I decided to refresh my Anime department on my blog, and this is why today I am going to write about an undisputed classic anime, that is merited with opening the door for Japanese animation to the West and is probably the most important animation feature film of the last 30 years in terms of production values and spectacle.
Doing reviews of the the masterpieces is pointless, because by definition masterpieces are above the average works. What makes sense is attempt to to show the context and influence of it on its genre and art.
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Katsuhiro Otomo (born in 1954) from the beginning of his mangaka career was not usual Japanese comic book artist, and his works were not the usual comic fare. His first mangas from 1970’s were usually closely resembling arthouse projects, drawing inspirations from Western films and containing healthy dose of cynicism, self-irony and critical outlook of the Japanese society, not restraining itself from depictions of violence and grit. Examples are the serialised manga “Sayonara Japan”, telling the story of two losers: karate instructor and guitarist, trying their luck in the USA, and shorts about kids looking for lost metro line and indebted salaryman family trying to commit suicide…
During his career Otomo had been more and more into science-fiction, and examples of works in that genre are e.g. short “Magnetic Rose” (adapted into anime in 1995’s anthology „Memories”) and unfinished mangas “Apple Paradise” and „Fireball”. The last one is relevant here, because it contained the same ingredients as “Akira”: technocratic dystopian society, supernatural psychic powers and rebellion against social order. Telekinesis was also featured in urban horror manga “Domu”, set in contemporary Japan in gargantuan, creepy tenants block, where bizarre suicides are committed.
The “Akira” manga was firstly serialized in “Young Magazine” in 1982. Creator himself was not convinced that it would be successful, nevertheless “Akira” had been serialized without a break up to the year 1990 amassing whopping 2000 pages, surpassing the expectations. It became popular and gained favourable reviews, so animated adaptation was expected to be done soon.
Otomo was greatly interested in filmmaking since the beginning of his career, when he was writing scripts for short films and animes in the early 1980’s. In the 1987 he directed segments in anime anthologies “Robot Carnival” and “Mega Tokyo”.
Below an interview with Katsuhiro Otomo, made after release of “Akira”, about his career and future plans:
Action takes place in futuristic Japanese megacity Neo-Yokyo in the year 2019, thirty years after World War Three, during which old Tokyo had been destroyed by a new kind of weapon. The anti-hero of the story is Kaneda, leader of the Capsules bikers gang who are terrorizing the streets in the night, waging war with rival gang of Clowns. At the one night of fight they encounter a strange person – a kid with a face of the old man – who is causing an accident where the Tetsuo – a younger member of the gang – is hurt. Soon the army arrest him, and the latent psychic powers of Tetsuo are awaking during the custody.
And this is only the beginning, because soon the eponymous, mysterious Akira is going to be awaken from his frozen sleep at the absolute-zero temperature in deep underground… Ensuring chaos and destruction.
The futuristic megalopolis of Neo-Tokyo is the real hero the story; the metaphor of modern real-life Tokyo, big, chaotic, dynamic city build on ruins of old Tokyo destroyed in WWIII, that sometimes looks like a giant factory, full of giant skyscrapers that are diminishing its own inhabitants, controlled by technocratic government that is hiding dark secrets from the public guarded by the military. The streets are set aflame by regular battles between rioters and the police, terrorists are planting bombs, and some parts of the city are better not to be visited during the night. In one word, that city has its best years behind.
In this concrete arena we see dynamic and violent action, in air, on streets and underground. The brutality, blood and nudity are in no short supply, but we should expect that from that violent place populated by terrorists, bikers gangs, ruthless military, brutal police and ruffians. The horrific mutation of the Tetsuo and destruction of the huge part of the city, by the phenomenon similar to the “bomb” in the beginning, is the fitting end of story here.
Why “Akira” is considered a classic anime? Mainly because of its production values, that were unprecedented in the history of Japanese and world animation. I enumerated most significant features:
Production budget of 1.1 billion Yen (approximately 10 millions USD at that time)
Very fluid animation, 25 fully unique frames per second.
