Growing up in the early ‘90s Akira had an almost mythical aura to it. The iconic black and red poster that remained stuck to the backs of video rental shop walls for years gave nothing away, daring you to take a chance and find out what the film was about.
Brought to the UK by Manga Entertainment (a name that led this write to be confused for years about what the word manga actually meant) watching Akira was as close to a mind-blowing experience you could get on VHS. Long before anime was a fairly mainstream thing in the West it served as the gateway drug to a whole new world of cinema. Once you’d seen Akira it felt as though you’d unlocked the secrets to the universe, joined a secret society that knew there was something more to animation than Western cinema would have you believe.
As Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell followed and led an ever-expanding number of properties to the West Akira became a film often referenced, but perhaps not as often revisited. So, it’s great to see Manga put a real push behind this re-release and show a new generation just how important and bloody great fun Akira still is.
The setup is this: In 1989 ‘World War III’ wipes out Tokyo, and in its place Neo-Tokyo rises, an urban sprawl where the dense mess of roads and tower blocks of the original city have been dialled up to eleven. Society is on the brink of collapse, with motorbike gangs patrolling the highways and mass protests flooding the streets with the downtrodden masses demanding tax reform. Through this dystopia we follow young biker punk Kaneda and his crew as they try to save their friend Tetsuo who has inadvertently become the focus of a massive government conspiracy.
Anyone who knows the film wants this synopsis to run for another three paragraphs, because there is a lot more going on. But seeing just where Akira takes you after the opening chase sequence is best experienced spoiler free, a trip whose scope grows broader as it gets weirder. This is a film that can philosophise on the nature of existence whilst tanks blow holes in buildings, where a military coup dovetails with a speeder bike race through sewers and somehow manages to remain credible throughout. It’s a dazzling and breath-taking collection of ideas paced to perfection, wrapped inside a story that – like all the best Japanese animation – works perfectly taken at face value, and also offers endless avenues for intellectual discussion.
Newly transferred to 4K Akira looks amazing, although we were hard pressed to see the difference between this and the previous Blu-ray release. In fact, the only real change was a negative, Neo-Tokyo seems to have lost some of the neon glow that made it so entrancing. Even with this flatter version of the film it is still visually stunning, with animation that has probably still not been surpassed. With the dynamism of the various chase sequences, the lighting and texture of the characters and environments, Akira feels expensive and creates a world so immersive you can’t help be drawn in.
Where the film does benefit from this latest bells and whistles update is in the sound department. Shoji Yamashiro’s unique and stunning soundtrack is better than ever, the intense percussion and chanting that run throughout the film loud and crisp, placing you right in the middle of the heat and panic of Neo-Tokyo. The effect in 5.1 surround is glorious
Watching Akira in 2020 is a strange experience, every single element of the film having long been strip-mined and repurposed by Hollywood several times over. It is testament to just how good Akira is that its world still feels fresh despite this, and the breadth of vision and constant action set pieces make the two-hour run time rush by.
Akira is a monumental achievement, a bold, brash film that is impossible to look away from. Whether this is your first or a hundred and first time visiting Neo-Tokyo Akira is still as stunning as it was 30 years ago and well worth your time.