Yesterday I did something I'd never done before. I saw an anime movie in a cinema. Note that I'm not just talking about the latest Miyazaki here, although as it happens I've never seen a Miyazaki film in the cinema either. No, this is proper old-school anime. You know, what everyone used to think anime was back in the 1980s. Explosions, nihilistic violence, anti-heroes, paper-thin characterisation and superpowers.
To my surprise, the cinema screen made a huge difference. Akira's action sequences are spectacular by any standards and look even more so in these days of shakycam cinematography where you can't see what's happening half the time. Bash the story as much as you like, but I can honestly say I've never had a theatrical experience quite like Akira's first twenty minutes. It's beautifully animated, but it's brutal as hell. These guys would shatter Mickey Mouse's skull with pipes and then crush the corpse under their motorcycles. This is a post-apocalypse film, you see. It's set in a city, called Neo-Tokyo, but one that's full of police brutality and homicidal biker gangs. It's so extreme that it comes full circle and becomes almost topical. Newsreaders talk about terrorists. You don't set your story in an urban hell like this unless you're trying to make some kind of point... well, unless it's the 1980s and/or you're Japanese, in which case all bets are off.
There's a case for calling this the definitive anime film. Miyazaki doesn't count here, being almost bigger than anime. Akira is the blockbuster, the film that's remembered today both by East and West, somehow managing to carve a niche in popular consciousness despite being insane macho drivel. Well, I say "despite". I'm tempted to amend that to "because of". The Japanese anime industry can do world-shaking one-minute sequences and often brilliant half-hour TV episodes, but basically doesn't have a clue about feature films. Sometimes they muddle through and sometimes they don't, but Akira is like some roaring barbarian smashing down the gates of Rome. Its idea of storytelling is to blow things up even bigger next time. The characters are at once dull, repellent, cardboard and given too much development. I don't really like the film at all. Nevertheless in its own ghastly Neanderthal way, it somehow works.
As with many anime films, it's based on a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo wrote an original 2182-page manga, then co-wrote the screenplay for this adaptation and directed the film. You might be wondering how a 2182-page story gets turned successfully into a movie, even one that's over two hours long. Answer: it doesn't. It chucks out most of the second half and turns what's left into a demolition derby. Watching this film is an exercise in thinking "I bet the manga's really good". For example the characters go through huge changes, which in the context of a proper story could have been jaw-dropping. Loathsome thugs become heroes. No, really. I'm talking here about the film's protagonist. His best friend becomes Superman, but evil. There's a colonel willing to do anything to keep Neo-Tokyo on the map, up to and including murdering his superiors.
Similarly the plot is what you'd expect of a condensed 2182-page epic. I can't think of another movie that manages to succeed like this with storytelling that almost ignores its characters. I cheered when the heroes died. I cheered when the villains died. To my surprise the Best Friend eventually became interesting, since there don't seem to be any limitations on his powers or what he's willing to do with them, but you couldn't call him sympathetic. Nevertheless the story keeps blasting along, driven on an engine of "Oh My God" with a side order of "hell in a handbasket".
Does all this work? It depends. Tomoko loves the film, cites it as one of her childhood memories and credits it as one of the reasons she started riding motorbikes. She admits that its storytelling is nothing to write home about, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a film's cultural influence. The audience I saw it with seemed to eat it up and even applauded at the end. Me, I was bored half the time. It's cool and amazing, but if I'd had a magic gun that could kill movie characters, Neo-Tokyo would have been a ghost town within the first fifteen minutes.
The production values deserve serious mention. This film had a budget of $10 million US dollars in 1988, which for anime was unheard of. Obviously there's no CGI, so all these bikes, guns, helicopters, etc. are all hand-drawn. Watch out for their tail lights. There's also a flying hoverbike which looks more real and convincing than any I can remember in a live-action movie. Similarly the mouths are making the right shapes to fit the actors' lines, instead of just flapping vaguely in time as usual in anime. We're talking Disney production values with an anime sensibility here. It looks astonishing. I've been told that this is one of those movies where you had to be there at the time, since this was the film that convinced the West that anime wasn't all cheap. The only downside is that the version best known over here has been edited to bring down the running time. I was thinking that a few scenes had ended too abruptly even before Tomoko said it was missing the odd line of dialogue. Apparently there's a Blu-Ray version (released February 2009) with an additional 5 minutes, which sounds like the one to watch.
The music is deliberately ugly. The film's one quirky side involves wizened psychic children who can create walking teddy bears (and more) that reminded me of Blade Runner. I liked them. However if we're talking influences, Akira's children include Elfen Lied
, Neon Genesis Evangelion
and many, many others. Back in 1988, this film blew people's minds.
Would I recommend this film? Not for normal people. However if you know what you're getting in for, it's certainly an experience. It even has a smidgin of cartoon nudity for all you perverts out there, although it needed a whole lot more if it also wanted to represent anime's sleazy side. However the worldbuilding is weaker than you might expect, it has an overblown insane cosmic conclusion in place of a real ending and I don't think you're even meant to empathise with the characters. When I saw it on DVD several years ago, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Having seen it again on a cinema screen, I now understand completely... but that doesn't mean I thought it was fun.