Here is an escalating scifi disaster, a tumbling apocalypse-in-the-making that ramps up in intensity off a riveting, iconic start. From light-trailing motorcycle chases set to tribal drums and against the glowing metropolis, alive with rioting and gunfire, we move through brutal psychic episodes and the trials of brotherhood, terminating in a body horror transformation a la Society or Cronenberg wet dream.
This series of amazing scenes is strung together with a headscratcher of a narrative — given its confusing story and its disturbing violence, you wonder how this was the ambassador for anime. Every major anime film (barring Miyazaki) after this would compete, Ghost in the Shell coming closest in most critics’ eyes, and Redline being the latest Akira-killer.
But none have the originality of Otomo’s adaptation, a masterpiece sprung from his masterwork of thousands of pages of manga. We follow Tetsuo and Kaneda, two young thugs and foster-brothers who terrorize the streets of Neo-Tokyo in motorcycle gang fights, which brings Tetsuo into contact with a psychic kid — Tetsuo gains mysterious powers as the military attempts to control him, leading to mess of conflicts. The Colonel meanwhile attempts to control the situation, but is blockaded by lousy politicians.
A grand mythology rises up, and there’s a deliberate contrast between the epic heights of apocalypse and rebirth with the personal level of love interests and best friends. Just as Kaneda might have a ridiculous hoverbike chase through a sewer, he’ll later crash his dead friend’s motorcycle into a wall to send it to Heaven for him.
The first half of this movie has an incredible sense of rhythm, and pace — at every moment, something interesting is happening. The morning following the opener bike chase exemplifies this with instances of comedy amidst frantic mise en scen and action. Everything is timed so perfectly, whether a grenade-related payoff or what have you, and this is what can be done with animation.
Every animated feature has the potential, then, to reach this kind of control over flow in story. Indeed, every animation from the east or west can be Akira — it’s proven that this is the potential for all, given the opportunities of the medium. But we know. There’s only one Akira.