Akira is a deeply unusual and downright disturbing yet highly compelling action film, and it shows intensely the potential evils of chasing after power and treating it as an end in itself. The story’s bold intentions are sometimes more interesting than the way they are executed, but even these narrative issues don’t stop the movie from being highly recommended–to a very specific audience.
This excellently animated movie opens without comment as a powerful explosion destroys the city of Tokyo. The movie fast-forwards three decades from the late 1980s, and the city has been rebuilt, bigger and taller than ever. The depiction of Neo Tokyo, with its enormous numbers of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, is an artistic achievement on its own, even if it’s not all that colorful from a bird’s-eye view.
At ground level, however, the gap between the rich and the poor becomes evident by way of a slummy, run-down area of the city, with a bar that’s in equally rough shape. (Even the graffiti on various outside walls is profane.) The setting is primarily used as a means to an end, however: it’s a staging ground for battles among motorcycle gangs. Main characters Tetsuo and Kaneda are members of a group known as the Capsules, and they face a rival group known as the Clowns. The gangs engage in street battles that are morally questionable but nonetheless enjoyable to watch, and the highly customized motorcycles create visual effects that actually look like they came out of the movie Tron.
It does at least one thing right.
These battles lack a great deal of narrative significance, but they set the pacing for the many action scenes to come. They’re exciting from the movie’s start all the way to its finish, but the bloody thrills come at the expense of setting and narrative development: the gang battles happen because the plot needs them to, but they and the Clowns themselves don’t have much of a greater significance in the story. These battles take place in a destroyed and rebuilt Tokyo because the plot wants them to, but (within the context of the movie) the setting itself isn’t heavily developed. It’s a place to blow things up, which the movie does quite well.
First things first: the street gangs, perhaps naturally, have no regard for the safety of others, speeding through busy streets and causing plenty of damage, even to the point of throwing grenades into cars. This takes place amid a large student protest recent tax reforms, which (like the setting and gang conflict itself) isn’t really given detail during the movie but is there as a means of advancing the plot.
The street fights deliver gruesome entertainment, and the blood on display is drawn perhaps too well. It’s not long before the police must deal with both the gang fights and the chaotic, impressively rendered protests, and it’s at this point that Tetsuo promptly crashes into an odd-looking human being, with the body of a blue-skinned child and the face of an elder.
There’s a lot going on, but why?
Shortly thereafter, the strange child is caught by other, similar-looking children and the accompanying Army. Tetsuo is also taken away, and his gang is arrested and questioned. Two plot threads diverge at this point, with one thread focusing on the large-scale military/police crackdown against anti-government groups, while the other thread deals with the horrific experiments Tetsuo and the other children are subjected to.
These twin threads share a common and reasonable purpose (more on that later) but aren’t strongly developed outside the message they want to convey. The first thread doesn’t really develop the context of the protests or the circumstances leading to them. Tax reforms get a brief mention but lack detail: the story tries to adhere to the principle of showing instead of telling but ends up doing neither, such that its intended conclusions for early scenes and environments aren’t always clear. Are the slummy areas at the beginning of the movie commonplace in Neo Tokyo, one might wonder, or are they an exception in a city that’s otherwise doing well? Is the gang activity related to the economic health of their specific neighborhood, to that of the city as a whole, or to something else entirely? What are these people specifically complaining about, and who is being victimized by whom? Perhaps the military is to blame, but what were they specifically doing to prompt the anti-government outcries?
The second plot thread is also hesitantly developed: the name “Akira” is mentioned many times by different characters but isn’t explained for much of the movie. It could be a person, an object, or even a belief. Without the kind of explanation that would be redundant in-universe while being very helpful for someone unfamiliar with a story or its setting (perhaps the manga is clearer), the story tends to drag the viewer along by a thread. It’s respectable when a story explains just enough of itself to enable or even force the audience to work out their own understanding of the world and its significance, but the concepts that drive that story must be clearly established early enough to allow the viewer to understand and appreciate the plot.
The calm before the weird
While Tetsuo’s captors are busy experimenting on him and other children for vague reasons, life goes on as normal for other characters. The rest of the gang is sent to what looks to be a very poorly maintained school for juvenile offenders. Some people clearly smoke–not in the school, and the gang members may or may not have been involved.
