11th March 2021 Andrew Wildey

Akira – a symphony of destruction

When you work in video production, especially being an all-in-one low life like me, you quite often get asked if you do animation for titles or info-graphics etc… Well the answer is a big fat no. I wholeheartedly believe in video and what can be achieved exclusively through that medium. For my own personal style the more finger prints and in-camera physicality I can bring to a project the better. I want to create living, breathing artefacts and not drawings or impressions of them. But having said that, allow me to shock you by saying that I love animation, 80s/90s Manga in particular, but other stuff like Peter Chung’s “Aeon Flux” and Studio Ghibli is also pretty nice. For me the beauty of animation is the freedom and scope it affords to explore ideas that would be impossible in the physical world, even with the biggest budget and most creative director. What is achieved thorough animation can then go on to inspire directors of non-animated film and there is no film in all of grown up animation that has had more impact on modern cinema than Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” (1988).

Neo Tokyo is about to explode

Akira is set in the futuristic city of Neo Tokyo, rebuilt from rubble having been destroyed by a singularity in world war 3, where it is now in a state of collapse with anti-government protests, corruption and gang violence. Here we are introduced to a biker gang lead by (Shōtarō) Kaneda, who has the coolest bike in cinema history. One night in a battle with rival gang the Clowns, one of Kaneda’s gang members, Tetsuo Shima, crashes his motorcycle into Takashi, a psychic child who had been broken out of military testing installation with the help of anti-government rebels. Immediately military helicopters descend reclaiming Takashi and also taking Tetsuo away for testing. The film then follows Kaneda and the gang as they try to find where Tetsuo has be taken whilst becoming embroiled in an unseen world of secret military testing programs and rebel groups. Meanwhile, having been affected by his contact with Takashi and the subsequent testing, Tetsuo struggles to maintain control as he develops powerful psychic abilities.

“It’s too wild. You couldn’t handle it”

I first saw this movie at random in 1991, back when late night Channel 4 used to be cool. Me and my brother were having a sleep over with another kid and happened to catch it. It’s the first foreign language film I ever watched (though I always prefer the dubbed versions when it comes to animation). Kind of a strange choice for three twelve year olds to be sat up watching something like that, but it was just so damn cool. As kids, it was like watching a cartoon only it had blood and violence – something we’d never seen before. Despite the complexity of the plot and the chore of it being subtitled, when something is as visual powerfully as Akira, it speaks a language that anyone can understand. For me that remains a very important aspect of not just film but any art form – if you can understand or feel something without the need for explanation, then at some base level it has succeed, hence why I can’t stand most Lars Von Trier films which are dull, incoherent cobblers in my opinion

via Gfycat

“200 horsepower at 12,000 rpm”

Not before and not since has any animated film achieved what Akira did. It set the bar so high above anything before it and I don’t think any animation has ever surpassed its standard. It took 68 animators around 3 years to hand draw every layer or all 172,000 frames of its 2 hour run time. With the amount of time and work that went into it, it’s the animation equivalent of the pyramids. The result is its mind blowing detail and speed. Running at the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second, not only is the animation silky smooth, but the level of detail is jaw dropping. It immediately sets itself apart from other animation where, for example, everything would remain still except for a characters mouth flapping, losely in sync with dialogue. In Akira the entire frame, including background layers, remain fully animated, giving so much life and depth to the cinematic world. Bikes all have realistic light trails and the impact of punch, bullet or pipe to the face includes fragments of bone and teeth, but so fast and so visceral that it’s like reality enhanced.

To get close to that level of detail in film would require a digital camera running at a high frame rate/fast shutter speed, and films like Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” have successfully pulled off sequences using such an approach where the speed of film helps to achieve a more sharp and violent look. But to attempt to capture Akira levels of detail through an entire non-animated movie would ruin the filmic quality by eliminating the glossy motion blur that audiences have come accustomed to. Experiments into high frame rate films, such select screening’s of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”, were not well received by audiences who described the experience akin to watching a live play . So whilst I don’t think traditional film can or should attempt to achieve detail simply by upping film speed or resolution, what can be learned from Akira is to make conscious creative production decisions to assign focus to the specific detail that is most important for audiences to see/feel. A perfect example of this is “Dredd” (2012) which incorporates HFR into the action scenes through a plot device of a drug called “slow mo” which enabled the director to present sequences with a look straight out of the panels of a 2000AD comic book. Incidentally the cinematographer on both “28 Days Later” and “Dredd” was Anthony Dod Mantle.

via Gfycat

“People like you should never use the power like that”

Akira is a film about power. Governmental power, people power, military power, scientific power, psychic power and the interplay of power in relationships. But also about what happens when power is corrupted, when politicians lie, scientists experiment in things they shouldn’t and the seeds of resentment towards those with strength and power above our own. If there’s one thing Akira suffers from, that is endemic of a lot of Japanese cinema, is an over abundance of unnecessary sub-plot into politics and government ministers. It really doesn’t need half as much of that to add weight and gravity to the story as what it does visually to communicate the theme of power is second to none.

