June 17, 2009

AKIRA (1988) - Blu-Ray release of the anime that started it all

Couldn't let the new release of this classic not get a mention in the blog-a-thon...

(1988, Japan)

The movie that woke the world up to anime

For those of who haven't seen it, Akira is set after a third world war, when a new Tokyo has been rebuilt over the ruins of the old. It's a towering, over-populated city similar to the dysfunctional metropolis of Blade Runner. Kaneda and Tetsuo are a couple of young punks in a motorbike gang. When they challenge rivals to a messy high-speed race, their lives change forever. Amidst citywide rioting, Tetsuo swerves to avoid a child in the road. An army helicopter swoops in and picks them both up. His friend Kaneda then has to find why the military don't return Tetsuo from their hospital... From a random street fight, the scale of the story grows alarmingly into a sci-fi story of epic proportions.

Seeing this back in 1991, when Akira was first shown in London's ICA cinema (which is still very dedicated to Asian cinema), I was new to all things Japan. I was floundering among the cultural references, attitudes to feminism, religion and the police, (the anime film Jin-Roh also begins with widespread rioting, making me wonder what it was really like in Japan). But the scale of the story, the humour, the imagination and the animation made it unforgettable.

The heavyweight science fiction story, and the adult content in Akira drew older audiences back to animation. International interest in Japanese anime exploded and never looked back. The same way Ring (1998) ignited worldwide interest in Japanese horror.

Nearly twenty years later, I've not been very cost-effective with my favourite movies. I don't like to watch them too much and 'wear them out'. By the time I'm ready to see them again, they're usually out on a new format. I bought Akira on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and now fully remastered on Blu-Ray. Returning to Neo-Tokyo was almost like watching it again for the first time.

I'd forgotten the nightmarish shock moments, the network of characters, the uncanny animation of smoke, the use of silence during jaw-dropping plot twists, the amount of blood... It looks and sounds amazing.

Akira was a concerted effort to show that anime wasn't just for kids, and demonstrated that the medium was (then) the only possible way to tell certain stories. Even today, it'll take a huge budget to visualise. The latest news is that a American live-action remake has stalled.

I was also trying to second-guess what it's like for a new audience to see Akira nowadays. The limited use of computer-generated animation in the film (used for one simple, recurring effect) might date the film. But at times it's hard to believe it was made using multi-planed hand-painted cel animation.

Here's a good, technical review of the new release on Blu-Ray.com. Interesting to learn that the capacity of this Blu-Ray release has nearly been filled up by the movie alone, with little room for extras. Good to see that they're dedicated to delivering quality.

The writer of the original manga and director of Akira is Katsuhiro Otomo. Although he hasn't directed as many films as fans would like (Steamboy and the live-action Mushi-shi are his most recent), Otomo's name on anything instantly generates keen interest, like his design work on Freedom Project.

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