, but I’d argue that it’s a spectacle worth wincing at. 

Aside from being impressively made, however, “Akira” packs a character-driven conflict that backs up its flesh-twisting visual delights with some real meat. Tetsuo is a compelling villain not because he is monstrously cruel but because he doesn’t start out that way. We get increasing hints in the film’s first act that Tetsuo and Kaneda’s friendship was one marked by envy since its childhood beginnings. Both were orphans, and poor Tetsuo, a sensitive child, was thrown headlong into an unforgiving world demanding strength to survive. Kaneda always protected Tetsuo, and we see Tetsuo’s desire to be as strong as his friend right from the opening sequence. He wants to ride his bike, he wants to call the shots, but even when he attempts to prove himself capable of independence, he is still beaten down and requires Kaneda’s help. His psychic powers grant him that power he desires and allow him to unleash his pent-up rage into actual destruction.  

What makes Tetsuo’s character especially believable is the environment in which he lives. Neo-Tokyo becomes a compelling character in itself. It’s cyberpunk, it’s colorful, but what I enjoy is its nature as an in-the-gutter setting akin to the New York of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” There is a level of attention to detail here that could only be achieved in an animated film. The streets are ignited by motion of all kinds, from the violent to the sexual. The walls of the boys’ high school have not a square inch spared from graffiti, and the classrooms writhe with chaotic ruckus that, of course, never allows a teacher to get a word in. Protests against archaic tax reforms electrify the streets, and conflicts between their participants and the police often end grimly. It’s like watching a Ralph Bakshi film with a budget high enough to believably render human debaucheries in a fantasy setting. Neo-Tokyo is a frustrated world, one that wriggles under the yoke of a corrupt government while its citizens lack a purpose beyond establishing oneself as the strongest. This is the world Tetsuo was forced into alone, and it’s sculpted him into a monster. 

Then there is the titular Akira itself, both referring to a character and to the energy he carries. Akira is supposedly that energy which endows all living things with the capacity to change, something which lies deep within every person in the film’s world. It’s a representation of limitless power to shape that world into one’s own design, and that level of power, to someone who feels they have none, is a dangerous motivation. Even for those unaware of Akira’s existence, its primal notion of pure power is one that propels every character within Neo-Tokyo, and to an extent, our own world. The government officials work towards their own self-preservation and control, which they fight for amongst themselves and with their military; on the streets, the biker gangs and ne’er-do-wells claw for the same, for control over space and for recognition of that control. Hence not only does “Akira” deliver on well-animated action in spades, but it likewise delivers a well-conceived, character driven commentary on the nature of power and powerlessness. 

Rating: 4.5/5

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