Seriously, aren’t you really relieved the proposed live action remake of Katsuhiro Otomo’s celebrated anime film, based on his own original manga, will probably never happen? Who needs another lackluster Ghost in the Shell from Hollywood? It would only demystify the film with cheap controversies. As it is, the breakthrough anime is already enjoying a moment, having predicted the 2020 Olympics would be held in Tokyo. In this case, it is a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, but close enough. Armageddon has come and gone and may yet come again in Otomo’s Akira (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at the Metrograph.
In 1988, Paleo-Tokyo went up in a puff of smoke. Somehow, it was all related to the so-called “Akira” experiments, designed to weaponize the powers of the eponymous “esper” with terrifying psychic abilities. Thirty years later, Neo-Tokyo hardly seems fit to host the Olympics. Motorcycle gang battle each other on the Blade-Runner-like streets with impunity. Vice is rampant and the social fabric is badly frayed. However, it is easy to believe the Neo-Tokyo Olympic Committee could easily ply the IOC with enough sushi and sake to overcome these drawbacks. Regardless, construction work is ongoing on the Olympic Stadium, which will play an important role in the third act.
Shontaro Kaneda’s relatively benign biker gang is mixing it up with their ghoulish rivals, when they cross paths with Takashi, an escaped esper fleeing the military authorities. Yes, thirty-one years after the Akira project destroyed the old city, the Japanese government is trying again. Col. Shikishima considers their recklessness something close to madness, but he is just as fanatical when it comes to following orders. Be that as it may, he scores a daily double when he picks up Kaneda’s bullied running mate Tetsuo Shima, along with Takashi. It turns out Shima’s psychic potential is off the charts, approaching the level of the now mythic Akira.
Thirty years ago, Akira hit Western audiences like a revelation from on high, showing the world the dramatic possibilities of animation, beyond talking cats and singing concession items. It told a story of cosmic dimensions, using stunning dystopian visuals that still look radically cool. Since then, there has been a lot of ambitious anime and animation, but Akira still largely holds up. Granted, the characterization is comparatively flat relative to films like Loving Vincent, The Breadwinner, The Wind Rises, and Your Name. Frankly, there are three very distinct characters who look like they were modeled on G. Gordon Liddy, which can be a tad confusing.
However, it has lost none of its visual pop or its dynamic energy. More fundamentally, when revisiting Akira, you can see the origins of many anime and science fiction archetypes right there on the screen. It really is one of the films that opened up international markets and international fandom for anime. It also goes big, even by contemporary standards. This is a film every science fiction and animation fan should see, to recognize how influential it has been. Highly recommended as a film and an event in film history, Akira opens this Wednesday (8/29) in New York, at the Metrograph.