In the futuristic year 2019, Tokyo has been destroyed and a new metropolis built on artificial islands now rife with violence, protest and gang warfare. During a skirmish the young biker Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki) crashes into an escaped laboratory subject (Tatsuhiko Nakamura) and develops psychic abilities under military captivity. It sounds strange; the reality is stranger still.
The movie largely credited with introducing anime to the West, Akira is an icon of animation and an endless source of fascination. It is one of those films that ends up so far from where it began it is easy to forget it was initially about a motorcycle gang. Equally mind-boggling is the fact it was made in 1988, when today it seems so technically inconceivable and creatively forward-thinking. Almost 35 years later it retains its power to shatter skulls and expectations – even on repeat viewing.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s vision of Neo-Tokyo is a triumph of dystopian world-building, the Blade Runner-inspired streets overflowing with violence and viscera. The film depicts how martial law pits man against man; a stark contrast to Studio Ghibli (man vs nature) or The Matrix (man vs machine), both of which owe Akira a debt of blood that flows liberally throughout the two-hour epic. This is a remarkably mature animation, the only teddy bear being 10-foot tall and spewing out milk.
Akira‘s sci-fi is heady and uncompromising, leaving stragglers in its hallucinogenic dust. As a result (and by virtue of being condensed from Otomo’s 2000-page manga) it is narratively overcomplicated yet visually overwhelming, unprecedented in its use of colour (a record-breaking 327 different ones) and 2,212 individual shots (more than twice the standard for a feature of its length). Every scene literally bursts with psychedelic imagery and pulsates with cyberpunk detail, scorched by a visual grit missing from the computerised immersion of a modern picture like Belle.
The incendiary action builds to an indelible climax set at the 2020 Olympic stadium, a surrealist eruption of cosmic body-horror that would have Cronenberg and Lovecraft looking up from their irradiated hot dogs. For all its apocalyptic warnings (Akira is revealed as the singularity that destroyed the city) and uncanny prescience (the pandemic-stricken Tokyo 2020 Olympics eventually proceeded without protoplasmic incident), the film ultimately returns to its central friendship – told back-to-front, naturally. The live-action remake (now with Taika Waititi attached) is languishing in development hell, where we pray to our corporate overlords it stays.