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After 25 years animated film continues to astound, inspire, remains relevant to today’s society

Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 14:12


Special to / The Advocate

Twenty-five years ago, “Akira” proved that animated films could rival top budget movies by blending a rich story with astonishing artwork that has influenced countless people since its release.

Set in the year 2019, “Akira” takes place in the city of Neo-Tokyo. In the city’s history, 31 years before the film takes place, a mysterious explosion engulfed and destroyed the city, causing World War III. Neo-Tokyo is filled with corruption. While leaders battle over the future of this dystopia, kids in hyper-violent motorcycle gangs run the streets. The future of this over-populated, cyberpunk dystopia is grim.

Shotaru Kaneda is leader of the Capsules, one of the hundreds of motorcycle gangs that fight for territory in Neo-Tokyo. Egotistical, but loyal to his friends, Kaneda is in front of the pack as he rides his iconic red motorcycle. One of the opening scenes of the film shows the Capsules violently riding down, and presumably murdering members of a rival gang, the Clowns
The Capsules chase the fleeing Clowns through back alleys, tight corners and the congested streets of a deteriorating downtown district. Tetsuo Shima rides ahead to attack the remaining members of the Clowns.

Tetsuo collides with a mysterious, super-powered child who is being hunted. The collision leaves Tetsuo unconscious and in control of mysterious powers. The military, led by Colonel Shikishima and Dr. Onishi arrive to kidnap Tetsuo, and experiment on him.

Kaneda’s search for his friend Tetsuo reveals much of Neo-Tokyo society, and leaves him with many questions.

This opening sequence has been heralded by many as one of the most beautiful scenes ever animated. The violence and action all has a sickening realism to it that translates to the viewer exactly how hopeless and deranged life in Neo-Tokyo is.

“Akira” had an unprecedented budget of $11 million and generated $80 million in box office sales worldwide.

It has been mentioned in many best movie lists such as Time magazine’s top 5 anime’s and has a place on Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema.

The animation is seamless. Every scene is unprecedented detailed. There are no still characters on screen. Unlike other animations, where artists either limit the number of characters on screen or restrict action to only the main character in a scene, “Akira” never has a character on screen not taking some action. And in some scenes hundreds of characters are animated. “Akira” left viewers in awe.

The detail given to individual characters is breathtaking. Creators recorded the lip movements of the voice actors prior to animating the scene, and used it to make sure the voices matched the lip movement flawlessly.

No other animation in 1988 showed so much attention to detail. It was completely unheard of at the time. The art strays away from western influenced big eyes and vibrant hair color that has come to saturate anime in modern day. This style is non-existent in the film. All the characters actually look Japanese and it adds a level of credibility to the film. It paved the way for anime becoming a serious art medium in western culture.

References to “Akira” have been made in popular American cartoons like “South Park,” “The Power-Puff Girls,” and “Robot Chicken.” “Akira” has become so popular that hip-hop star Kanye West’s music video for “Stronger” recreates scenes from the movie, such as West emerging injured from his hospital room to do battle with soldiers.

The main characters symbolize conflicting ideologies that the world has had to deal with since western influence has spread following World War II. The spread of this culture is symbolized through the opening explosion, an obvious analogy to the United States’ use of the atomic bomb.

Dr. Onishi literally translates to “great west.” Akira, which translates to mean ”bright; intelligent one,” is analogous to God. When Akira destroys Neo-Tokyo scientists try to understand his power by dissecting the child and studying his remains. Unable to comprehend how this boy was capable of such destruction they locked them away.

The struggle to understand the power that lies dormant in Tetsuo is symbolic of man’s struggle with the concept of God.

Onishi, representing not only western society but also science, wishes to understand where God (Akira) gets his power. Shikishima, representing the military, has given orders to execute God if his power cannot be controlled. Onishi does not agree with the colonel’s order.

The struggle of these two over Akira and Tetsuo leads to the complete annihilation of society. God was not concerned if humanity understood him or not.

Conflict between two life-long friends in the film is representative of the differences between the desire for power and the wealth that comes from friendship.

“Wise man,” is what the name Tetsuo translates to. He is plagued with visions of death, chaos and the constant repetition of the name Akira in his mind. It compels Tetsuo to search for his tormentor, even if it means leaving a wake of pain in his path. Tetsuo’s search for Akira is allegory to the three wise men searching for the Messiah.

Kaneda is “wealthy,” not with money, but through his compassion and devotion to those he loves. The film repeats the theme that, within everyone, resides the ultimate power of God. Inside everyone is “Akira,” a power not meant to be understood. The power is shown to be destructive in the hands of those ripe with jealousy and resentment. But in the hands of one who accepts that the world is greater than themselves, who is honest and compassionate, it can be used to save the world from itself. 

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