Following Tetsuo’s escape from being a test subject, a bizarre action scene finds a poor girl having her shirt ripped off and her breasts exposed. (Actual sexuality in the film is oddly more restrained, being limited to a couple making out as the woman is fondled while clothed.) Tetsuo’s past also becomes slightly clearer: he’s felt something like a damsel in distress all his life, and even though Kaneda simply wants to help, Tetsuo’s in no mood to be rescued.
The story hereafter starts getting even more strange. Tetsuo begins having incredibly disturbing hallucinations, such as imagining his bodily organs are spilling out. (He’s seen invisibly trying to hold them in.) Once again he is taken away and subjected to experiments. As more random bombings occur, Tetsuo’s nightmares increase–as does his newfound psychic ability, as his mental stress cracks his skylight window.
The people are well done.
The characters themselves are probably the strongest part of the movie, along with the action sequences themselves: none of the personalities feel “flat” or boring, and Tetsuo’s desire for strength, given his history of being bullied, is as understandable in its ends as it is very problematic in its means. It’s a “with great power” story but with a deeply flawed protagonist. Likewise the military’s and scientists’ continuing lusts for knowledge and power create widespread destruction wherever they go, which becomes even more meaningful in light of past events in the story. The movie becomes split between being a sort of military action film and being a psychological horror film with disgusting and disturbing sights everywhere. This is not a film to be shown to children or to the squeamish, as graphic violence and profanity are abundant.
The movie’s clear message is that the desire for power is corruptive, whether that power comes as knowledge from unethical science experiments or as something else. While the story’s reason for being is both engaging and commendable, however, the way the overall message is conveyed makes too much of the story and world feel insignificant, as if its overall importance is determined solely by how well it advances that message. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for contrast, had a storytelling approach that was essentially the opposite: individual events might not advance the plot, but they feel meaningful enough in themselves to be valuable enough on their own. (Whether that meaning lasts for more than a few minutes is a worthy question, but the same problem happens here for the opposite reason.)
And the production values are marvelous.
Otherwise, the movie arguably has some of its best moments when it does stick to being an action movie, and there’s plenty of this on display throughout. One of the most notable and creative scenes involves a hovercraft that looks something like a snowmobile and has a gun mounted on the end. It’s not always clear what on earth the military intends to do with its test subjects, nor is it clear what said military really wants beyond power for the sake of power. The simple idea that these experiments are taking place on children at all is unsettling enough in itself.
Watching the ending showdown between two rather unlikeable forces is much more enjoyable than it might otherwise be, because the art and animation on display are fantastic. City streets collapse, tanks and buildings explode, and all manner of truly warped images help make Akira that much more unique as an action movie. The environments generally look very good close up, and the character designs, while not quite as nice as Studio Ghibli’s, have an overall direction to them that feels unified while allowing for variety. The characters themselves are fun to watch, whether the plot surrounding them makes sense at any given moment or not, and while a gang war with a throwaway villain feels out of place in a movie that’s trying to condemn the abuse of others for personal gain, the combat scenes in themselves are honestly very entertaining because of the excellent visual direction.
The music in the film sets the mood well, with the aggravating exception of a refrain that honestly sounds just like the movie-stereotype “dun dun dun” sound but with vocals, but the awesomely catchy percussion in the credits makes up for this. The dialogue itself is translated flawlessly, and the English voice acting is great. Even if the subtitles don’t always match what the characters are saying, to the point of often inserting profanities where there are none, the dialogue is one of the best and the clearest things this movie has going for it.
It’s fun–it just needs development.
Akira is a movie where the craving for power brings disastrous results, whether you’re a boy trying to harness huge amounts of strength for your own purposes, a scientist who doesn’t know when to quit, or a high-ranking officer in a military that vastly overextends its authority. The film’s story doesn’t make as much sense at the level of individual details as it could have, but it’s by no means a dumb story or even a bad one. It and the film’s environments seem to exist more for the sake of a message than for their own value, which keeps them from being as interesting as they might have been.
Other than that, though, this is a beautifully drawn and crafted film that is also extremely graphic and is difficult to recommend to viewers who lack a taste for lots and lots of gore and disgusting imagery. To those not bothered by these, however, if they can get past the issues with the story, as an action film I can’t really recommend Akira enough.