Wednesday, July 26, 2006
  DVD Review: Akira

What do I know about anime? Not much. I know it's a word used to describe a distinctly Japanese style of animation (at least according to Wikipedia), and I know that what I've seen of it has been stuff that I don't like.

Now, what I've seen of it consists of the television shows our kids watch. Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z... Oh, and the Teen Titans, which, from what I can tell, is anime as well.

Most of it has always confused and confounded me. For one thing, I don't like the way the animation itself is done. It looks cheap and clumsy. I don't like the stories, either, because they seem to be simultaneously convoluted and silly. And, as far as the characters go, there just seemed to be nothing there. So, from what I could tell, I didn't like anime.

The thing is, I have a friend at work who has told me a thousand times that I just think I don't like anime because I haven't seen any good anime. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but until last night I never bothered to take the time to watch the movie that my friend always said was the anime by which all other anime should be judged. That movie, according to my friend, is Akira. This eighteen year old film is, from what I hear, the masterpiece of Katsuhiro Ôtomo. And, to be fair, my friend at work wasn't the only source of praise I'd heard for the film. Akira it seemed, was the film that I'd have to see before I could really say if I liked Anime or not.

Well, after having watched it last night, I still can't say if I like anime in general, but I can say that I enjoyed Akira quite a bit. It was absolutely unlike anything I'd seen before.

It's not that there aren't any movies I can compare it to. In fact, a number of very good movies crossed my mind as we watched Akira. At times I found myself reminded of Blade Runner, at other times A Clockwork Orange popped into my head. I was also reminded briefly by one sequence of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and another sequence reminded me of one of my all time favorite films, Jacob's Ladder. Yes, there are a number of popular films that I can compare Akira to. The hell of it is, none of these films are animated. In fact, it's fair to say that I've never seen any animation that was quite like this.

Well, maybe the animated sequence of Kill Bill Volume 1 came close… but nothing else is comparable. This was not the cheap, silly animation that I'd seen before and thought was the sum total of "anime." This was really something else; something remarkable.

I am sure of this much, if Akira is the template by which anime should be judged, then the anime that I see when the kids watch Cartoon Network is utter garbage. I've never seen anything on any of those shows that could compare to the animation in this film. The backgrounds were the first thing to strike me as outstanding. The movie is set in a bleak future-vision of Tokyo, and it features cityscapes that are jaw-dropping. Other elements of the film really stood out on a scene by scene basis. Much of the visual design of the movie hinges on the power of hallucinatory elements. One sequence in which toys come alive inside of a hospital room and grow to gargantuan size really had my jaw on the floor. I actually found myself feeling the same tension… the same kind of action-movie anxiety… that I associate with movies like Jaws and The Bourne Identity.

And this was an animated movie! Not only that, but it's an eighteen year old animated movie!

I'm still not sure if anime is my cup of tea or not. I found the plot of Akira to be quite hard to follow, but there came a point where I just happily abandoned my efforts to follow the plot and I just sat back and enjoyed the visuals and the apocalyptic overture that was unfolding in front of me. After all, who needs to really understand what's going on when you've got motorcycles and space-ships and covert government agencies and giant godlike monsters and creepy, ghostly children all fighting for the rule of Earth? Just take it in and let it do it's thing. Because I wasn't able to follow the story, I have no idea how to judge Akira in terms of story. I can say this, though… it is a feast for the eyes.

A brief warning: Don't assume that just because it's animated that it's a family friendly film. This movie is rated R, and with good reason. There is a great deal of harsh language, a few scenes that involved drug use, and some downright-upsetting animated violence, including an attempted rape. This ain't Yu-Gi-Oh!. It ain't for kids. Wait for the kids to hit the sack for the night and save this one for mom and dad's viewing only.

It isn't going to be the kind of movie that everyone will enjoy. The end sequences are pretty extreme and the movie presents a dark and pessimistic view of the future. Nonetheless, it creates it's own world and inhabits it completely. Nothing that I saw in this movie struck me as implausible because I was sucked into it by the fifteen minute mark. Be careful with this movie. You might not enjoy it, you might even find it down-right troubling… but once you start watching it, you won't be able to take your eyes off of Akira.

Titans is Anime influenced, but the worst juvenile aspects of Anime, ie someone gets nervous and a giant sweat bead obscures half the character's face. It was REALLY bad on the Japanese Transformers series Robots In Disguise to see robots with sweat beads. Pokemon,YuGiOh, DragonBallZ and Medabots are all examples of that kind of Anime.

Then you have adult Anime like Akira. Ghost in the Shell. Macross. Ninja Scroll. Stylistically, it has the same influences from Manga(comics) with the large eyes and small limbs. The similarities end there though as everything is highly detailed, there are no cartoony sweat beads or floating punctuation marks, and at times it's like a tight sketch has come to life with the freedom of line. And have to have speedlines.

Akira's a great one though, probably THE one to see. I don't know why I don't own that yet. I do have a pretty sick Tetsuo figurine in my cubicle at work that I inherited after Rey left. I found a photo of the same figure online.

If you liked Akira, definitely check out Ghost in the Shell, and maybe some Macross, although I wouldn't know where to tell you to start with Macross since there's like a million of them. I own MacrossPlus which was pretty good. You might also check out Gatchaman, which was the original Battle of the Planets series in Japan. I was in college before I learned where the "G" in G-Force came from. :)
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