Tetsuo on his throne in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
Gruesome, Committed and Visionary: How ‘Akira’ Shattered Convention To Ignite a Global Passion for Anime
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December 25, 1989, the day anime ventured West. With a limited release of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s seminal masterpiece in the United States, grossing approximately $1 million in its initial run, and taking in over $50 million at the global box office, Akira ignited a passion so fervent that the world of anime and pop culture would never be the same again.
For One Block Down’s latest collaborative editorial with Tokyo-based magazine Sabukaru, we explore the far-reaching impact of Katsuhiro Otomo's anime masterpiece Akira on the global pop culture scene with a selection of rare scans and insider quotes.
The destruction of Tokyo in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
For those unfamiliar with Akira, to put it simply, it is the film that introduced the Western world to Japanese animation. Written and directed by Ōtomo, who had already enjoyed notable success as the author of the manga on which the film is based, Akira exploded onto US screens a year after its debut in Tokyo and changed the game entirely. It proved that animation could be adult, gruesome, explicit; battling complex notions of existentialism, dystopia and violence via beautiful, hand-drawn frames. It showed that, despite Disney’s success in children’s animation, the medium had the potential to achieve higher levels of depth and artistic merit than anything seen before in the mainstream. It revealed that animation existed outside of Hollywood and that it was bursting with endless possibility.
Neo-Tokyo in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
Set in the neon-cityscapes of Neo-Tokyo 2019, 30 years after a devastating explosion has obliterated the original city, Akira depicts a world in flux. Biker gangs parade around the streets, engaging in random acts of violence against police and pedestrians alike, while an anti-government resistance organization fights for the people’s liberty, rescuing laboratory experiments and uncovering government conspiracies. Endless protests erupt throughout the city, some of which fueled by amessianic delusion that a god-like savior will come and rescue them from their torment. Neo-Tokyo is a ticking time bomb of anti-establishment sensibilities and cyberpunk aesthetic.
Viewed, at the time, as a dystopian wasteland, a megalopolis plagued by societal disruption and discontent, Neo-Tokyo, with its high-rise skyscrapers, overpopulated urban areas and dilapidated industrial districts, seems eerily similar to the world we know today. Beset with Blade Runner-esque advertisements that only cement the city’s dystopian vibes, Akira establishes “a booming, industrial city with the atmosphere of a collapsing one.”
The film proves Ōtomo’s ability to tune himself into the cultural milieu, exposing economic disparity and the fragile state of a fracturing civil society. His insight foreshadows the ongoing plight of the poor and dispossessed, living invisible lives amidst the affluence of the rich and powerful. The skyscrapers of Neo-Tokyo, once tall and magnificent, are burned down to reveal the inconsistency of economic structures and empty promises. Inner-city turmoil, such as the 2005 Paris riots and the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017, reveal that the inconsistencies of our world aren’t too distant from that of Akira’s.
Neo-Tokyo in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
The narrative follows Kaneda, the boisterous leader of the Capsule Gang, who is informed that their rivals, the Clown Gang, have been seen around the city. Enlisting Tetsuo, Kaneda’s childhood friend, who struggles with a brimming superiority complex, and the rest of the crew, the bikers race through the streets in search of the rival gang.
Kaneda and the Capsules racing around Neo-Tokyo in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
At the same time, a violent protest is festering in the city, with students scrambling against a brutal police force. Amid said protest, a resistance fighter stumbles into the fray with a boy — Takashi — who displays devastating telekinetic powers; exploding nearby buildings when the riot police shoot his companion, before subsequently vanishing.
As the Capsule Gang continues to chase their clownish rivals, Tetsuo takes the lead in an effort to prove himself equal to their charismatic leader. Yet, when he crashes into Takashi, who reappears on the streets, the telekinetic boy remains untouched while Tetsuo begins to elicit superpowers that, when paired with his frustrations, only cause destruction.
