19 August 2011

In which Tokyo gets blown away - literally (Review: 'Akira')

I don't think irony is the correct word for starting to watch a film that features a Japanese city getting blown up in the opening scene on 6 August. If anyone can help with this, please let me know.

Japan has a rather different attitude to the animated medium than "the West". In the latter, animation is viewed very much as a medium for children, with what adult-orientated stuff there is tending to be things like South Park and Family Guy.

The Japanese medium of anime demonstrates a rather more "mature" way of doing things. Seeing that Syfy was showing 1988's Akira (dubbed into English, BTW), considered one of the classics of the medium and a good introductory work, I taped it*. Let me be the first to say that this film is definitely not for the kiddies - the BBFC rated it a 12 in 1988 and you can make a very good case that it should actually be a 15. Strong language, some nudity and a lot of bloody violence dominate the film.

So, onto the plot, an adaptation of a 2182-page six-volume manga that does make some major changes to condense the story into two hours. In 1988, World War Three broke out and in the process Tokyo was destroyed. 31 years later, Tokyo, now Neo-Tokyo, has been rebuilt. However, it's a city very much on the edge. Riots are frequent, as are terrorist attacks. Motorcycle gangs (they're called bōsōzoku in Japan) openly fight each other in the graffiti-covered streets. You wouldn't want to visit there for the upcoming Olympic Games, let alone live there.

A pair of gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, are engaging in a running street battle with some clowns (literal clowns, not what Don Flack from CSI:NY would call "clowns", so not one for those with coulrophobia), when Tetsuo sees a mysterious grey kid and crashes his bike. The military arrive and capture the pair of them.

Tetsuo starts developing mysterious - and destructive - powers, such as blowing people away. He escapes and goes on a very violent rampage. Kaneda and his friends, as well as some terrorists he's met along the way, have to stop Tetsuo before it's too late.

The film is a deeply complex one, with dozens of layers and a plot that you really need Wikipedia to fully get to grips with. At times highly trippy (Tetsuo sees some truly weird hallucinations at one point), at others, it is extremely dark. We see Tetsuo, who had been bullied when younger and has an inferiority complex, turn into a truly nasty being, literally and metaphorically. The government of Neo-Tokyo are venal and corrupt, the security forces highly brutal nearly to a man (it's worth noting that the Colonel is the only military character who emerges with any real credit). The word "dystopia" genuinely applies here. The ending is fully understandable, if not necessarily entirely morally justifiable.

The English language voice acting is of a high quality, but special attention must be directed to the animation. With a budget estimated to be over a billion yen (about $11m), a record for a Japanese animation, production was done by a special committee called the AKIRA Committee. Every sen of it shows on the screen. The climax itself features detail in an animation that would be impressive in a Pixar film today.

Problems with Akira? Mostly minor ones of sufficient magnitude when taken together, dock this down a point. I also get a feeling the version I watched got edited a bit for commercial presentation.

However, none of these are sufficient to ruin what is a superb film, which I would highly recommend if you're at all interested in Japanese media. Or just great film in general.


* Mind you, if you're a member of Generation Y, chances are you've watched some anime without knowing it. I'm talking about Pokémon.

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