Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988)

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Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (1988).

Score: an action classic.

It’s 2019 and we’re in Neo Tokyo. 31 years prior a mysterious explosion kicked off World War III and now the country is overrun by poverty, crime and police brutality. Kaneda and Tetsuo are two teenagers in a biker gang that get in a chase with a rival gang, the Clowns. Tetsuo nearly runs over a strange child with psychic powers and as a result he’s taken away by the military, who start experimenting on him. What they didn’t know is they were going to unleash a power that Tetsuo himself is not capable nor willing to control.

Compared to Manga!Akira, the plot is much simpler. Film!Akira skips most of the second half of the manga and goes direct to the action-packed ending. It also trims secondary characters and politics to get the much more straightforward story of a kid bestowed with unimaginable power who is completely unwilling to use it for the good of anyone, not even himself. This means the film avoids most of the traps the manga falls into: the grandiose narrative, the absurd plot, Kaneda driving a tank around. Fewer loose ends, simplified plot and more credible characters all make up for a work that holds up much better than the original source. Both were directed by the same person, so in this sense it is a very interesting case of an artist having two shots at developing the same idea.

But when all is said and done, I got a bit bored watching Akira. Action movies are not my favourite kind of movies. If they only fight and there’s no talky-talky or mindfucky, I get bored. But I’m aware that’s just a matter of taste and I can appreciate a good action movie when I see one. Maybe it was also a matter of being familiar with the story already, but I missed a lot of the comings and goings of the original.

Akira is technically and visually impressive for the time it was made. It features 2,212 shots and 160,000 single pictures, using 327 different colours, 50 of which were exclusively created for the film. The reason they had to order those colours is because this is one of the few animation films that happen mostly at night, a setting traditionally avoided by animators for being difficult to work with. It was also carefully animated, even with the aid of CGI. The first few scenes are live history of cinema and science-fiction: if Akira didn’t invent the cyberpunk aesthetic of ghastly neon lights in grim Asian megalopolis, this movie definitely codified it.

This movie belongs to a very specific genre but is worth watching by anyone interested in the history of cinema, animation and science-fiction.

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