It always began on the day after tomorrow. In the original manga, in its translations, and even in the film itself, the opening sequence of “a new type of bomb” wrecking central Tokyo was assigned the date at which the audience was supposedly sitting down to watch it. And then it would leap ahead a generation. The kids have run wild on the streets. The government is secretly funding the terrorists. New religious cults have sprung to life. There are riots, and in a gang fight out in the old town, a bunch of rude boy-racers accidentally run into an escaped guinea pig from a secret military project.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira came heavily loaded with local allusions which flew over the heads of many English-speaking fans. The very words “new type of bomb” recalled those of Emperor Hirohito in his infamous surrender speech from 1945. But Akira’s Japan was most strongly rooted in Otomo’s youth, when the wide-eyed country boy came to the big city of Tokyo to earn his fortune. He found a city struggling to recover from the aftermath of an apocalyptic war yet still mired in scandals, war-crime revelations and revolutionary fervour. A giant crater sits at the heart of Otomo’s Tokyo, like the suppurating cesspool that forms the structuring absence of Akira Kurosawa’s break-out movie Drunken Angel (1948). The children of Otomo’s Japan have been transformed by the war’s aftermath – brash, irresolute and feckless, cruising the city on motorbikes and spouting an unintelligible argot thick with ze’s and zo’s, two emphatic particles unknown outside Tokyo gangs. I fondly remember showing Akira to a Japanese class at Leeds University in 1991, and Dr Penny Francks sticking her head around the door, listening for a few moments, and observing: “I can’t understand a word!”
The anti-hero Kaneda is all mouth and trousers, a street thug whose passing interest in revolution is soon deconstructed as merely an excuse to pick up girls. But it’s he and his outlaw bikers who inadvertently stumble upon (in fact, crash into) a secret plot to restore pre-war weapons programmes and human experimentation – the Akira project that attempts to harness and release the creative energy of the universe. In Japanese, it is written with katakana, a writing system that makes it sound like a foreign acronym – A.K.I.R.A.
Behind the scenes, Akira was an awful albatross of a movie project, with spiralling budgets and onscreen experimentation that left its producers panicking about the likelihood of it ever earning its money back. But the result was an apprentice piece of enduring power – a post-holocaust sci-fi epic that featured discordant gamelan music and Noh-influenced chanting, a cartoon that featured biker gangs throwing hand grenades and arguing about the origin of the universe, an animation that featured naturalist afterimages from passing headlights, and realistically curling smoke from cigarettes. To put matters in perspective, in 1989, the Hugo Award shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation included Willow, Big and Alien Nation, and the winner was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? For a substantial subset of avant-garde science fiction fandom, Akira was a harbinger of a radical new sub-genre. For an audience that luxuriated in the “Japanesquerie” of the cyberpunk movement, the arrival of science fiction from Japan itself had a markedly alien frisson.
One of the unsung heroes in bringing Akira to the West was the curator and producer Carl Macek, who persuaded the Japanese to hand over all their art materials. An entire shipping container of cels and backgrounds, regarded by the film-makers as industrial waste, was sent to America, where Macek turned it into an asset. He framed iconic moments to sell as art, and headed off video pirates by offering a free piece of the original film to anyone who bought a legitimate copy.
As the film approaches its 30th anniversary, and indeed, the year in which both it and Blade Runner were set, it has become a standard bearer for Japanese animation. It may be difficult to remember in an age where Hayao Miyazaki dominates so much of the discourse of animation, but there was a time when Akira was the benchmark for everything that made anime cool. 28 years after its premiere, shined up for Blu-ray, it’s still pretty damn good-looking.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Akira is released on Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment/Animatsu. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #15, 2016.