Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the original manga, Akira was one of the first feature length animated Japanese films to be released on home video in the UK in the late 1980s. Its frank portrayal of sex, violence and drug abuse set against the themes of nuclear apocalypse and the psychic awakening of mankind provides a stark view of humanity as a species on the edge of either salvation or oblivion.
Condensed from the thousands of pages occupied by the original comic strip, the animated version of Akira nevertheless manages to retain the pace and punch of the storyline as in the near future the natives of Neo Tokyo struggle on the brink of social anarchy, the authorities unable to quell the discontent spreading through the millions of souls dwelling in the vast metropolis.
The world of Akira is a world which has struggled to rebuild itself in the aftermath of a third World War which saw the destruction of most of the world's capital cities and a horrific loss of life. By the year 2030, it seems that some progress has been made as cities such as Neo Tokyo have risen from the ashes and begun the arduous task of rebuilding what the war destroyed. But for all the new shining skyscrapers erected and the civic monuments thrown up by the new establishment, the fact cannot be escaped that the same problems that dogged humankind before the war are still around in its aftermath.
The city of Neo Tokyo is riddled with problems from the corruption of government officials at the top of the scale right down to the prevalence of the gangs of bikers that terrorise the streets and freeways of the city. Religious zealots stir up unrest in the plazas while underground movements plot to overthrow the establishment which is still riddled with the influence of the military even after the war.
It is against this background that rumours persist of a being known only as 'Akira'. Who or what Akira may be is a mystery. Some claim that he is a messianic figure, others the equivalent of the Anti-Christ. Still others whisper that the government know the secrets behind Akira and for this reason have kept him under lock and key for fear of his power. Akira is a legend in the minds of the populace.
The truth behind the myth of Akira is slowly revealed when a biker by the name of Tetsuo Shima collides with what appears to be a young boy on the ruined freeway which strides the ruins of old Tokyo. In the aftermath of the collision Tetsuo's friends are shocked to discover that while their companion is badly hurt, the child is totally unharmed. But before they can even reach their friend, the military descend upon the scene arresting all witnesses and spiriting away both Tetsuo and the strange child.
Taken to a secret government research lab, Tetsuo is subjected to a myriad of tests as it is revealed that the establishment has been working on the development psychic talents for use as a weapon. The strange boy into whom Tetsuo crashed is a subject of this project who had been abducted by an underground movement intent upon overthrowing the military-dominated government. It also emerges that the ultimate achievement of this project was the legendary Akira, a psychic so powerful he is kept confined in a chamber deep underground at temperatures far below zero.
Meanwhile Tetsuo's closest friend Keneda stumbles upon the same underground movement when he takes a shine to a young woman named Kei who is detained at the same police station after the accident. Though she spurns his affections, Keneda persists and eventually ends up at gunpoint in the group's hideout. Luckily for him they decide that it would be better to use his youthful enthusiasm to further their cause rather than to put a bullet in his head. Together Kei, Keneda and the rest of the movement attempt to rescue the subjects of the psychic programme and liberate Akira himself from his frozen prison.
At the same time however, it becomes apparent to the scientists studying him that Tetsuo has vast latent psychic potential rivalling and even possibly surpassing that of Akira himself. Plagued by crippling headaches and terrifying manifestations of his emerging powers. At the same time both terrified and elated by his new talents, Tetsuo decides that he will never take orders from another soul. And as the only other being her perceives as being able to rival him is Akira, he plans an apocalyptic final confrontation with the legendary being.
Cast of Characters
Never seen in the living flesh, the eponymous Akira appears only in flash-backs and as the subject of rampant urban myths and prophecies of apocalypse. The truth behind the myths however, is that Akira is the most powerful psychic ever discovered by science and possibly even represents the next stage of evolution for the human race.
Akira's power was such that he is described as having achieved a state of pure energy, leaving behind the physical form. Tragically, a side effect of this was the huge explosion that decimated Tokyo and sparked off a third world war as nations mistook the destruction as a nuclear strike against Japan and retaliated against the supposed aggressors among their enemies.
In the aftermath the scientists responsible for the study of Akira's powers dissected his body trying to find the answer as to what had caused the explosion. But when they found nothing they sealed the remaining specimens in an underground vault in the hope that this would prevent Akira from returning to cause the same terrible carnage once more. Unfortunately, they are very much mistaken.
At first no more than another punk kid in a bike-gang, Tetsuo's life is changed forever the night that he collides head on with a mysterious boy on the abandoned freeway that criss-crosses the wasteland left behind after the blast that destroyed Tokyo. Always perceiving himself as somewhat weak and dependant upon others for his survival, Tetsuo is in the aftermath made aware of his latent psychic potential by the tests run by the military as they hold him in custody.
Seduced by the status that his newly discovered powers afford him, Tetsuo sets out upon as quest to establish his authority over all those people whom he sees as having oppressed him in the past. These range from the bar-keep who refused to sell him drugs, right up to the authorities who have so recently tried to control him. His list of targets even includes his closest friend Kaneda, whose physical strength Tetsuo has always been envious of.
Kaneda is the unchallenged leader of his own bike-gang and a smart-mouthed punk to boot. Cocky, arrogant and self-assured, he cuts the image of a truly amoral urban street-punk who couldn't care less if the world in which he lives prospers or sinks into a mire of anarchy. But beneath this facade lies a far deeper individual who is revealed through the passionate reactions he makes when his friend Tetsuo is spirited away by the military and the tenacity with which he pursues the seemingly disinterested Kei.
Motivated by a sense of justice that is not related to the law of the state and is perhaps superior to it in the cold light of day, Kaneda struggles to do what he perceives is right in the face of the looming apocalypse. Seeing that his childhood friend Tetsuo has changed beyond all recognition, Kaneda sets himself against the emerging psychic super-human, fights to avert the destruction of Neo-Tokyo and even manages in the end to get the girl.
Hard-nosed and dedicated, Kei is an active member of a clandestine group that plot to free the legendary Akira from the clutches of the authorities and for the most part seem quite ignorant of what the consequences of this action would be. Captured whilst stirring up trouble, Kei is released from police custody when Kaneda claims that she is a part of his gang. Fully aware of his motivation in this matter she tries to shake off his attentions and save him from the dangers that she faces, but soon finds that he is more than persistent.
Takashi, Masaru and Kiyoko
All powerful psychics in their own right, these three were contempories of Akira himself despite the fact that their powers cannot hope to rival his own. Surviving to the current day the research and testing carried out by the scientists whose care they are under has left them as withered and wearied beings still wearing the outer appearances of children and yet wielding sinister psychic powers.
It is Takashi into whom Tetsuo collides after Kei's group have managed to free him from the compound in which the three are kept. After he is returned to the company of the other two it is revealed that they are fully aware of the true nature of Akira and are plotting in the knowledge that he will soon return to them.
Representing the quasi-fascistic powers which have arisen in Neo-Tokyo in the aftermath of the apocalyptic blast, this crew-cutted and hard-nosed military man is a soul who survived the chaos brought by Akira the first time around and is determined to avoid making the same mistakes that doomed his predecessors. It is perhaps one of the overriding ironies of the tale that in Akira only the Colonel seems to be fully aware of the danger posed by the psychic forces awakening in the city and the only person in a position of power prepared to actually do something about it.
Utterly assured of his authority and the validity of his convictions, the Colonel strives to make a stand against the rising tides of unrest that threaten the stability of Neo-Tokyo. The one unfortunate fact is probably that the man is an unflinchingly aggressive soul who will stop at nothing to eliminate those whom he perceives as a threat.