Akira (1988) is a Japanese anime film set “31 years after the Third World War leads to an atomic explosion that destroys Tokyo and creates the new city of Neo Tokyo in the ashes” (Gottesman, 2016). The city is preparing for the upcoming Olympics, (which funnily enough, are actually happening in Tokyo next year) building brand new stadiums as students riot and biker gangs run loose. Tetsuo, a young gang member gets caught up in a secret military experiment leaving him with psychic powers he can’t control.
To make sense of Akira, first you must understand the political climate of Japan in the 1980’s. Which makes sense, when you consider that the film was not created with a foreign audience in mind. At the time of it’s release, Gottseman (2016) states
“…the Showa emperor was on his death bed only kept alive by machines. Japan was on the edge of economic collapse, its place in the international balance of power was in doubt, and its culture reflected this insecurity.”
These elements form the crux of Akira’s thematic concerns. However, they are the very elements that may feel alien to foreign audiences. Nonetheless, they are present in the political unrest depicted through bike gangs, and rioters uprising against imperialism. And, in the focus on the relationship between machine and man which as Gottseman explains:
“…portrays the mechanical body… as a chaotic capitalism which engulfs the (Japanese) body and destroys the very seed of Japanese development.”
Akira is one of the most aesthetically beautiful films I have ever seen. It utilised cell animation, producing over 160,000 animation cells to create the “detailed scenes and fluid movement in the film” (Clark, 2018). Take a look at the magic in the iconic scene below.
Known for bringing “anime to the west“, Akira has influenced global culture in countless ways through the process of hybridisation. As a form of powerful media, it traveled across the globe and was remixed, and remade leaving traces of itself in national and local cultures. A few examples of this are:
The bike slide [gif source]. Akira’s own movie trope.
Music videos: Kanye West – Stronger.
Fashion: SUPREME x Akira 2017
TV Shows: The Duffer Brothers – Stranger Things
This is possibly the most prominent remake. The Stranger Things plot closely aligns with that of Akira’s: a young person gets caught up in a government experiment, leaving them with psychic powers they struggle to control.
However, Akira not only inspired popular culture, it helped define it. According to Clark (2018), it “opened the door for western animation aimed at adults”, and we have TV shows like the Simpsons, and Archer to thank for it.
Where some might consider the Global North/South divide, Akira is more a case of an East/West one. Akira was a success within Japan because of the cultural proximity of its setting, and themes. And, through hybridisation it came within cultural proximity of western countries. This was aided by the many western Easter Eggs contained within the film (e.g. Canon logo on Kaneda’s bike).
Ultimately, Akira is a true masterpiece whose influence lives on 30 years later thanks to global media flows.
Clark, K 2019, ‘How ‘Akira’ Changed the World of Animation Forever’, FANDOM, viewed 16 August 2019, <https://www.fandom.com/articles/why-akira-was-such-a-groundbreaking-film>.
Berry, C 2003,’“What’s big about the big film?”: “De-Westernizing” the Blockbuster in Korea and China’, Movie Blockbuster in J. Stringer (Ed.), Routledge, London p. 218.
Gottesman, Z 2016, ‘Tetsuo and Marinetti: Akira as a cyberpunk critique of futurist modernity’, Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, vol. 8, no. 2 pp.104-126.