327 unique colors, mostly shades of blue, broke the world record with this number
2212 scenes, 160000 single frames
First Japanese animated feature utilising the prescoring, that is the dialogues and music score had been recorded before principal production
Very high level of details, to the point that it is possible to see window’s frames on skyscrapers in the background.
One of the earlies cases of using the CGI in animated feature film (the first case were the anime “Golgo 13: The Professional” and Canadian animation “Rock & Rule”)
I think the scans of the original gels and Douga used during the production are speaking for themselves:
Behind-the-scenes documentary from Japanese TV, 1988.
Context and interpretation
For me it is clear that this anime is a clear metaphor of the Japan after World War Two. The action could be easily translated from “futuristic” 21st century into 1960’s without much hassle.
In that period Japan was a bitterly divided country, uncertain of its future, facing rapid economical and technological progress. Students were protesting against American presence and revival of militarism, coal miner’s trade unions were demanding better salaries and working conditions, people from old establishment – including convicted war criminals – were still in power, and country was rapidly expanding its exports and organizing 1964 Summer Olympic Games.
Documentary film from “Pacific Century” series, about that period in the history of Japan.
Orgy of destruction and nihilistic anti-heroes in “Akira” are the anti-thesis of ordered, self-disciplined strictly patriarchal and hierarchical Japanese society. But when self-pitying teenage ruffian Tetsuo is retributing his own humiliation by senseless violence and destruction, we cannot see any constructive alternative for old order.
Because of that „Akira” paints a very depressing and universal vision of the downfall and collapse of the society, facilitated by the nihilistic violence of the biker gangs, intrigues of the politicians, passivity of the hedonistic society, terrorism of the political extremists and the police state. No one is safe from criticism: army, police and schools are untrustworthy institutions, grown-ups are incompetent, narrow-minded and amoral, and youngsters are just mirror image of the adults. Its a very dark and pessimistic vision, especially considering the fact that Tokyo had been destroyed before the events depicted in the anime, so it seems that any attempt to rebuild and revival are doomed to be futile.
The cycle of destruction and rebuild is quite common in Japanese popular culture, because people of Japan had experienced many catastrophes in the last centuries, from frequent earthquakes and tsunamis, to carpet bombing and nuclear strikes during World War Two.
The quality of certain work of art can be assessed by standing it to the trial of decontextualisation, that is to check it if would retain its quality if the story would be moved to different place, different country, different culture etc. “Akira” is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture so that gimmick could be not possible without loses. But if we try doing it, we retain the basic framework of the story: the thrilling action and allusions to the fears and anxieties of the modern man: alienation in the big city, fear of violence, both by the state and extremists and fear over doom of our fragile civilization due the destructive forces unleashed by science and technology.
It would be quite interesting how people in booming South-East Asian countries could interpret the “Akira”, after all these societies are experiencing rapid modernization and urbanization – like Japanese in 1950-60’s – together with pollution and social changes characteristic for rapidly developing societies.
What went wrong?
First of all „Akira” is a very unsuccessful manga adaptation. Clearly Otomo was faced with a dilemma: how to compress in two hours the comic that during pre production was still unfinished and already was four tomes thick? The anime was released in 1988, and the final closure of manga was published in 1990 in „Young Magazine”, so obviously Katsuhiro Otomo must had changed a lot, and shortened the story.
Top of the so-called Akira FAQ from 1990’s, itself an example of early Internet’s ASCII-art. http://www.akira2019.com/faq.htm
In the result we see spectacular sequence of scenes from manga attached to rudimentary storytelling scaffold. That fact, combined with cultural differences between Japan and the West had contributed to perception of the “Akira” as a “deep”, enigmatic animated feature, sometimes called “mindfuck”. In the early Internet there were distributed a text file, called “Akira FAQ”, containing explanations of the most baffling aspects of that anime and manga for Western audiences.
