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Akira
Anime came of age in North America when Katushiro Otomo's apocalyptic vision hit the big screen
Akira
Akira Production Committee
Created and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Japan, 1988
Tokyo, reborn after the apocalypse. Children with the powers of gods. Government experiments gone awry. Duelling motorcycle gangs in the decaying urban sprawl. None of these ideas are new, but when Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira hit the pages of Japan's Weekly Young Magazine in 1982, he imparted his own particular spin to these elements, weaving a multilayered tapestry that has not only won him acclaim in Japan, but in Europe and North America as well.

Katsuhiro Otomo's first manga (Japanese comic) work was Gun Report (1973), an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's Mateo Falcone. Since then, he been busy in the manga and anime (Japanese animation) industries, producing such work as the award-winning Domu (a manga now available in English by Dark Horse), and storyboarding the opening and closing segments of Robot Carnival, Japan's robotic answer to Fantasia. He has also done commercial work in Japan for such clients as Honda and Canon.

Japan's manga industry is immense; while the heavy-hitters in the North American comic-book market are just starting to sell millions of copies of some popular titles, Japan's manga companies have been regularly selling millions of weekly black-and-white volumes the size of small telephone books for decades. The diversity of the medium is staggering, with topics ranging from adventure to cooking to badminton. The artistic range is similarly wide, from the child-like simplicity of Tanaka-kun to the excessively detailed Cyber Blue.

Even amid this veritable sea of manga, Akira stood out. Set in Tokyo (now Neo-Tokyo) thirty years after World War III, the story revolves around the title character, a mysterious figure who is almost never seen throughout the series. Our main characters are caught up in the struggle to gain and control the fantastic power of Akira. These are Kaneda, fifteen-year-old leader of the Capsules, a biker gang; Tetsuo, his childhood buddy, whose psychic powers are awakened; Kei and Ryu, members of a group trying to find the other psychic kids and overthrow the government; the Colonel, the military leader who is perfectly willing to sacrifice hundreds of lives to keep Akira's power from being unleashed; and Kiyoko, Takashi, and Masaru--numbers 25, 26, and 27--three products of a secret government program that developed and exploited psychic powers in children. The three are forty years old but still in the bodies of young children.

Otomo's ambition with Akira was to create an 1,800-page story, to be compiled into five volumes when it was completed. When it was finally completed, the page count came to 2,200, for a total of six volumes. Unsatisfied with the ending, he has since gone back to rewrite the series' conclusion.

Two things set Akira apart from other manga. The first is Otomo's sense of scale. Seeing the destruction of Tokyo in the first few pages is a bit of a cliché, but unlike most manga storytellers, Otomo lets the shock of the nuclear explosion set the pace, and doesn't let up until the reader is begging for mercy. The second is Otomo's successful translation of cinematic technique to the printed page. While this is hardly uncommon in manga, most only use this style for select parts of the story. Akira manages to preserve the cinematic feel and pacing throughout the entire series; flipping through Akira's pages one experiences the curious sensation of reading a movie. It was only natural, then, that Akira be adapted into an animated feature, released in 1988.

In making the transition from the printed page to the large screen, Akira received extra special treatment. Eight of Japan's major media and entertainment corporations joined forces to create the Akira Production Committee, who in turn assembled no less than thirty-one animation studios to create this two-hour, four-minute movie. Otomo himself had a rare amount of involvement in the project, co-writing the screenplay, directing, storyboarding, and acting as character designer. At times confusing, Akira features richly textured backgrounds, spectacular special effects, and some of the most intense and sometimes ultra-violent visuals to grace animated celluloid. Some scenes, especially those showing the streets of nighttime Neo-Tokyo, often cause Akira to be compared to Blade Runner; others have it compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Equally compelling is the film's soundtrack, composed by Shoji Yamashiro and performed by the Geinoh Yamashirogumi. The Geinoh Yamashirogumi can best be described as an orchestral chorus--a group of over 200 singers using their voices as instruments. Using a combination of traditional music and sounds, modern synthesizers, ritualistic chants and a little digital wizardry, the soundtrack lends even the most hi-tech scenes a certain primal intensity. Hearing Buddhist chanting during the opening clash between the Capsules and their rivals the Clowns, one gets the feeling of watching a ritual battle as old as humanity.

Akira was released in Japan on July 16, 1988--the same date as the destruction of Tokyo, according to the film's opening. A little over a year later, Streamline Pictures acquired the rights to distribute the English-language version of Akira in the United States. Founded earlier in the year by animation historian Jerry Beck (co-author of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies) and television animation producer Carl Macek (script editor on Robotech), Streamline's mandate was to bring Japanese animation to American cinemas.

Streamline's first two titles were Laputa, Hayao Miyazaki's tale of the quest for Jonathan Swift's flying city, and Twilight of the Cockroaches, a live-action/animation feature about a bachelor who peacefully coexists with the roaches in his apartment, until he gets a girlfriend. Both films toured the country's art and repertory cinemas, enjoying favourable but scant media attention. Akira, Streamline's third acquisition, blew open the doors, quickly attaining cult movie status. The movie became Streamline's first and possibly most popular video release, and two years later, Criterion released a deluxe CAV laserdisc edition, giving Akira similar treatment to such classics as Blade Runner.

Criterion probably saw in Akira what many saw in Blade Runner; in much the same way as Blade Runner used existing cinematic conventions to redefine what could be done in science fiction cinema, Akira has redefined what can be done in science fiction animation.

Originally appeared in Sci-Fi Entertainment vol. 2, no. 2 (August 1995)