The Inspiration Vulture Targets: Akira

Overview: Akira, for the tragically uninitiated, is Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking 1989 anime feature film, which is based upon his long-running manga series. Akira is giddy and glorious, a huge, elaborate, expensive, overstuffed, adrenaline-laden, hyper-violent spectacle of sheer awesomeness. The film is set in 2019 in Neo Tokyo, a megacity built upon the ruins of Tokyo, which was devastated two decades earlier by a mysterious atomic blast. Neo Tokyo is dazzling and gorgeous, sleek and shimmering in neon pinks and golds, though it’s in the process of falling apart at the seams. It’s hurtling towards another mega-catastrophe, and all the various factions -- motorcycle gangs, terrorists, religious fanatics, corrupt politicians, military, scientists and creepy shriveled-up psychic children -- work at violent cross-purposes to either ward off disaster or speed it along.

Akira has a sprawling, labyrinthine plot that’s impossible to follow the first time around and still remains muddled upon second or third or fourth viewing. The ostensible hero of the story, or at least the character we follow the most, is Kaneda, an oddly endearing young idiot who leads a biker gang. During a clash with another gang, Kaneda’s smaller, weaker, much-beleaguered best friend Tetsuo comes into contact with Takashi, an escaped test subject from a long-running top-secret government project, and starts to develop: a) unstoppable super-powers, and b) a stunning mean streak. It falls to Kaneda to stop his friend from destroying Neo Tokyo, or to redeem him, or to get his bike back from him (Kaneda’s super-elaborate bike is fetishized beyond all comprehension, both onscreen and in Akira fandom. Haven’t seen the movie? Just Google “Kaneda’s bike”; you’ll see what I mean), or to hook up with foxy rebel Kei… okay, it’s usually not at all clear what Kaneda’s trying to do, but since Kaneda himself seems never seems to know what’s going on, I see no reason why the audience should feel any obligation to try to sort it all out. Just sit back and bask in the awesomeness.

It all builds to an inconclusive or possibly incoherent climax (spoiler alert: Kaneda and Tetsuo shout at each other a lot and try to kill each other in increasingly ludicrous ways, and then the city gets destroyed or reborn or something). In another kind of film, the ambiguity would be an annoyance, but in a film like Akira, the muddled ending is beside the point. Apart from the aforementioned awesomeness, it’s funny, the kind of film you snort and chortle all the way through. Years ago, I recommended it to a friend at film school, who watched it for the first time in the public media center. Halfway through, the student at the viewing booth next to him tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he was having some kind of attack -- apparently, he’d been making disturbing strangled noises throughout. That’s the proper Akira reaction.

Personal Context: “What’s your favorite movie?” is an impossible question, yet when asked, I say it’s Akira, though that’s at least in part because I think people would lose respect for me if I said Tuff Turf. In any case, I adore this film, and have adored ever since I first saw it at the Magic Lantern Theater in Spokane, Washington, in 1990. This was the much-maligned version dubbed and distributed in the United States by Streamline. It was re-released by Pioneer in 2001 with new dubbing and a new translation, which eliminated some of the dialogue oddities of the earlier version (I never did figure out what Kaneda meant by, “Just when my coil was reaching the green line”; the context doesn’t support it, but I like to think it was somehow sexual in nature). I went into the theater not knowing anything about it -- I liked anime, though, as this was 1990, my exposure had been limited to Voltron and Robotech and Speed Racer. (These were the days when everyone still called it Japanimation, kids. Ah, good times).

There are movies that are mood-altering. And then there are movies that are life-altering. Akira falls into the latter camp. Watching Akira for the first time was one of those turning points, a moment in my life where Everything Changed Forever. It’s a jolt of dangerous adrenaline, the kind of film that makes you feel invincible, like you can walk down dark alleys by yourself and blow out street lights using only the power of your mind. At the very least, it infuses you with a strange desire to run off and join a Tokyo bike gang. This is heady, dangerous stuff.

I went off to college a year later, where I taped my Akira poster to my dorm room wall. A theater in Westwood showed it as their midnight movie, and I hitched a ride with a couple of hyper-pretentious fellow film majors, who made sarcastic comments throughout. I’m pretty easygoing, particularly with people who are providing my means of transportation, but I got downright shirty with them and almost ended up walking back to campus. I’m very protective of this movie. So protective that the recent news that a live-action remake has been greenlit and put on the fast-track for production (they’re Hollywoodizing it: it will be set in “New Manhattan”, not Neo Tokyo) sent me into a major funk: there is no way this can turn out well. There’s been no word as to prospective casting, but if we end up with Shia LaBeouf as Kaneda, I will cry and cry and cry.

Inspiration Vulture: If I could harvest one trait from Akira to use in my own writing, it would be the boundless energy, the relentless motion, the joyous chaos of Kaneda and his merry gang of idiots. Akira often gets compared to Blade Runner, and in terms of striking visual design, yeah, Blade Runner’s a clear influence. But Akira’s hyperkinetic pace is a lifetime away from Blade Runner’s languorous, torpid neo-noir universe: more happens in Akira’s dazzling, violent opening sequence than in all of Blade Runner. My writing tends to be pretty controlled. I outline carefully, I think things through, I plan everything in advance. If I could relinquish some of that control in exchange for a dose of Akira’s jubilant mayhem, I think I’d come out ahead.

Next up: Max Headroom


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