Akira – Legend, Hype or Both? – By Josh Samford

Now, the point of this article isn’t just to totally rail on [director’s] Akira, though I’m sure at times it will probably seem that way. No, despite my problems with the film, I’ve discovered I do reserve a warm spot for it somewhere deep down where I am soft like a woman. It wasn’t always that way cthough, and I have in the past come out vehemently against it. Now, perhaps I’m not the greatest judge of Anime, though I have seen the majority of popular classics, I’m far from being an expert in the field on any day of the week. Really, I’m not even a huge Science Fiction buff either, which probably puts me at odds with the picture – and if you want to discredit me with that, go ahead, but I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen how so many people are able to jump on the bandwagon and reserve nothing but praise for the film.

The first time I ever sat down with Akira, I actually didn’t even finish it. I was at a friend’s house and we didn’t have time to watch it the whole way through, so I was spared the conclusion and from what I had seen I was left in awe. The animation is far superior to most anything you’ll like find, American or otherwise. As it is well documented, Akira was hand-drawn and was one of the last films to use the dated technology and turned out to be the most expensive. It shows completely, the immense detail and beauty that captivates in every frame, it just looks absolutely stunning. You would think I would have probably rushed out to pick it up the very next day, but what can I say, I’m lazy. So it actually turned out to be about two years later before I finished the film. So there I was in my room, finally sitting through those last twenty minutes. My mind I felt had been reduced to mashed potatoes, but not in a good way like at the end of a David Lynch film where you say “Oh man, I have no clue what I just watched, but it sure was pretty…”. No, Akira left me boggled, but barely hinted that maybe a simpleton like myself could some day decipher it. And truth be told, looking back with the knowledge I have now, no I don’t think I really ever could have truly understood what the conclusion to the film was all about. You would think my journey with the film would have ended there, but for whatever reason, Akira stayed on my mind.

I don’t know why, I’ve sat through dozens of films I never understood and never cared to, but Akira was different. Maybe in my subconscious I realized that there had to be something going on there for so much time and money to have been put behind such an epic project. It turned out to be a year or so later that I finally tracked down another copy of it, gave it another watch and came to the same result: that this flick is bananas. It didn’t leave my head though, matter of fact, it just got worse. A deep buzzing sound in my brain that wouldn’t let up, and pressured me to learn more about what exact drugs [director] was on, and where he obtained them so I could murder the dealer. Vigilante justice always prevails. So, with a combination of Charles Bronson and good old fashioned curiosity on the brain, I tracked down the manga from which the film was adapted. For those of you who hibernate in a cave when the topic of Asian cinema or world culture is brought up, just think “Japanese comic book” when you hear the term “manga”. I’m going to assume no one reading this is unfamiliar with the term “anime”, because if you are, bludgeon yourself with a mallet for no other reason than your own general lack of being ‘hip’ in any regards. So, it took me a few days to finally read through all volumes of the manga and I was finally done with it. I finally understood the climax to the film, all of the little unexplained events and characters – yet, now not only did I dislike the anime feature film, but I also disliked the manga! I am of course speaking only of the writing and such, not the artistry, which even still I am always impressed with. No, it all comes back to the story.

In my days as a film geek extrordinaire, I have ran into few pieces of fiction where I find it impossible to connect with. The only really applicable comparison is probably with my distaste for Fellini, but I think that is relatively easy to understand since I’m a dirty white boy (Foreigner reference!) from the southern United States, as opposed to a wealthy European socialite/artist/snob. With Akira though, it’s not the setting mixed with the characters that turns me off, it’s a mix of everything and both the film and manga have their own distinctive qualities that make them worthy of their popularity in my mind, but they also have their qualities that makes me feel they are absolutely horrid. With the film, it’s the disjointed incoherence of it all. Now, some will say I just didn’t get it, and that I’m pampered by forced narrative or something of that sort (and I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether I’m full of it or not), but Akira the film feels like six hours of story crammed into two if you ask me. There are just tons of small things in the film that just never seem to fully come into focus.

It wasn’t until I read the manga that I truly understood Tetsuo had merely absorbed too much power for his body to withstand, which was what brought about his, umm, rather bizarre transformation. When I told a good friend of this, he told me that was always what he imagined from the start, so maybe I just never picked up on these facts but really, I just don’t think it was ever made truly clear. There are hints discussed in the film, like the jail cell scene where it is said that Tetsuo might be sucking up power, but for a full length film there just seems to have been so much left out. There are so many questions left open about Tetsuo’s powers and the origins of the whole basis of the film, that it actually pays well to have read the comic beforehand. That isn’t to say the manga is just superior in every way to the film, because that’s not true in the least. For one thing, the film improved heavily on the character of Kaneda, and in some ways I prefer the conclusion. Although the animated adaptation may be nearly incoherent in it’s final moments after bombarding the audience with philosophy, it at least ends on a brighter note than the manga, which seems to take on a fairly bizarre political message seeming to openly advocate nationalism in some form or another. Getting back to Kaneda, the film also shows his character growing from a street punk into at least a matured human being – but the manga never lets the character lose his roots, or even grow too much from them. He starts off a punk, even doing such things as getting a girl at his highschool pregnant and dumping her on the spot! One would think with such a wild display of pure darkness, he would by the end of the series make up for it… but not really. He stays a horndog, constantly trying to get in Kae’s pants and by the end of it, he’s more or less the same character just a little tougher.

Now, I’ve said a lot of fairly mean things about the film and I know the diehard fans would just call me a complete idiot (which I do no deny) and write me off as someone who just hates this story, but it’s not true. I keep coming back to Akira, even with all the disappointment I can muster, I continually return to it and still find it a relatively breath of fresh air all together. Even if it’s not the tightest animated film ever made, or the most positive or brilliantly crafted comic – it still has something in it that is unique and fresh after all these years. A dark look at the future and to be quite honest one of the more clever ways of depicting it. I’ve got my problems with it, and yes it’ll never be a favorite, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of a doubt and recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the genre. Just, take my words of warning and try to know what to expect if you’re a first time viewer.