Cycle of Violence
Let’s keep some perspective: the world has bigger problems and potential problems and incipient problems right now than the fact that a lot of cinemas have shut. Nevertheless this is still… well, sad and regrettable. We must try to find some positives (and I will be doing my best to support the local cinema that’s hanging in there on three days a week, although I draw the line at going to see The Greatest Showman again), and I suppose one of these is that, as noted last week, Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira has become the subject of an unlikely and extensive revival – although I wonder if this hadn’t already been in the works, given that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were supposed to be happening about now, and no film about Tokyo in 2020 is more vivid or startling than Akira.
Nevertheless, for all its narrative and aesthetic qualities, this is a movie which seems to be mainly remembered for one thing: yes, there it inevitably is, sort-of hidden in the poster. It’s The Bike From Akira.
It is a little strange and perhaps even unique that a single element of design should become quite as emblematic of the film it appears in as The Bike From Akira. If you google for Akira-related images then six of the first ten results are pictures of The Bike. This is despite the fact that The Bike has relatively limited screen-time and is really only tangentially significant to the plot of the film. Just goes to show the power of a really great piece of design, I suppose.
It's hard to believe that Akira is thirty-two years old, and its futuristic setting should be our here-and-now – thankfully, most of its predictions have turned out to be incorrect, with the amusing exception of the fact about the Olympics. However, time has not diminished the exceptional qualities of this film, while a little bit of distance has allowed the film's cultural significance to become clearer.
There's a fair bit of backstory to Akira, most of which the film quite sensibly parcels out in the course of the story. The essentials are as follows: in 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a devastating, unexplained explosion, triggering a third world war. By 2019, it seems that civilisation has recovered, up to a point – the movie takes place entirely within the sprawling megacity of Neo-Tokyo. The city is beset by political tensions and random violent crime, with rival biker gangs battling for control of the streets.
Members of one such gang are Kaneda and Tetsuo – Kaneda is the owner of The Bike. (A number of versions of this film exist, with different actors voicing the characters.) They are both orphans and have been friends since childhood, although the more insecure Tetsuo is wont to chafe a bit in the face of Kaneda's swaggering cockiness.
Things change for the duo one night, when a run-in with another gang takes an unexpected turn. Tetsuo encounters a very peculiar child who has recently been abducted from a government installation; when the forces of Colonel Shikishima take the child back into custody, Tetsuo is taken too.
Kaneda and the others are worried about their friend, and possibly with good reason: he is having visions of a mysterious boy calling himself Akira, and rapidly developing extremely potent psychic powers. The authorities already have a trio of psychics, trapped in a state of arrested development by the drugs they take to control their powers, and are using them to investigate the forces that Akira represents. They want to add Tetsuo to their programme, but have they underestimated his raw power?
Meanwhile, Kaneda has fallen in with an anti-government group (suffice to say there is a girl involved) determined to free Tetsuo. However, they too don't quite appreciate just what they are up against, as events spiral out of control and Tetsuo attempts to waken the dormant power of Akira...
In the UK, of course, animated Japanese cinema is essentially synonymous with Studio Ghibli and those associated with it. Akira is the great exception to this, being the product of a bespoke coalition of companies, such as Toho, who came together specifically to make the film.
Nevertheless, the much-commented upon beauty and technical virtuosity of any Studio Ghibli film you care to mention is absolutely matched by Akira, which is a visually stunning film from start to finish. Every frame is filled with colour, energy and movement; the detail of every piece of design is breathtaking. I imagine one could watch the original Japanese version of Akira, not actually comprehending a single word of the dialogue, and still have a pretty good time with the movie.
Of course, even being able to speak Japanese, or have access to the English dub, doesn't necessarily mean you will completely understand the movie the first time you encounter it; I know I struggled a bit, certainly. The fact that it's called Akira and yet there isn't really a character called Akira in it can be a bit wrong-footing; the sheer density of the film's plot and ideas, which are largely concerned with themes of transhumanism, can also take the unwary by surprise. As well as being several flavours of SF film, there is a sense in which Akira is also a superhero movie and a political thriller, to name but two.
I don't think anyone would honestly watch Akira and believe it was a Ghibli movie, of course, for – other than a few sequences of surreal grotesquery – it is clear that Otomo's movie has an entirely different sensibility. Ghibli movies are, with the occasional famous exception, fairly soft-centred and ultimately quite gentle; there's a sense in which Akira revels in its scenes of carnage and devastation. It is absolutely of a piece with a whole movement of dark SF from the 1980s, embodying a kind of dystopian urban alienation. You can draw lines between Akira and Robocop, Akira and Blade Runner, Akira and The Dark Knight Returns.
It's not simply that Akira has clearly been influenced by these other things; it may in fact be the case that it influenced some of them. It's that it is every bit as sophisticated and challenging as any of them. It may conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, perhaps somewhat inspired by 2001, but on the whole it is asking harder questions about the dehumanising effects of urban life, the real nature of progress, and – perhaps the quintessential SF theme – our ability to responsibly use our own potential. A great animation and a great SF movie, too.