Japanese animation was not completely unknown in the West at that time, because Japanese animation studios were in the past commissioned to do animation work for Western children’s shows like “Maya the Bee”, “GI Joe”, “Mysterious Cities of Gold” etc. American audience was already familiar with anime in the early 1980’s, by watching SF mecha show “Robotech” (that was stitched together by American distributor from three unrelated anime shows) and Christian TV series “Superbook”. In theaters Americans could watch Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa”, butchered by American distributor, who had edited that anime to make it more “action-oriented” and shipped with really awful and cheesy poster…
“Akira” had proved that animated feature film could be an adult entertainment, with its depiction of nudity, violence, blood etc. and grown-up story that was unlikely to be found in western animation, with the notable exceptions of animated movies that were intended for adults, like “Fritz the Cat” and “Lord of the Rings” by Bakshi and Canadian feature animations “Rock and Rule” and “Heavy Metal”. Also anime proved itself to be capable of doing cheaply things that were hard or impossible to achieve without astronomical budget for special effects in live-action films.
So anime was beloved by science-fiction and fantasy fans, proving them with entertainment that they were unlikely to find in Hollywood productions at that time. The side effect was, that anime had been stereotypically associated with fantastic thrillers. Funny bafflements and misunderstands were common, due the existence of so-called “animation ghetto” in the West. In the 1990’s and 2000’s watching the “Akira”and “Ghost in The Shell” was like a rite of passage for every new anime fan, also in Poland.
The limited release of “Akira” in American theaters during Christmas season of the 1989, accompanied by the official release of the translated manga by Dark Horse Comix is not a good measure of popularity among the audience. The unofficial presentations of bootlegs from VHS tapes and Laser Discs were common, creating the increased interest among people who were growing up in the early 1990’s.
In the result, like a growing, rolling snowball, the fanbase of “Akira”and anime in general was growing its ranks; the sales of anime tapes were increasing the membership in local anime clubs, and that meant that more people were watching anime, and that created the feedback in the marked, increasing the sales.
Official distributors and bootleggers had quickly exploited that new opportunity for moneymaking, and soon the marked was flooded with classics like “Sailor Moon”, “Area 88”, “Dirty Pair”, “City Hunter”, “The Venus Wars”, “Bubblegum Crisis”, “Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water”, “Berserk”, “Dominion Tank Police”, “Lupin III” “Armoured Trooper VOTOMS” and “Gundam” sequels and spin-offs. But as a flip side, the trashy, low-budget animes, saturated with pure awfulness and senseless violence, found their way to the market, like for example “MD Geist”, “Fist of the North Star”, “Genocyber” and “Violence Jack”.
Short recollection from the frontline.
At the dawn of the new century the anime market in the West had finally matured, and no one was surprised with official releases of “Evangelion” or “Princess Mononoke”. Soon the anime began to drip into Poland, with landmark events like broadcast of “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” on Canal+ TV channel, or regular brodcasts of “Sailor Moon” on Polsat and “Dragon Ball” on RTL7.
In the 2001 the Pioneer Entertainment had re-released remastered “Akira” with the new English dubbing, and like 10 years before it became an instant hit.
Even after quater of century, “Akira” is still inspiring western comic book artists and illustrators..
After that spectacular success Katsuhiro Otomo was not standing idly: in following years he did story of “Roujin Z” (1991), wrote and directed “Memories” (1995), “Metropolis” (2001) and “Steamboy” (2004), also he did some feature films (“Mushishi”, “World Apartment Horror”).
His newest achievement is involvement in multimedia hybrid project “Short Peace” – a cluster of animated shorts and video games that are telling the stories in Japanese setting in various time periods, from mythological past to postapocalyptic future. Otomo wrote screenplays to the most of the segments, and directed final one, “Farewell to Arms”.
In 2013 he was awarded with the Order with the Purple Ribbon by the Emperor of Japan, for lifetime achievements in the field of art and culture.
And this is the end, so I’ll finish this article with something much more light-hearted: enter the “Bartkira”, humorous project that aims to recreate most iconic parts of “Akira” using characters and setting form “The Simpsons”:
The power of Akira is still among us!