Tetsuo’s descent into the corrupting force of his growing power is Shakespearean. We see him lose his mind then become intoxicated on drugs and his new abilities, before in the final act his body erupts into a mountain of mutating flesh. Akira’s depiction of an adolescent struggling to control a newly acquired and growing power is clearly referenced the Netflix series “Stranger Things”, films like “Looper” and “Lucy”, and  music videos like Sia’s “Titanium” and Kanye West’s music video for “Stronger” which is a direct homage to Tetsuo’s lab escape in Akira. Games have also referenced Akira with Hideo Kojima’s “Death Stranding” covering questionable experimentation into infants with extra sensory abilities and cataclysmic energy events. “Silent Hill” also centred on powerfully psychic children with its opening crash scene matching Tetsuo’s bike crash. Incidentally I directly referenced the same shot in my first ever attempt at film making in a University project “No Exit”.

Whilst films like “Scanners” pre-date Akira in depicting telekinetic powers used to inflict explosive violence (i.e heads exploding), Akira was the first to show physical matter, be that building or bodies, instantly ripped to pieces or crushed like insects in a single, silent snap of energy. The visuals during the final acts of the film are a truly awe inspiring symphony of destruction as Tetsuo engulfs the city in a towering dome of pure energy. No other film has ever come close to putting raw power on screen they way Akira does. Also, love the use of abstraction at the very end to express Testuo’s arrival at a new an indescribable state of being.

Soundtrack

I had a few copies of the Dark Horse “Aliens” series, and my brother would read the “Eagle” and some  2000 AD stuff like “Judge Dread” but I was never a massive comic book geek. Around 1994 however, in between hanging out in Sega Arcades and stealing pic’n’mix from Woolworth’s, me and a friend would swing by Calamity Comics in Harrow. This was the time I’d revisited Akira and got into anime and I picked up a few copies of the Akira comic, as well as the t-shirt and soundtrack. A music score comprised primarily of traditional Japanese music was a bit of a weird purchase for a 14 year old, but I was a bit of a weird 14 year old and a big fan of the movie.

What stands out for me with Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s score is that, whilst is isn’t doing conventional Hollywood John Williams/Danny Elfman style leitmotif, its themes still manage to powerfully capture and convey the feel and energy of the visuals. The pulsing drums of “Kaneda’s Theme” gives motion and speed to the bike chases through the city whilst “Battle Against Clown” gives their rival gang a real sense of grunt and toughness. A standout track is “Winds Over Neo Tokyo”, which glides a light and gentle synth flute as it softly rises and falls to meet these powerful synth brass/strings and timpani sections to represent the towering and majestic buildings. Just so simple and effective in its execution. The church organs and choirs that accompany the final scenes of biblical destruction not only convey the enormous magnitude of the destruction but also endow Tetsuo with the power of a god.

What elevates Akira to a level all of its own is the use of quiet, and sometimes total silence in the soundtrack. The opening cataclysmic singularity occurs in complete silence, as if the power of the blast was so great that you didn’t even have time or capacity to hear it, nor could any sound do it justice. Towards the end of the film in the wake of destruction are many beautiful scenes as sunbeams break through the clouds to illuminate the destroyed city. This is all accompanied by the hymnal choirs in “Requiem” providing a spiritual note that beautifully carry the end scenes of Tetsuo’s ascension and the memory of his friend Kaneda. A great and unforgettable soundtrack which, as soon as you hear, you’re immediately transported into this story.

There has been talk of a live-action adaptation for years, at one point involving Leonardo DiCaprio unless I’m mistaken. But I hope and pray it never happens as, if there’s one thing that’s certain, not only would Hollywood studio executives mutilate it in line with the latest marking trends, as they do everything, but it would simply be impossible to recreate Akira in live action.

If you only ever see one anime/manga film in your life then make sure it’s Akira. My personal preference is the hard to find original US dub which features voice actor Cam Carke (Leonardo from the Turtles) as Kaneda. Not only is it a great an iconic movie in its own right, one that pretty accurately predicted how the future (today) might look, but for any creative looking for any kind of visual reference or inspiration around the theme of power, then Akira is it.