Incredibly, it’s almost twenty-five year since Akira was made. A groundbreaking work of Japanese feature-film animation, one of the first to get extensive theatrical exhibition in the UK or the USA, and almost single-handedly being responsible for the wave of Japanese anime that has since flowed to the west, Akira has a reputation for being a seminal and influential work – something like a Citizen Kane of anime. The world of animation has however come a long way in the 20-odd years since Akira was made, so with it now being finally made available in its full restored High Definition glory on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time, it seems like the time is right to evaluate whether, like Citizen Kane, it still stands up as a film in its own right, or whether it hasn’t since been surpassed by modern technology and more sophisticated examples of the artform.
If I can first go back to Katshuiro Otomo’s original manga work, which I was reading in its Marvel/Epic colour adaptation at the time the film was released (the success of the manga paving the way for the film to be shown in the USA and UK), Akira is undoubtedly a masterful work that does indeed (as a recent reading confirms) still stand as one of the greatest works of graphic literature. Otomo had never attempted a work at this kind of length before, working mainly in the shorter format in a variety of war, science-fiction and comedy genres, with only a few tentative works – the unfinished Fireball from 1979, and later the psychic-power thriller Domu (1983) – scarcely indicating at the direction that Otomo would take with Akira. In terms of ambition in scope, scale and the quality of the layouts, pacing, detailed backgrounds and carefully researched technical details, the 2,000 page, six-volume epic, serialised in Young magazine from 1982 is on another artistic level entirely. The manga of Akira was, and remains, a masterpiece.
Above and beyond its artistic technical merits however, the plot and themes of Akira are of equal importance in determining its importance and influence. Thematically, there was of course nothing new in the Japanese science-fictional treatment of young adolescent children developing psychic powers, becoming ultimate weapons that are capable of saving the world or, more likely, bringing about its demise in an apocalyptic event. The underlying post-war obsession with death and destruction on a vast scale, the question of national identity and the capacity of the nation to bring about its own destruction are ingrained within the Japanese psyche, and not just through the war and as the only nation to feel the effects of the Atomic bomb, but also due – as recent events around Nakashima will attest – to the precarious and vulnerable position that nuclear energy and seismic activity in the region places Japan under. Akira – like Astro-boy, like Tetsujin 28 (note the significance of the number 28 that is Akira’s test subject number and Tetsuo and Kaneda both appeared originally as characters in Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s work) and like the Gojira movies before it – taps into these fears about science and technology and how, in the hands of flawed human nature, religion or government ideology, it can become a very dangerous weapon indeed.
The animated 2-hour film version of Akira can’t help but lose much of the 2,000 page graphic work, but Otomo manages quite successfully to compress the main part of the storyline and the characterisation well, without losing any of the essential themes of the work. As the Colonel remarks in the film when the danger of the secret government scientific work on ultimate weapon first resurfaces, “Maybe we weren’t meant to meddle with that ultimate power”, but he also recognises that it’s already too late to go back and that it is impossible to shut the lid of the “Pandora’s box they themselves had opened”. A large part of what Akira is about, and the paradox that faces the Japanese as a nation, is contained within the contrast between those two statements and the impossibility of reconciling them. In the graphic novel, the theme is adopted elsewhere, and the conflicts of interest expanded in the actions of various religious and political groups, but for the most part in the film, these characters (such as Lady Miyako and Mr Nezu) and their subplots are excised or reduced to walk-on parts.
Otomo however doesn’t just consider the question from the heights and the failings of the traditional ruling classes, but just as importantly, he considers the position from the people on the ground. “There ought to be a future we can choose” observes one of the test subjects, No. 25, Kiyoko, “It’s up to us to find it.”. Anti-establishment characters (usually in the form of long-haired hippies) feature prominently throughout Otomo’s comic work, and the influence of the Japanese student protests of the late 1960s and the 1970s are evident in the characters and the attire worn by the revolutionaries in Akira. The question of mob-rule however relates more to the post-apocalypse half of the Akira manga, and although there is a cult of Akira here in the film, it is not such a prominent element – but there is more than enough of the anti-establishment sentiments and civil disobedience retained in the motorbike exploits of Kaneda, Tetsuo and their run-ins with the police, the army and even with the school authorities. So while the themes of the graphic novel work are largely compressed in the film, they are still in place, and as far as the subject matter is concerned, those are themes that are still relevant to the present day, where questions of the safety of nuclear power are again being raised and debated under serious circumstances.
In the process of reworking the material for the film however, there is one area in which I feel that Otomo lost the most successful, important and impactful element of the whole work, and that is Akira himself. In the film, it’s Tetsuo who really becomes the agent of the apocalypse, the unstable element in the scientific experiments carried out by the government scientists that eventually has to be neutralised by extreme measures, but in terms of scale and impact – for all the majesty of the magnificent music score performed by the Geinoh Yamashirogumi – it has little of the shock or the awe that occurs when that destruction emanates from an innocent young child. Incredibly, in the film, we don’t even get the opportunity (other than through a few flashbacks) to see Akira. I can understand how Otomo felt the need to rethink the captivity of a child in a vast storage unit underground at absolute zero but the result, when we are finally introduced to Akira, is a great anti-climax. The impact of the force unleashed from such an unexpected source, depicted in incredible detail in the manga, is a grand coup de théâtre, and there is nothing – nothing – in the film version to compare.