Tetsuo surrounded by fire in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
Akira was, and remains, one of the most influential anime films ever made. Invoked ceaselessly in later animes such as Dragon Ball Z and Gurren Lagen, and frequently used by western filmmakers Christopher Nolan and The Wachowskis. Akira garnered such great cultural status that it even went on to inspire the likes of Michael Jackson and Kanye West, with the latter citing the film as his “biggest creative inspiration,” reproducing many of its iconic scenes in the music video for “Stronger”.
Kanye West's "Stronger" official music video.
Kanye West tweeting his love for Akira.
Kanye West on the set of "Stronger" music video with a custom life size replica Akira motorcycle.
Emerging out of the golden age of anime — the ’80s, a decade in which the genre truly began to find its footing in Japan — Akira boasted extraordinarily high production standards, many of which eclipsed anything that came before it. Filmed using a combination of 1s and 2s — a method of drawing either 12 or in some cases, 24 frames per second — Akira took the creative measures marked by films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and completely blew them out the water.
“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” © 1984 Studio Ghibli /FilmGrab
Comprising over 160,000 images and 2212 shots, Akira threw the conventions of anime to the wind, completely revolutionizing the industry, with its level of detail arguably still surpassing anything produced to date. Additionally, the series sports a huge array of colors — 327 to be exact — 50 of which were created specifically for the film in order “to create the effect of a real city” at night. Take “Akira Red” for example, the iconic finish on Kaneda’s jacket and bike, now a heavily sought-after hue in the world of fashion.
Kaneda on his bike in the opening chase scene in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee | Imagens Portal SESCSP /WikiCommons
Featured recently as part of Akira’s 30th-anniversary celebration, animation distribution company, Funimation, created a replica of Kaneda’s red jacket in 2019, ensuring to stay true to Ōtomo’s original vision for the manga. Being one of the few officially licensed Akira products available worldwide, the “Kaneda” jacket is a powerful example of the globe-spanning influence of the manga and its subsequent anime. As well as this, skateboarding brand Supreme released a line of clothing based around the anime in 2017, comprising a selection of products including a fishtail parka, work jacket, coveralls and a jacquard long-sleeve top, all of which Ōtomo himself insists communicate the destructive and youthful feel of Akira’s “motorcycle gangs, rock musicians and punk rockers [...] The marginal members of society.”
Kaneda’s red jacket released as part of Akira 30th anniversary © 2019 Funimation /Twitter
Sketch of the iconic Akira red jacket.
Supreme x Akira © Supreme
Supreme x Akira © Supreme
From manga to movie, from Japan to the world, it would seem Akira’s cultural influence knows no bounds, even going so far as to inspire designer J.W. Anderson to create his own line of anime-focused items for luxury brand Loewe. Displaying “all-over prints gleaned from art in Akira and Mobile Suit Gundam,” the 2016 collection would further underpin the medium of anime as a machine for generating inspiration, “turning Yoshiyuki Tomino-esque mecha and Katsuhiro Ōtomo-inspired faces into fashion statements.”
Akira seeps life. Through an inspired commitment to do something revolutionary with a medium still in its infancy, the film evolved the anime industry from the inside out, setting a new landmark of cinematic history and expanding the reach of Japanese animation exponentially.
Promotional Campaign of Akira in New York, 1990
Promotional Campaign of Akira in New York, 1990
In 1989, endorsed by the Akira Committee — a group of 7 different entertainment conglomerates established solely to secure the film’s record-breaking budget of ¥700 million ($5.5 million) — Akira, with its excruciatingly detailed animation and innovative production, journeyed West and opened the eyes of a generation to the world of anime. Finding success in the VHS market, the film was distributed by Streamline Video, and later by Orion Home Video, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in both Europe and the US, further cementing its place within the cultural zeitgeist.
It sold so well that it single-handedly brought about the creation of Manga Entertainment — an anime distribution label subsequently bought out by Funimation — and was later included in The Criterion Collection — an American distribution company focused on licensing “important classic and contemporary films” — as its first animated feature.
