Saturday, 24 October 2009

Aaron Watches The Classics: Akira (1988)

Aaron Watches The Classics is a new feature on the blog where I share my thoughts on revered film classics. It’s just for shits and giggles right now, hopefully this can become a little more focused over time.

Akira is an important film for a number of reasons. The technical reasons are the previously unseen fluidity of its animation and the quality of the voice acting (Akira is considered the first anime film to use lip-synched dialogue). It is also tremendously influential on the integration of American cyberpunk themes into Japanese animation, borrowed from influential texts like Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Finally and arguably most significantly, it served as an introduction to the world of anime for an entire generation of Americans. Whether this is a good or bad thing may depend entirely on your appetite for Pocky and fat Midwesterners dressed as Sailor Moon.

The film is set in 2019 in the city of Neo-Tokyo, an artificial island built after the real Tokyo is destroyed in the 1988 World War III.The city has become overrun with teenaged bike gangs and anti-government terrorist groups. Shotaro Kaneda leads a motorcycle gang called the Capsules. One night he leads the Capsules in a fight against a rival gang and his friend Tetsuo crashes his bike into a little child who looks like a shriveled alien. The little weirdo makes Tetsuo’s bike explode and a group of armed soldiers take the kid and Tetsuo away for questioning. Tetsuo is brought to a government building where the requisite evil scientists conduct strange experiments. That’s all I can really say without ruining the plot for you. Suffice to say, I’m leaving out a lot of explosions, Japanese mysticism and creepy psychic children.

Akira’s plot is not the main attraction. It’s an anime which imagines the animated film as spectacle. The hallucinatory sequences are particularly exciting. They’re reminiscent of the dream sequences in Paprika, but considerably more frightening. The cel animation is gorgeous. The charaction animation is astonishingly fluid, but the settings are just as important; Neo-Tokyo is all gleaming skyscrapers and spotlights, enveloped in eye-catching textures and colours. The soundtrack is fantastic, a worthy companion to the striking visuals. Geinō Yamashirogumi’s music complements the onscreen action perfectly with an array of traditional Japanese instruments and inventive leitmotifs. As Tetsuo begins to develop psychic powers, his appearance onscreen signified by ritual chanting and clattering Asian percussion.

There's a lot of thematic significance in Akira between the atom bomb allusions and modern dystopia setting, but I was most touched by the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo. Akira makes most sense to me as an exploration of the difficulty of growing up and the nature of friendship. There’s a reason this stuff ended up being so big with preteens. I recommend watching Akira late at night. There’s something about its futuristic cities and psychic teenagers that just seems more sensible at 2am.

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