What takes the place as the heart of the film version is a more human relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, and it does make up considerably for the failings brought about by the necessary compression of the work elsewhere. The friendship between them is wonderfully depicted by the writer/director and taken through to a beautiful and moving conclusion, but there remain some interesting questions (“The only foolish questions are unasked ones”, as Kaneda notes) and ambiguity in the attitudes and actions of the two boys that touch on the same central theme about the responsibility of the individual to challenge and question corruption of authority. The relationship between Kiyoko, Takashi, Masaru and Akira is also effectively handled in this respect, reminding us that we also must be mindful of the difficulty of putting that energy, once unleashed, back into its box. The ultimate weapon, it would seem, is the people themselves, but it’s a force that needs to be used wisely.
So ultimately, how does Akira the film measure up to today’s standards of Japanese animation? Well, in terms of themes and treatment, although vastly compressed in relation to the superior manga work, Akira still holds up well. If it seems rushed and hurried as a consequence, lacking some of the quieter moments of characterisation and intrigue, it still operates at that rolling pace of escalating events that is characteristic of Otomo’s work here and in his subsequent anime work (such as Steamboy), the pace effectively drawing the viewer along with little sense of the two hours passing. The animation techniques employed, groundbreaking for the time, with early use of CGI, are still impressive, and in many respects they have never been surpassed. Much of this is down to Otomo’s skill as a storyboarder, the layouts, angles and expression enhanced by a brilliant fluidity of movement. The animation flows marvellously with a strong sense of cinematic style and pacing in the cutting and editing, taking live-action techniques and applying them to anime in a way that makes it come fully alive. There is real dynamism in the action sequences, naturalism in the movements and visceral force behind the kicks and blows in the fight sequences. Almost twenty-five years after it was made, Akira still looks and sounds incredible and is still one of the best anime out there.
Akira is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Manga Entertainment. The disc is BD50 and the film comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are also in High Definition. This review is based on a check disc of the Blu-ray provided, and as such, we can’t confirm whether the finished release is region locked. It will however be playable on UK, Region B players.
The film is transferred at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks fine in its High Definition presentation. The film was restored for its DVD release in 2001, and it doesn’t appear to have undergone any additional restoration – but the original restoration was very well done and it still looks very well in High Definition. It’s not a vast improvement over the DVD, but it is HD nonetheless, which means it’s as good as its ever likely to look without additional tinkering to artificially smooth out grain and sharpen the image. As it is though, it’s unlikely that any finer detail will be brought out by any such restoration work. Colour fidelity is superb however, the whole spectrum of colours used, the contrast well-balanced. I referred back to my original 1988 Kodansha Anime Comic Japanese language five volume version of Akira – a comic version of the film using the original animation cels (which is by no means a definitive comparison, but it’s a useful guide), and it’s about as close a match as possible in terms of colour fidelity and brightness. Only some of the reds in the film look a little bright and show a tendency to bloom – particularly blood – but otherwise, the only real issues are one or two frames showing brightness flicker and a hint of grain.
Four audio tracks are provided. The original Japanese track is included as LPCM 2.0 (48kHz/16-bit), which if you are a purist, is still a strong enough mix. The Japanese Dolby Digital True HD 5.1 mix (192kHz) with super dynamic “Hypersonic” audio however is extremely powerful, if a little bright, with excellent dispersal of sound – faithful enough to the original (although additional sounds have been added), but giving more of a sound stage to the chants and rhythms of the magnificent Shoji Yamashiro score performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi. The English Dolby Digital True HD 5.1 mix (48kHz) is also effective, if you prefer your English dub. Normally, I’m happy to endorse a good English dub, but in this case you are losing out considerably, since Otomo (if I remember from the old Akira Production Report on my VHS edition) went to the trouble of recording the dialogue first and animating mouth movements to lip-sync with the Japanese cast. This is actually a very important element in the overall quality of the film, and the Japanese voice-acting performances are exceptionally good, so that really should be the one to go for. For those without a HD amplifier, a Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included.
Subtitles are white and are optional. They are basically dubtitles, which means they match the English language track almost word for word, but not always. One example is when Kaneda is getting a dressing down at the police station, where the subtitles read “She cleared the hump, and you left her for cruising, huh?” and the dialogue in English has been changed to “She cleared the hump, huh? What next, a triathlon?”. Unlike most purists, I don’t mind dubtitles, as they are often better and more colloquial than a stiff literal translation that doesn’t take into account context and characterisation. The subtitles here read very well indeed.
The only extra features on the disc are two 32-second Teasers, a 16-second TV Commercial, Trailer 1 (2:07), Trailer 2 (1:01) and Storyboards. The teasers and trailers are worth a look, getting across the dynamic of the film well, but the highlight of course is Otomo’s original storyboards for the full film. All the extra features are in High Definition.
Manga Entertainment UK vs USA Honneamise Blu-ray comparison
My colleague Matt Shingleton was kind enough to provide screengrabs for this release and take the time to compare it with the USA region-free Blu-ray from Honneamise. He confirmed that there is practically no difference between the two releases, and that in all likelihood, all current HD editions probably come from the same source. Comparison screenshots are included below.
|Manga Ent UK||Honneamise USA|
I would also refer you to Matt's detailed review of the USA release here for a more in-depth technical look at the image and sound specifications that have been ported over to this release.
There have certainly been more sophisticated works of Japanese feature-length and series animation made in the near 25 years since Akira was made, and the themes that occur here regarding questions of national identity have been dealt with on a more adult level – the works of the sadly lamented Satoshi Kon, perhaps the greatest animation filmmaker we will ever see, come to mind – but Akira was the film that started it all, showed that animation could at the same time be thrilling and entertaining and just as effective a means of expression for a serious filmmaker, and its qualities could well remain largely unchallenged and unsurpassed for another quarter of a century. The Blu-ray release from Manga UK is as good as any other High Definition version of the film currently out there, and while it has some minor issues, it's a fine way to see one of the most important anime films of our time.