Alright, hands up; who wishes they owned Kaneda’s bike from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira? Yeah, me, too. Unfortunately, I never learned to ride a motorcycle. To me, that would be like being able to play the drums (another skill I lack) while having nothing between you and skin-shreddingly hard asphalt. I get that it appeals for its lack of walls. The outlaw lifestyle at one point or other calls to us all (at least in our own minds it does). But with knowing which hand or foot is supposed to do what when (Yes, I know it becomes instinctual over time), I doubt I could pull it off without looking like an orangutan on a unicycle. My brothers had mini-bikes (or at least one which they shared; my memory’s slightly foggy on this), and they used to ride them/it all over the place. Of course, they all spent about half their time fixing it/them in that way young males with too much free time and an eagerness to experiment will have to do. It’s a tradeoff, I suppose for the freedom the vehicle bestows on the user.
In Neo-Tokyo, AD 2019, Japan has reestablished itself some thirty-one years after the end of World War Three. But the future is not necessarily a bright one, and bike gangs roam the streets, challenging each other for supremacy. Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) is the leader of one such gang. When word that rival gang The Clowns are out and about, Kaneda and his crew, including the young, unrefined Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), take off in pursuit. Meanwhile, withered child Takashi (Tatsuhiko Nakamura) is being dragged through the streets by an older man and being pursued by the police and their dogs. After running into the midst of a protest, the man is killed, and Takashi shrieks in horror. Windows explode, buildings fall down, and Takashi vanishes. Tetsuo chases a Clown into a disused section of highway, when Takashi suddenly appears before him. Tetsuo’s bike explodes, but both boys are unharmed. When army helicopters appear, led by Colonel Shikishima (Taro Ishida), Tetsuo is taken away for study, because something powerful has been awakened in him.
The film Akira is a complex, even complicated, adaptation of the eponymous manga by director and original author Otomo. Like many adaptations though, the film is a distillation of only part of the comic. The manga clocks in at over two thousand pages, and characters who are almost background players or tangential in the film are expanded in the book. Another important aspect (and probably one dropped more for economic reasons by the film’s producers) of the manga is the idea of nationalism that the revolutionary characters espouse. They want all non-Japanese out, to rebuild their country themselves. This harkens back to the feelings of many of the nation’s citizens after World War Two (the ending of said conflict is heavily alluded to in the film’s opening). This theme, not even mentioned in the movie, is an integral part of the original work. However, Otomo did keep the idea of social unrest in the film, and almost every scene set in the streets of Neo-Tokyo contains crowds of protesters and police clashing. Kei (Mami Koyama), Kaneda’s unrequited love interest, works with the revolutionaries, and this relationship will tie in the two plots for the story’s end.
Along that same line, both subplots of the film concern themselves with the idea of power and corruption. It’s an old theme, but it’s an important one, since we never seem to learn from it. On the civic side, council member Nezu (Hiroshi Otake), who literally looks like a rat, is helping the revolutionaries out from behind the scenes, but when things start falling apart, his avarice and poltroonery comes into the light. In fact, all of the politicians in the movie come off as backstabbing opportunists (shocking, I know). They sit in their meetings, bicker, and get nothing done, because one, they are out of touch with the people they are serving, and two, they care only about their own goals. On the flip side of that, Tetsuo is the poster boy for the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but his power is physical, not political. His mind has been opened, in a sense, and his potential is almost unlimited. Yet it’s his humanity that gets in the way. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, but Tetsuo does.
This leads to the other (and I would argue more prevalent) motif of the film. Tetsuo is an immature young man, and it’s his immaturity which colors his decision-making process. He resents his friends, because they tease him. He covets Kaneda’s bike (but who wouldn’t, really?) and stature, but the plain fact is that he simply isn’t Kaneda and doesn’t have Kaneda’s skill set, and this plants the seeds of jealousy in Tetsuo’s mind. He lords it over the less powerful psychic kids at the base, and when he learns about Akira, Tetsuo decides to challenge him and play king of the mountain (and the irony of how that turns out is also telling). When Kaneda confronts Tetsuo, he informs him that the only thing he is now king of is rubble. And just to nail home the analogy, Tetsuo literally turns into a giant, squalling baby. It isn’t until earthly needs are transcended that Tetsuo finally grasps the futility of his pursuits and that the only way to thwart immaturity is by eliminating the complications that trigger it; in effect, to reduce one’s essence to its simplest form.
The one sticking point (and it’s not even really a sticking point, more a mild frustration) that I have with the film, though, is its seeming non-committal to an explanation of what’s going on. The filmmakers do proffer information on what went on, is going on and why, but it feels like just an explanation to put something, anything into words, so that viewers won’t be completely flummoxed by some of the film’s more outré elements. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to think about in the film. There are tons. But no matter how hard I rack my brain on it, I inevitably keep coming back around to question what I just thought was the truth. I have often said that great science fiction is the kind that poses big questions and then gives the audience just enough information to parse out the answers on their own. And while Akira does do that, it also gives the viewer too many choices, I think. Nevertheless, this is not enough to diminish what is one of the greatest anime films ever made (and the one that opened up the flood gates for anime in the West, I believe), and every fan of not only anime but science fiction in general should see it at least once. I guarantee you’ll come back for repeat viewings.