For friends who ask me where to start in the wide and sometimes wacky world of anime, I routinely point them to Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 epic (based on his own equally epic 1,000 page-plus manga) has so many of the archetypal themes and techniques of contemporary anime that it's a virtual thesaurus of the idiom. Of course the fact is that Akira paved the way for these themes and techniques to a large degree, and all that has come after in the peculiar world of anime exists largely in Akira's formidable wake. This has been one of the most requested titles to get a Blu-ray upgrade, and the result is both good and bad. While the film looks and sounds stupendous, obviously better than it ever has, Blu-ray's incredible resolution does reveal some very occasional flaws and damage in the source elements which fans may have missed in the previous SD-DVD releases.
Akira is such a potent prime example of anime for a some very good reasons. First of all, as so many classic animes do, it takes place in a dystopian future, in this case a post-apocalyptic Tokyo circa 2019 (30 years after World War III, which thankfully we seem to have missed). Akira also posits dysfunctional youth against an overly mechanized society, though in this case we have no transforming robots or other mecha. What we do have is roving gangs of motorcycle hooligans, all of whom speed their super-cool looking craft through the neon lit streets of "New Tokyo." Playing out against this gang warfare is a simultaneous story of the intellectual, spiritual, and ultimately physical mutation of mankind, as personified first by the title character, a supposedly now dead boy who, when alive, showed amazing psychic and telekinetic powers. Those same ubermenschian abilities are now showing up in various others, including a mysterious wizened child as well as Tetsuo, one of the motorcycle gang members.
What proceeds over Akira's two hour or so running time is a forceful and at times surprisingly funny look at alienated youth (and "alienated" can be taken in any of its meanings in Akira). New Tokyo is shown to be a glittering paradise from a distance which, once the camera delves beneath the surface, is a gritty and foul collection of street people, roving gangs and drug abuse. While the motorcycle gangs are tough and violent, they also come off at times as comedians, a la "Gee Officer Krupke" in West Side Story, with an impish sense of humor underlying their disaffected youth stance.
As the story begins, Tetsuo and his buddy Kaneda are involved in some motorcycle mayhem when Tetsuo has an accident. Kaneda arrives on the scene to see Tetsuo being spirited away, along with the mysterious old-looking child figure, by what appears to be governmental powers. We soon find out that the weird looking youngster and Tetsuo share the same psychic powers that the legendary Akira once possessed, powers which, it turns out, were what caused the nuclear holocaust that obliterated Tokyo. Kaneda then spends the bulk of the rest of the film attempting to infiltrate the secret government cabal that has captured his friend in order to free Tetsuo. Tetsuo, on the other hand, slowly becomes aware that with his newfound omnipotence, he doesn't really need rescuing all that badly, and he sets off to find Akira, who he is convinced is still alive and being kept at a "secret, undisclosed location" (yes, it occurs to me that Cheney may simply have been an extraordinarily lifelike anime character).
For those more used to mind blowing CGI effects, Akira may seem, well, quaint at times with its more traditional cel animation techniques. And yet there is incredible artistry and depth to this animation, with fully developed characters and an incredible care taken with layout, color design and some very nice "special effects." When the boys zoom their motorcycles through the dense cityscapes, notice how a beautiful trail of multicolored lights follows them, weaving serpentine bands of hues behind them. At the climax of the piece, when Tetsuo's "evolution" suddenly explodes out of control, notice how his transmogrification literally spills over the edge of the frame, as if the film itself can't contain his monstrous transformation. The one thing that is definitely not quaint about Akira, and certainly one of the things that made it so instantly popular with teenaged boys I would imagine, is its at times extremely graphic violence. Scenes of sexual predation and blood, gore and various guts are scattered throughout the film; there's a reason it has its deserved "R' rating, so parents concerned about their kids' viewing choices should be strongly cautioned about previewing Akira before sharing with any children younger than teenagers (if even them).
If the actual ending of Akira is a bit opaque, almost akin to 2001's iconic yet mysterious final images, the story leading up to that point is at once multidimensional while sustaining enough grounded elements to not be too hard to follow (a trap that some post-Akira animes fall into). The central issue of mutation and evolution, something that must haunt the Japanese soul post-Hiroshima, is well handled, if not exceptionally deeply so. But there's a wealth of other wonderful plot material here, some of it only in passing, including the aforementioned comedy elements, the friendship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, and the ultimate question of how those with newfound and potentially unfettered power choose to use it.
There's a reason Akira tops not only my personal anime list, but most ardent followers of the genre. This is quite simply one of the towering achievements of Japanese animated artistry, something akin to the Citizen Kane of its idiom. Those new to anime will find it an intriguing and exciting entrée into a new and often very strange world. Longtime fans of anime probably are already well ensconced in Akira's many charms, and will welcome this exciting new BD with open arms.