Filling in those filmic blind spots, one person at a time
Edith Bowman checks out the Japanese classic. Don’t look back in manga, I heard you say.
THE RULES OF the First-take Club are incredibly simple. Each month, we ask someone to peruse our list of the 301 Greatest Movies Of All Time (as voted for by the Empire readers in 2014) and select a film they haven’t seen before. Then they watch the film and tell us a) why the devil it took them so long and b) what the devil they think about it. This month’s inductee into the club is broadcaster, DJ and author Edith Bowman, whose movie-based soundtracks podcast, Soundtracking, is a mustlisten. And Edith’s choice? The film that she hadn’t seen, to her eternal shame? It’s number 236 on our list, widely considered the greatest anime of all time — Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s 1988 classic, Akira. Over to you, Edith. I’ll admit I’m not any kind of expert on Japanese animation. The closest I get to it is my eightyear-old’s obsession with Pokémon, which I’m well aware began life as a game for Game Boy. So,
Akira had passed me by until now. I’m glad I’ve seen it — it’s a different league of animation altogether. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I won’t recount the plot details here. Largely because it would take me a very long time, as the story is incredibly complicated. Short version: Tetsuo Shima is a psychic who runs with a biker gang in a dystopian futuristic Tokyo (or not that futuristic — the story is set three years from now). It’s directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, who adapted his original manga series, which had over 2,000 pages of artwork. No wonder it took him eight
years to make. It’s tense, funny and wonderfully entertaining. And, when Tetsuo hallucinates toys coming to life, terrifying and revelatory.
Doing some reading around the movie, I noticed that Ôtomo cites both Rebel Without
A Cause and 2001: A Space Odyssey as an influence on his work. A lot of similar themes — alienation, the nature of humanity, the dangers of technology — can be found in Akira. Other themes are universal and so relevant — the battle between science and the military is something we see time and time again in sci-fi. Yet it’s one that constantly fascinates me, and one that is not always done well. I had very low expectations of an animated film being able to get so deep and touch on such heavy subject matter. Then I watched Akira. In fact, I forgot I was watching animation after a while.
It is not just considered a landmark of Japanese animation, but regarded by many as one of the greatest animated movies of all time. I have to agree. It’s certainly influential — you can see elements in films like The Matrix or even TV show Stranger Things. The animation is faultless and uses light in a way that I can’t quite get my head around. It’s the simple things, like how Ôtomo and his team capture the buzz of neon. And the soundscape is stunning — bursts of traditional music through sparks of Shoji Yamashiro’s score blend perfectly with the explosions, gunfire and loud vehicles, to add real depth of emotion and tension.
In a way, it’s timeless. About 15 years ago I hosted a series of the travel show Rough Guide, and Japan was one of the countries we were lucky enough to film in. For one segment I got to hang out with a real Bōsōzoku gang for a night. The specificity of the gang mentality that I witnessed first hand is told with such honesty and colour in Akira, from the noise of the bikes to the blatant disregard for life and their fearlessness. It’s astounding for animation to capture this. For me, it’s definitely ignited an interest in Japanese animation. Perhaps my son can put away the Pokémon and join me.
AKIRA IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD