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Akira

“Akira” is a masterpiece of animation, grotesque body horror, and powerful social commentary that’s a visual and auditory showpiece.

Akira

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I was lucky.

Growing up, my father, amongst everything else he provided, was a doorway into pop culture. I was lost in everything from music to video games and movies. To this day, I’m still a pop culture fiend. Talk to me for a minute or two, and something pop culture-related will come up – including permanently ingrained memories from my early years.

As a kid, movies and video games specifically made a strong impression on me.

The original Star Wars trilogy, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, to name a few, were game changers. They were heavy hitters to a mind infatuated with anything imaginative and different.

However, only a couple of films impacted me like Akira.

I was transfixed from the beginning when an opening biker battle/ chase scene introduced many of the film’s major players. What stood before me was a lustful and violent city full of compelling characters. The city lights, the insanely cool motorcycles, and the character designs launched me into another world.

Early on, we see characters like Kaneda and Tetsuo demonstrate just how serious they are about their motorcycle group. In one scene, Tetsuo, while riding, hits another character in the face with a hammer-like tool after his victim crashes. At the time, I hadn’t seen anything this violent, and I still recoil at it. It was further ingrained in my mind by the sprawling city it happened in.

I was in for a ride.

Speaking of movement, the animation in Akira, a movie released in 1988, is staggering.

In fact, it’s still considered one of the best-animated movies of all time. Many consider it the best.

From the get-go, Neo-Tokyo, where the film takes place, flashes with bright lights emanating from colossal buildings. They’re enough to overwhelm your senses but don’t conflict with anything represented on the screen. Instead, the lights are perfectly arranged to foster excitement as you coast through it.

The attention to detail was immense and, I’m sure, overwhelming to aspiring animators. Akira artists even hand-painted tiny dots of light onto buildings fit for New York City.

Tedious, but the little details made the setting all the more realistic. It also elevated the sense of awe. It felt like the city, as the rebellious groups drove through, was going to devour them like an architectural kaiju.

Many of the film’s buildings, probably represented on seemingly countless animation cells, were of this magnitude. The fact that people hand-painted these lights alone is enough to garner respect for the film crew.

What I offer you are a few reasons, out of a multitude, why AKIRA is worth watching to this day, whether you’re inclined to horror or not.

Throw in social/ political themes, body horror, and humor into the cauldron, and a spicy gem erupts before you.

Akira’s character designs, backed up by humor and extraordinary character abilities, helped take me on a ride I wasn’t prepared for.

The characters were cool, as morally questionable as their actions were. How can you not like Kaneda’s outfit and his motorcycle? Or the simplistic brilliance of Tetsuo’s spiked hair, enhanced by a makeshift red cape and his biomechanical arm. Even if you didn’t agree with their decisions, their sense of rebellion against a school and secretive authority makes for an inspiring watch.

Akira also boasts scenes that still make me laugh.

In one, Kaneda feigns being innocuous during an interrogation. As the scene moves, he whips out a quick, innocent look, which is contrasted by a rebellious mug shot photo. Decades later, this continued to crack a smile on my face.

Another moment reveals a school leader savagely hitting students while yelling, “Discipline!” There was absolutely no regard for their age or size difference. As unacceptable as the decision was, I can’t help but laugh.

While the animation was the obvious star, Akira’s characters were often equally compelling. 

Take Kaneda and Tetsuo’s relationship. Here, we have Tetsuo, a young man who struggles with the idea of being seen by Kaneda as a capable, self-reliant individual. As the motorcycle group leader, Kaneda casts significant influence over his fellow bikers. Tetsuo consistently fights to escape this shadow.

However, we later learn that Kaneda, a childhood friend, was there for him as a child when seemingly no one else was. Alone, Tetsuo was cast into a school with the inevitable bullies whom Kaneda deals with. This revelation makes their final climactic clash a more emotional watch.

The colossal monstrosity Tetsuo morphs into during their final confrontation is worth writing an article about alone.

It’s body horror Clive Barker might be proud of. Toward the end of Akira, Tetsuo loses control over his body, which turns into a bloated and giant baby-like entity. It’s a fascinatingly grotesque scene.

Even the way his biomechanical arm fuses with the throne Tetsuo rests on is a delightful piece of science fiction body horror. Parts of the evolving arm course through the throne like mechanical snakes searching for a victim. And it is sweet to behold.

Although considerably less disgusting from a visual standpoint, another character is essentially possessed by one of the film’s psychic-powered kids.

A loss of bodily control that could happen at any given moment is perhaps even more unnerving to think about.

To have another controlling your body for their own end is its own kind of body horror dripped in psychological horror.

Not to mention, there is the horrific reminder of a nuclear-savaged city Akira’s and Tesuo’s powers could easily represent. Much like the original 1954 Godzilla — a terrifying metaphor for a country’s collective trauma — the duo in Akira pose an overwhelming threat to the city.

Tetsuo, like Akira, undergoes power to the point where Kaneda is almost helplessly under-equipped to handle the body horror titan Tetsuo becomes – even with the assistance of outside power. Intermixed is authority willing to go to extreme lengths to protect the city and contain power for its own benefit.

It’s not quite Orwellian, but it is intensely disconcerting nonetheless.

The horror, action, and social commentary are all wrapped in an otherworldly soundtrack.

Akira

In one memorable track, a hum of beats, like if drums and a xylophone of lower tones had a child, slide across your ears with strength.

It continues as people chant lines like mantras in growing intensity. It’s all very Japanese and slightly in the same vein as moments in the original Ghost in the Shell soundtrack.

Another song features a similarly hypnotic mix of unexpected sounds used in a rhythmic, almost drum circle kind of manner. At times, it feels like a drum circle musically and visually – albeit a drum circle operated by playful kids.

Inside is what sounds like a child making throat sounds with their hand, later being run through some kind of distortion. It feels like the kid was imagining himself as a leaping frog in a forest from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run.

It’s easy to mistake it for a psychedelic barbershop quartet, too. The track captures the whimsical spirit of kids but with a creepy edge. There’s an implication of death on the horizon.

I could go on and on.

At the end of the day, Akira’s themes, characters, music, and animation add up to an unforgettable experience. Since it first debuted, nothing has been quite like it. It’s a testament to what can be done in animation. The film is also an example of how seeing something at the right time can reshape humans.

Akira was simply ahead of its time. If you haven’t seen it, I implore you to watch it. You won’t be the same.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5
Stream Akira now on Hulu, Crunchyroll, or Funimation, or rent it inexpensively on Vudu. 

WRITTEN BY MILES BATES

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