My entry into the world of Anime came with three horns. Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Mononoke (at least as far as full-length Anime goes. When it came to serialized Anime it was all Gundam). Although I missed the first wave of Anime that was traded around via VHS in the 80’s or the kiddie & teen toons of Pokémon or DragonballZ, I think Akira was a perfect first entry into the world of “holly cow not much of that made sense, but I kind of know what was going on,no wait I had no idea” that is Anime.
So, what is Akira all about? To me Akira is the story of a pair of teens (Kaneda & Tetsuo) who come in contact with an escaped child with special abilities that triggers a reaction spelling doom for all the inhabitants of Neo Tokyo unless the military can stop him, led by the the gruff Colonel Shikishima, or unless the mysterious Akira returns and then no-one will care about the raging Tetsuo. Along the way there’s a revolution against the aggressive and dictatorial military, road battles on speeding motorcycles with a rival gang of clown bikers, and the unspoken preparation of the Olympics to get Neo Tokyo back on the world stage.
Recently, and thanks to Andy and the Alamo, I got to see a screening of Akira on the big screen. It was the recent Blu-Ray release which by the way is stunning. The backgrounds are magnificently blended and detailed, while foreground characters are colorful and vibrant. And whenever there’s blood it’s practically fluorescent, even shockingly so.
Anyway, since I knew I was doing this review I did a pre-review of the film to pick out any questions or unexplained plot points that might not make sense to first-time viewers. Hopefully this review/primer will help clear up some questions you might have. I’ll try to keep it brief, of course, bout you know my other reviews. 🙂 While there are numerous resources online that fully explain everything with all source material in mind, I prefer to explain things based on what’s actually in the Anime itself with some interpretation after multiple viewings. As in other Anime, Akira has source material from different media platforms but they don’t necessarily share the same universe. As each medium is developed the production constraints change the details of a story, although the broad strokes remain the same. My descriptions may divert slightly to emphasize things that were completely left out of the Anime (and so make slightly less sense).
Major players in the story are:
Kaneda – leader of a bike gang. Grew up with Tetsuo, but always treated him as a younger broth and someone who couldn’t protect himself or those he cared about.
Tetsuo – gains powers by accident. Wants to be like Kaneda and resents Kaneda for holding him back.
Colonel Shikishima – pretty much leads the military in Neo Tokyo and runs security for the Akira project. Serves as liaison to Neo Tokyo’s supreme ruling council. Ends up pulling off a coup and institutes martial law when Tetsuo becomes uncontrollable.
Kiyoko, Masaru, Takashi – More on them later in the questions. They’re three guinea pigs of Doctor Onishi who try and use their abilities for good.
Akira – The character whom everyone knows, but is scared to talk about. Akira started all this trouble in 1988. Will he awaken, will he be a force for good, or will he be feral like Tetsuo in the use of his abilities?
Kei – A cute revolutionary that gets mixed up in all this craziness. It appears that the rebels played a hand in Takashi’s escape and later the fall of the supreme council. She seems to have some low level connection to the Power and it’s inferred that she might be the next Akira.
Ryu – leader of the rebels, or at least Kai’s cell of the revolution. One of my favorite characters in the film, but sadly never makes it past seeing his efforts birth the revolution he’s been working towards.
Doctor Onishi – Scientist who’s bee studying the children, Akira, and theorizing for 30 years about what the Power is and how he could use it or manipulate others into using it.
Kaori – Tetsuo’s girlfriend. She’s there in a way to connect his initial escape from the hospital into a reason for his first hallucinations as well as act like a surrogate for the audience to witness the revolution on the street as Tetsuo approaches the Olymic stadium, and later she acts as a mouthpiece for humanity as Tetsuo is loosing his connection to to others.
Kai – member of Kaneda’s gang. I like to think of him as third in command. He’s there at key scenes and is the witness for Tetsuo’s murder of Yamagate.
Yamagate – member of Kaneda’s gang. While featured in some of the bike/street fights between Kaneda’s gang and the clown gang, Yamagate’s biggest contribution ends up being as a corpse. His death at the hands of Tetsuo is the turning point between Kaneda’s insistence that Tetsuo must be stopped, but rehabilitated into he must die. In the manga, Yamagate’s death is on screen/panel and much more climactic to the story. After his death there’s no question if Tetsuo is acting of his own free will.
Lady Miyako – although the character is always listed as a lady, every time I watch the film this character comes off as a guy. Maybe it’s the voice. In the manga Miyako is most definitely a she who tutors Kei about her role in this struggle between Tetsuo and the world. In the Anime, Miyako is a simple figurehead for the religious movement who see Akira as a savior.
Nezu – member of the supreme council. By association, it’s revealed that he’s working with the rebels as a means to his own end, but is thwarted by his own greed.
Q: So what happened in 1988?
