Even in this age of bleeding-edge animation and Pixar’s annual instant-classics, Akira remains awe-inspiring.
And despite today’s photo-realistic CGI burying the early 1990s adage that anime could bring to life what would be impossible in live action, Avatar, Transformers, 2012 and countless other CG-eye candy don’t come close to matching the majesty of director Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic.
Just as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was a war movie, horror movie, beach party movie, action movie and arthouse flick, Akira too refuses to be pigeonholed.
Working from his own (at the time unfinished) comic, writer/director Otomo distilled nearly 2000 pages into a two-hour tale of social unrest, terrorist attacks, floundering, corrupt politicians, religious crisis, and youth alienation and superhero wish fulfilment that resonates today more than ever.
The sprawling story can be condensed into capsule form, and more importantly, despite criticisms can be understood.
In Neo-Tokyo 2019, disaffected biker gang member Tetsuo is kidnapped by a shadowy military agency studying psychic abilities in children that may unlock secrets of the Universe.
Previous attempts to harness this power in the boy Akira resulted in a nuclear explosion that ignited World War III, and when Tetsuo becomes crazed with power another apocalypse seems imminent.
Caught up in this is Kaneda, Tetsuo’s biker gang leader, whose attempts to rescue his buddy see him fall in with a group of revolutionaries attempting to destabilise a militaristic government. All these elements conjoin in a showdown at an under-construction stadium for the upcoming Olympic games...
Yet, a simple outline doesn’t capture the magic of Akira. Using then revolutionary practises in Japanese animation (detailed backgrounds, lip-synching, realistic body movement), the film remains a visual wow, designed and animated as if live action, with tracking shots, point-of-view, depth of field and a generally astounding level of movement in each shot that builds on what Ridley Scott had established with Blade Runner.
And while tackling lofty themes Otomo deftly weaves them into an action movie framework that means Akira rarely lets up. Indeed, while the overall story can be gleaned from one sitting the film demands repeated viewings to pick up on all its characters, plot twists and to experience once more the world created.
The bike chase through the city remains one of the best movie openings of all time (set to Geinoh Yamashirogumi's legendary theme), but it's ultimately the more offbeat moments that impress most – the briefly silent arrival of government helicopters, three psychic youngsters bullying Tetsuo with images of toys brought massively to life, the trip inside (possibly) the creation of a new Universe during the climax.
Remake rumours abound as Warner Brothers searches for the right men for the job both behind and in front of the cameras (previous casualties include Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Hughes Brothers).
But a live action version is as unnecessary as the redundant remakes of horror classics and doomed to similar failure.
Akira is pure concentrated cinematic excellence – accept no substitutes.