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For the Austin Film Society. 2008.
Program Notes by Evan Driscoll and Shane Hazen
It's easy enough to get lost in the immense spectacle of Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA (1988), from the vividly lush landscapes of its setting - Neo Tokyo - to the plethora of detail stuffed into every frame. To do this, though, is to circumvent the story, characters, and themes without acknowledging and understanding them sufficiently. Definitely, the visuals alone have the ability to terrify and belittle viewers with their awesomeness, a form of education in their own right. But even film critics have stopped at this, simply identifying thematic elements and leaving it at that. In academic circles, too, AKIRA has remained largely unanalyzed, and will most likely remain so until it's remade into a live-action film 5 or 10 years down the road (there have been talks and rumors since the mid-90's)
The story is an epic one. Set 30 years after WWIII in the year of 2019, Neo Tokyo is in a state of fractious civil uprisings. Suicide bombers, organized attacks on the government, and political corruption are all too ubiquitously routine, and yet, through it all, everyday life continues. Kaneda and Tetsuo adapt to their environment as best they can, riding the streets recklessly in search of trouble and debauchery. But there’s a freak occurrence during a battle with a rival gang, and Tetsuo becomes deeply intertwined with a dangerous government agency involving ESPER children (individuals born with telepathic abilities). Tetsuo finds himself in a lab and discovers that, years ago, Akira was born in the same set of experiments, only to be frozen shortly after because of his catastrophic power. If Akira awakes for a second time, it will be the responsibility of all mankind to deal with – united or divided.
Director Katsuhiro Otomo began his career as an aspiring manga artist in the rural landscape of Miyagi Prefecture. After graduating from high school he picked-up and tried his luck in Tokyo, attempting to find commissions as a professional manga artist. Beginning at Action Magazine drawing short comic strips, he would later move on to publish DOMU, a manga more in the vein of a graphic novel, which launched his career as a nationally renowned artist. Serialized from 1980-1982, here, too we find Otomo grappling with collective subconscious, juvenile delinquency and adult disenchantment with youth, all central themes that permeate both AKIRA and his second feature film, STEAMBOY (2004).
Directly after DOMU’s popular acceptance, Otomo began what would define his career with the most internationally influential manga to date, AKIRA. Beginning in 1982 and culminating in 1990 (note that AKIRA the film was released in 1988), this epic cyber-punk sci-fi serial finally concluded at 2000+ pages, and was later bound into 6 separate volumes. With each page composed of 8-12 frames, Otomo stood facing the daunting task of adapting roughly 16,000 shots for the film.
And so the long adaptation process began. The disparities between the manga and film are plenty: from the complete absence of central characters to neglected themes. So the film is by no means an accurate translation, but rather a re-envisioning of the original ideas. For instance, the entirety of AKIRA vol. 5 is dedicated to the various competing factions that skirmish for power over the new “Tokyo Empire”. The major ideas in question are, “At humanity’s current state of social, physical, and cultural evolution, how do humans organize themselves?” And, “How does the need to hold and control power implicate this organization?” Definitely, these questions are omnipresent throughout most of the manga, but in vol. 5 it is made almost black and white: There are four powerful groups who want control of Neo-Tokyo, and not all of them can have it. In the film this is, more or less, pared down to a conflict between the army and Akira and Tetsuo, so the conflict seems more of a dichotomy - conjuring connotations of the long-winded battle between “man and nature” - rather than the more chaotic urban fighting involving many parties.
That said, human organizational complexity is still present in the film, somewhat through the plot and characters, but also through subtleties in the environment. A neat little feature on the special edition DVD points out and translates a choice of graffiti riddled throughout Neo Tokyo, and, curiously, a vast majority of the writing bears revolutionary messages such as, “Struggle, Oppose Imperialism!” and counter-cries as well, to the conservative tune of “Smash The Strike!” So, although the various revolutionary rivalries are not physically foregrounded in the film, they are certainly present in the background, and thanks to this nifty feature, foreign audiences are allowed at least a little taste of these important tidbits strewn throughout the film.
These messages are just a small element in helping create a more holistic environment for a revolution / apocalypse. AKIRA is notorious for its use of “excessive violence”, and although this is forgrounded to some degree in the film, it’s used as a sort of punctuation, rather than a means to an end in itself. To depict this sort of revolution and destruction without violence would be an inaccuracy. But, even respected critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader states that, “Grade-school violence freaks may find a few kicks…” and Michael Adkinson of the Village Voice coins it, “juvenile and baffling.” A typical review of AKIRA is composed of the identification of groundbreaking visuals, and then moves onto the condemnation of violence, followed by a summation comprising ¾ of the review, and finally a tip-of-the-hat for internationalizing the anime genre.
While there is much more to AKIRA than critics give it credit for, some people might give it a little too much credit. AKIRA’s cult following has cultivated the film’s original ideas, elevating it to a new plane of reality – much like that of STAR TREK, STAR WARS, or THE MATRIX trilogy. Various unofficial websites are dedicated to AKIRA, covering everything from character history to Kaneda’s bike specs (if anyone is curious, the bike is “rumored to be a Honda” and has a drag coefficient of CD=.024).
This is simply an indicator of AKIRA’s enormous international influence, shaping viewer’s interest in animation and raising-the-bar on professional animation techniques (at $8-10 million, AKIRA had the highest animation cost of all time, and was also considered the most detailed animation ever created, merging over 7 production companies together just to gain sufficient labor power). One objective that AKIRA’s release failed to capture, though, was to persuade critics to take anime seriously. As things stand now, AKIRA will probably go down in history as purely visual stimulus, while its much larger questions of human nature remain undiscovered and unanalyzed.
-- Evan Driscoll,Programming Apprentice, Austin Film Society
Akira Special Edition DVD
???(AKIRA) Vol.1 – Vol.6 English and Japanese edition
The Chicago Reader – Capsule – Jonathan Rosenbaum
Village Voice – The Art of The Ridiculous Sublime – 03/26/01 - Michael Adkinson