The Vault 05: Akira

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Explanation of the Vault series

Originally published on September 16, 2003. A shorter version of this review was also published on Metaphilm.com. To date, it is my only “professional” review and was an attempt to review in detail all my anime DVDs.

Come, Sweet Destruction

Akira and the Japanese Apocalyptic Imagination

Akira (1987)
directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Rated R. 124 minutes.

Akira, perhaps the most impressive anime movie to come out in the 1980s, was many Americans’ first exposure to anime. Its bad original English dubbing, starring Ninja Turtle voice actors, has become a kitsch item for many old timer anime fans–there were many complaints when Pioneer redubbed the movie for its 2001 DVD restoration. What captivated those select audiences in the late 1980s to join the then tiny, unhip, and perhaps freakish anime fan community and launch a phenonemon that has now gone mainstream? In this age where even wildly left-field shows like FLCL can get shown on the Cartoon Network, it’s good to go back to one of the touchstones of modern anime and see what made it tick for so many people.

It’s become a cliche for Tokyo to get destroyed in various animes, though few have done so as artfully as this film. The shadow and influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs over the ending sequences, however, and in that film perhaps we can begin to see where some of the appeal of Akira comes from. Both are, for one, partly cautionary tales about the dangers of science run amok: artificial intelligence in one, the irresponsible channeling of psionic powers in the other. Both offer violent catharsis leading to cosmic rebirth, though the bloody messes in Akira are far more graphic than apes beating each other with bones or an astronaut shutting down a computer. And both films express the anxiety in modern soceity that something great and terrible is going to happen soon, something beautiful, perhaps, but also awful: in short, an apocalypse.

For the Japanese, having seen nuclear holocaust firsthand, any apocalypse is most likely going to involve mushroom clouds or similar shaped explosions. Anime from Evangelion to Escaflowne have used thinly veiled references to nuclear disasters. True to form, Akira also begins with an apparent nuclear explosion (though we discover later that it is not), and explains that the film takes place after “World War III.” (With the sheen of high-tech skyscrapers and synthesized tribal music beating in the background, one wonders though if anyone remembered Einstein’s quip about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones. Perhaps this is a backhanded optimism at work in the filmmakers?) The nuclear age put the dangers of science, which literature had been excoriating since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into sharp relief: here, at last, was a way that humankind’s folly could actually destroy the whole world. It’s no surprise then that, like many other technology-run-amok science fiction stories, Akira is largely about what happens when great power corrupts and is misused–mainly in the character of Tetsuo and his psychic abilities, but also in the civilian Tokyo government, the colonel’s military, and of course the conniving scientist, who marvels at the data printouts spewing from the plotters (“we’ll finally have a Grand Unified Theory!” he exults) while the city crumbles.

Naturally, there have been all too many low-class sci-fi books and movies about the dangers of science: Godzilla, for instance. Akira however is not quite as simple: the filmmakers clearly delight in the immense urban techno-glow of Neo-Tokyo, giving us hyperkinetic shots of racing motorcycles, cascading streetlights, little desks inside thousands of tiny office windows. The viewer’s impression of Tetsuo falling from the hospital into the field of man-made lights, into the valley of skyscrapers, is awe–the kind of awe that one has at thousands of Towers of Babel, perhaps, but awe all the same. I gleefully confess to wishing that this neon purgatory, whose streets are as dirty as New York City’s on a sanitation strike and where students and brutal riot police battle between the lanes, were real. It’s just so cool. The gamelan music accompanying the chase scenes and the gothic elegance of all the twisted pipes, wires, and towering heights makes it even cooler. This is The Future . . .

. . . and it is going to explode. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael controversially described 2001 as a film longing for the destruction of the human race, for nothingness and existence beyond the body. The impulse seems to be embedded in human nature. Watch a little kid build a towering Lego construction, only to knock it down gleefully with one swipe. We see the beautiful city of Neo-Tokyo crumble before our eyes in Akira, swallowed up by Tetsuo’s literal self-absorption. There is an awe-filled beauty in that kind of destruction, too, which culminates in that Kubrickian “star-gate” sequence in which Tetsuo literally becomes another universe, a universe where he is the great I AM–“I AM TETSUO,” the new god announces at the film’s end.

But Testsuo is a lonely god, a god without followers–only fond memorializers at the end with his biker friends. If one wants to psychoanlayze the character, one could say that at this point Tetsuo has reached the logical end of his depressed, downtrodden, and vengeful existence: complete self-absorption. That was where he was headed when he became a giant, gelatinous baby in the Olympic stadium, swallowing everyone and literally hugging his girlfriend to death. In the end, for him to exist, he has to be the only thing that exists in his universe. This seems like a terribly lonely fate to me–it’s more or less what CS Lewis conceived Hell to be like–but it is fitting for the increasingly dangerous Tetsuo, whose powers grew out of control because his desires for respect, for vengeance, and for domination grew out of control. Unable to live with others, he must separate himself from everyone else.

(Interestingly enough, a very similar thing happens at the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but the moral and the conclusion of the story is very different. More will be said on that issue when I get to Eva.)

Moreover, what happens to Tetsuo is a microcosm at what happens when human beings let their desire for power or knowledge grow out of control as well. The end result it the death of anything beautiful or worthwhile that man creates. This fear that we will knock ourselves down is at the heart of the apocalyptic anxiety, one that constantly pulses through popular Japanese imagination. We Americans are less prone to the fear of total annihilation, since the Cold War has ended. But after September 11th, which was a terrible day in which we saw high-tech towers falling apocalyptically through the blue skies, some of that fear resonates again. We can’t look at the gratuitous destruction of buildings the same way anymore. They have passed from action spectacles to the fearful, awe-full things that they really are. The perpetrators may be religious ideologues, but the means were technological: the fruits of our science and wisdom turned against us, out of its intentions and out of our control.

Out of our fears and anxieties come dreams, and then visions: the visions, in this case, of many artists come together to create an exciting, sometimes troubling work. The violence is often gratuitous and the characters merely screaming cutouts (and they all look the same in this movie, honestly), but all the wonder and the horror of modernity is on display in the city. Modern Tower-of-Babel stories never looked this good.


Michael is on hiatus for the remainder of August. The Vault series resurrects entries from his personal blog about anime, written from 2002-2006. Entries will appear in the series every other day.

One thought on “The Vault 05: Akira”

  1. Well done on having the bottle to review this movie and make a great job of it – I’ve steered clear of blogging it because it’s had so much coverage. You’re absolutely, dead-on, 100% right about it having more in its favour than great visuals. They can say all they like about how every skyscraper window was painted by hand, or how more colours of cel paint were used than the human eye is able to discern, but the bottom line is that it’s a classic that explores so much more. No amount of hype, repeated viewings or pointing out how the manga expands on every aspect (yes, I’d say it’s a must-read) can take away the fact that it’s a masterpiece of a film that’s more thematically complex than the visceral violence might indicate. It doesn’t make it into my ‘top ten’ any more, but it’s a movie I still get much thought and entertainment value out of, even now.

    In closing, when you ask non-fans what anime movies they’ve seen, it’s either the more recent and Oscar-winning Spirited Away or Akira. That says it all.

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