Looking back at the history and influence of an anime masterpiece
A city of the future then, and of the “now” today. An oppressive metropolis lined with flashing neon. Relentlessly tough streets ravaged by teenagers consumed in a cycle of violence and debauchery intrinsic to their dystopian society, an ethos of cataclysmic revolution seeping up through the sewer grates and into the street.
Akira's Neo-Tokyo is an accomplishment unique amongst anything else in anime. For 30 years it has stood as a testament to why Akira remains remembered amongst its contemporaries. Thanks to this vivid locale and its inhabitants, the monumental film caught the eye of Western audiences, turning anime into a worldwide phenomenon. On this milestone anniversary, let’s explore the influence of the masterpiece that changed anime forever.
The roots of Akira trace back to director Katsuhiro Otomo’s childhood fascination with mecha manga Tetsujin 28-go. He took direct inspiration from its story about the resurrection of a dangerous world-destroying superweapon. To cement the connection between the stories, Otomo named Kaneda, Tetsuo, and Akira after their Tetsujin 28-go counterparts. The director also looked to his own observations of Tokyo to build the foundation for the film. From political demonstrators to gangs of delinquents, he imagined the people he saw in a future world where they’d be free of the law, thus giving birth to Neo-Tokyo.
However, Otomo found that conveying the atmosphere and detail of his fictional city was incredibly challenging in manga form. In his words, “It is extremely difficult to express the depth of such a vast city. In the comic, I used each issue to build more depth and size. But in a film, you get to combine this all into one. It’s much more convincing... I could really create the type of environment that I wanted to depict.” While at first he expressed trepidation about adapting Akira to anime due to a past bad experience, he agreed after being granted full creative control; he would both direct and write the film.
How was one to cram an (at the time unfinished) 2,300-page manga into two hours of animation, though? Otomo’s answer was to drastically alter the story, retaining the feel and themes while changing plot points and entire characters for the sake of truncation (for example, Akira was far less benevolent in the manga). Many call the film a mess with its tendency to forget characters and contradict itself. Even Otomo himself thought the film to be a failure on initial viewing due to budget cut compromises. Yet his original intuition about why film was the right medium for Akira turned out to be correct: its intricate worldbuilding overshadowed any plot-based shortcomings. New heights of animation and a deep color palette (setting a record for number of colors used at its time) gave life to a cyberpunk locale so vivid that it felt real. The lawless metropolis became a place of pure escapism, even if in reality you would never want to live there. It was by focusing on his reason for wanting to turn Akira into anime in the first place – feeling animation would beter sell the city's scope – that Otomo made an impossible adaptation possible.
At the time of Akira’s release, anime was still an unknown quantity to much of the world outside of Japan. Western audiences were used to animation being strictly for kids through the work of Disney and their contemporaries. So Akira stood in stark contrast to those beliefs. The brutality of Neo-Tokyo was unlike anything else people had seen, depicting violence and destruction on a pulpy level that live action couldn’t. This led to expected backlash stereotyping anime as degenerate until the arrival of Pokemon and Spirited Away over a decade later. However, it also cultivated an instant fanbase hungry for more Japanese cartoons that challenged what was possible in storytelling. Akira became a counter-culture icon, a tale of revolution by way of anarchy. It didn't follow the rules of what was publicly acceptable. While many mistook it as a depiction of how teenagers wanted to act, what it really elicited was how they felt.
Anime didn’t reach the heights of Akira’s $80 million box office pull for some time, despite this newfound interest. Ghost in the Shell – the next anime film to garner mainstream attention – did a respectable $10 million yet failed to recoup its costs. But, in the long term, the seeds of the medium’s success were sown. Akira would inspire the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion and contemporaries in Japan, and The Matrix, Kill Bill, and much more overseas. A live-action version is even still being shopped around Hollywood, and though the it sits in limbo due to budgetary concerns, directors continue to line up for the chance to remake a film that inspired them.
Akira broke ground across the board in bringing Neo-Tokyo to the screen. It’s no wonder that the film is still remembered as a shining beacon of what anime can be years later. So, happy 30th birthday, Akira! Let’s just hope the 2020 Tokyo Olympics you eerily predicted don’t bring about the same result.