Now restored in 4K and back on the big screen, Katsuhiro Ôtomi's cyberpunk masterpiece has lost none of its strange power
There's a small irony in the notion that Akira, whose seemingly incomprehensible plot will be sure to baffle any first-time viewer, is often cited as the perfect “gateway” movie into the world of Japanese anime. But that reputation is more of a testament to the film's standing as an experience: it's not really about what's happening in Akira, but how. A sensory overload of neon excess, street gangs, towering skyscrapers, and freaky scientific experiments, its nightmarish vision of the year 2019 makes even today's broken world look kind of cosy by comparison.
This 1988 masterpiece, now restored in 4K, is adapted from an even more convoluted and dense comic book series of the same name – also written by this film's director, Katsuhiro Ôtomo. Perhaps of all the anime feature films, it's Akira that has stood longest as an object of Western obsession – and back on the big screen, it's easy to see why its apocalyptic visions have had such an entirely hypnotic effect, pulling you into a trance that carries you through, equally frazzled and exhilarated, to its nightmarish finale.
The film's too-cool-for-school hero is Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwataone), one member of a gang who take to the streets on motorcycles that trail beams of light (think TRON, but far cooler). His best friend is Tetsuo, whose name you will get very used to hearing characters shout at the top of their voices, and who winds up in an accident that leaves him with dangerous psychic powers and world-ending capabilities. But who and what is the titular Akira, and how does it link all these characters and strange events together?
It's difficult not to recall the neon megacity of Ridley Scott's seminal Blade Runner – though Akira's source material predates that vision of the future by a couple of years, the film's aesthetics are well-documented as being influenced by the American sci-fi classic. What is most stunning are the compositions themselves; the frames seem to go on and on and on, revealing infinite details and endless depths, a neon urban sprawl that exists only to suffocate it inhabitants. And there's the pounding, synth-choral score by Shōji Yamashiro, imbuing the film with a strange, quasi-religious quality.
The violent moments are really intense and deeply felt. At one point a character receives one of the most absurdly disturbing deaths in all of cinema as they're suddenly and unexpectedly crushed into a mass of blood and bone. Watching Akira is, at times, not so unlike the experience – bombarded as you are by its cyberpunk landscapes, fast-moving action and labyrinthine story. But what a feeling it is to be overwhelmed by such visually spectacular and truly muscular filmmaking as this.
Akira is now showing in select UK cinemas.Where to watch