A: Akira happened. As the Anime opens the audience witnesses the first Akira event when Akira first gains control over what I like to call the Power. Tokyo is vaporized and in the 30 years afterward Neo Tokyo is built near it’s crater.
Q: What’s with these street gangs?
A: As a recurring theme in Anime and other urban Asian cinema, in Akira the older generations exist in an uneasy cultural struggle between their own generation and those in their teens and younger. With more children growing up without parents as a result of the Akira event, they raised themselves and developed their own territorial groups or gangs. Kaneda leads one of those groups and the clown gang leader.
Q: What’s with the ash-gray kids with numbers tattooed on their hands?
A: The three ashen or blue-skinned kids are explained somewhat later in the film, but there’s still some details that may be missed. Kiyoko, the girl is telepathic as well as clairvoyant; Masaru, the one in a floating chair appears to be the oldest of the three and as such is more protective; and Takashi who’s encounter with Tetsuo trigger’s Tetsuo’s own connection to the Power. All three have some level of telepathic powers as well as the ability to transport themselves as well as other people. They aren’t working for the military as much as they’re not in control of their powers enough to leave and not be found and recaptured.
Q: Are Kaneda and Tetsuo brothers?
A: Although there is some sibling rivalry going on it’s a result of the societal dynamic mentioned above. They are not brothers, I repeat they are NOT brothers. Late in the film, their relationship is better explored as well as when they first meet.
Q: What’s with Tetsuo’s hallucinations?
A: For this one I’m going to answer with each occurrence. After beating the clown biker for abusing his girlfriend Kaori, Tetsuo’s visions are a result of the hospital’s drugs wearing off. Based on later revelations about his personal history his hallucinations I think are related to things falling apart both his body and possibly his mother in memory. His next hallucinations in the hospital with the teddy bear, toy car, and other toys along with all that milk are more an attempt by Kiyoko, Masaru, and Takashi to scare Tetsuo into madness and away from using his connection to the Power. Later on, when he finds the trio’s play room those are more directly and obviously a last ditch attempt by Masaru and Takashi to scare Tetsuo and keep him from hurting Kiyoko.
Q: Why the coats and super-cold temps when Colonel Shikishima goes to check on Akira?
A: My best guess, and as explained by the Colonel, is that after the Akira event, Akira was voluntarily and inexplicably dissected. Even though not technically ‘alive’ as a body Akira’s ‘parts’ had some latent energy and possible connection to the Power. One way that energy is represented and transferred
from objects is by kinetic energy. As Kai explains to Kaneda in their holding cell, the Power exists down to the molecular and/or atomic level. When molecules are active they product heat and the colder any object is, the slower it’s molecules move, and in Akira’s case the less likely he is to have contact or control of the Power.
Q: Is Kaneda or Kai special like Tetsuo and the trio?
A: While Kaneda does get tossed around and at times seems to heal from or survive things that aren’t possible, I don’t think he’s sensitive to the Power. Kai though has to have at lease some sensitivity since Kiyoko is able to possess Kai and she does teleport away with Takashi and later is able to stand up to Tetsuo directly.
Q: So, what really happened at the end?
A: Well, here’s what I think happened. Tetsuo lost his arm when the Colonel sic’ed his space laser on Tetsuo. Using the Power Tetsuo saved Kaneda (although partially out of unintended self-defense. After healing himself with to have a robot arm, Tetsuo lost more control after the Colonel shot him at the Olympic stadium which is when he lost control and ended up begging Kaneda to help him save Kaori (whom I’m pretty sure was horribly liquefied on-screen) and later from the second Akira wave. Once the vials of Akira’s nerve’s were shattered, then Akira regained his connection to the Power, reformed his body, and uses the Power to it’s fullest to create another universe and take the trio and Tetsuo with him (similar to the Monolith/Dave Bowman) situation of 2001, 2010, and subsequent books (2063 & 3001).
Besides these questions I noticed the following themes that are also explore in other Anime to varying degrees:
– Scientists poking around with uncontrollable forces (natural or scientific)
– Mutated evolution
– Catastrophic destruction
– Older generations fearing younger generations (ie. generational disconnect)
– Thrill seeking
– Street gangs
– Opportunistic military proliferation
– Societal change through revolution
– Childhood fears
Of course subsequent viewings of Akira invariably bring out more answers and more questions as you focus on different dialogue (or when seeing it on the big screen, more visual detail). Of course, dubbed is preferable to subbed. In years past the Alamo had screened a dubbed version of Akira and both Kaneda and Tetsuo become whiny kids, which I guess they are, but it was harder to pay attention to.
Anyway, looking ahead to May there doesn’t seem to be any upcoming Anime or related screenings. If some pop up, I will post about them in the Film Club 3.0 Facebook group. Darn Captain America. Curse you Marvel !!