“AKIRA” LaserDisc © The Criterion Collection /LaserDisc Database
Why Akira spurred such passion, however, is up for discussion. With themes that chime with countless contemporary sensibilities — such as violent protests, technological advancement and corrupt governments — director Ōtomo has cited an array of influences from the original mecha manga, Tetsujin 28-gō by Mitsuteru Yokoyama to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“As my work comes from my mind, it means that all my influences are jumbled up and mixed together. So what I have seen and experienced. In that sense, I've absorbed many different things from a variety of works over the years. That makes it difficult for me to know exactly where certain things came from. In short, I digest many different things and ideas tend to pop out from that.”
Coming off the back of numerous successful mangas, Ōtomo had been nurturing a slew of narrative themes that would eventually inform Akira. In Fireball, Ōtomo’s unfinished science fiction manga, a government conspiracy permits a supercomputer called ATOM to covertly handle the administration of dissident people. In Domu, a child displays massive telekinetic abilities when an old psychic torments the inhabitants of an apartment building in Tokyo. Both of these motifs, as well as many others, would be rekindled in Akira, taking the foundations of Ōtomo’s ideological potency, and injecting them into the veins of what was to be his magnum opus.
As stated by The Asahi Newspaper in 1980, Ōtomo’s effect on the world of manga was similar to the emergence of the New Cinema movement in Hollywood, demolishing “the old [...] style of filmmaking to usher in a fresh style of movie production in America. Katsuhiro Ōtomo from provincial Tohoku, came to Tokyo to create a new comics style and shattered the conventions of traditional manga.” The veneration of Ōtomo’s early works echoes the impact thatAkira had on the world of pop culture, uprooting the foundations of Japanese and Western entertainment and establishing a new universe of imagination. The film set the standard for future anime, permitting budding mangakas and animators to source inspiration from the deepest confines of the mind and destroy or create as they saw fit. Just as Testuo is forced to realize his latent superpowers, allowing him to “touch the fundamental truths of the universe,” Akira engages its audience on a primal level and shows quite how impactful an idea, an icon, and an image can be.
Kaneda in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
Concerning Akira and many other of the inspired worlds of anime, the late film critic Roger Ebert cites the impact of the medium on the mind, criticizing Disney’s non-existent attempts to produce anything that came close to the earth-shattering maturity of Akira and its fellow anime cohorts:
“To watch these titles is to understand that animation is not an art form limited to cute little animals and dancing teacups. It releases the imagination so fully that it can enhance any story, and it can show sights that cannot possibly exist in the real world.”
The film electrifies the mind. Through color and commitment, vision and veracity, Akira obliterated traditional animation principles, demolishing the barrier of western negligence and offering something else entirely. And its reverberations can still be felt today. Through anime, film, fashion and news of its forever-doomed live-action remake — which, while announced in 2000, has yet to see the light of day — Akira’s influence resonates widely. A timeless classic that author Helen McCarthy, insists in her staple anime guide, ‘500 Essential Anime Movies: The Ultimate Guide’, “remains fresh and exciting, easily holding its own against the products of [...] decades of massive technical advancement.”
Akira is a dam-burst of dreams, altering the geographical landscape and permeating every cultural cul de sac, every morsel of popular entertainment. Wherever you go, its traces are there, you just might not see them. The film proves in cataclysmic effect the potential of humanity to be more; to take the reins of a broken civilization, implode it, and rise from the ashes anew. A violent ideology, yet one that comes from a propensity for rebirth that despite all humanity’s shortcomings — societal woes and destructive actions — we are capable of learning, evolving and rebuilding, in the not-so-subtle shade of “Akira Red”. And whether you’re a die-hard anime fan, or simply a peruser of the medium, Akira is a must-watch for any and all humans out there. For if it wasn’t for Akira, the world would be a much smaller space.
Tetsuo rising from the rubble in “AKIRA” © 1988 Akira Committee
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