I was doing research earlier this year on Japanese manga maestro Katsuhiro Otomo when I stumbled on a fact that left me scratching my head. Could Akira — Otomo’s wildly cerebral and technically stunning 1988 film adaption of his own manga — really be turning 25 this year? A calculator confirmed my suspicion that 1988 indeed was 25 years ago and immediately brought to mind a second question: Would the milestone go by unnoticed and uncelebrated?
The answer, thankfully, is no. North American anime giant Funimation announced during YouTube’s Geek Week that they have produced a new 25th anniversary Akira Blu-ray/DVD to mark the occasion. The anniversary set includes two English dubs from previous home video releases, the original Japanese audio track, an interview with director Otomo, storyboards, trailers, and additional features. The two-disc collection hits stores November 12 and is currently available for preorder from Amazon and other retailers.
Akira’s return to home video is good news not just for anime fans, but for anyone who enjoys mature, inventive filmmaking. On its surface, Akira tells the story of meek Tetsuo and boisterous biker gang leader Kaneda as they navigate a no-future world of punk violence and authoritarian control. The duo and their friends cross paths with an underground resistance group and inadvertently learn of a mysterious military psychic warfare program. Weirdness ensues, playing out against a backdrop of gorgeous, fluid animation that is at once naturalistic and painstakingly crafted.
From its intense and unforgettable visuals to a score that combines traditional Japanese instrumentation, synthesizers, and thunderous choirs, Akira is a multilayered and multifaceted film that transcends easy labeling. While it’s “anime” in the sense that it is an animated film from Japan, Akira deals with subject matter far more nuanced and nebulous than the genre’s standard fare. It is perhaps the best single example of what anime can accomplish, yet stands wholly separate from other Japanese animated features, inhabiting a place all its own.
With sequences that alternate from beautiful to revolting, hypnotic to harrowing, Otomo fully embeds viewers in his vision of the future, a world where the dazzling metropolis of Neo Tokyo has risen from the ashes of nuclear conflict. There are skyscrapers and posh neon-drenched shopping centers sandwiched next to desolate highways, congested industrial zones, and grubby slums. The plot of the film is equally expansive and fragmented, flowing from scenes of biker gang action, taut political intrigue, school days romp, and mind-bending, 2001-esque cosmic/psychic epic. The proceedings are often punctuated by horrific visions of violence, both physical and mental.
Sound like a strange mix? It is, yet that’s the source of Akira’s brilliance. The film’s kaleidoscopic structure serves to circle and surround many unpleasant aspects about the world, exposing a negative-space outline of some core basic truths, not of a fictional post-apocalyptic cyperpunk future, but of today’s modern world– right here, right now. The dual strands that run through Akira’s plot– Tetsuo’s tragic pursuit of power and Kaneda’s tenacious quest to save his damaged friend– provide a funhouse mirror view of the pressures and conflicts inherent in structured modern life. How does something as fragile and ethereal as a childhood dream survive in a brutal, dog-eat-dog world where “winning” trumps all and might nearly always seems to make right? Akira asks these questions and more, and does so in a breathtakingly striking way, overwhelming the senses with an incredible fusion of image, tone, and story. Akira occupies similar territory as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Like those films, Akira’s asynchronous, formula-defying structure may shock or even alienate at first, but ultimately unfolds into a rich drama that grows more impactful with repeat viewings.
Akira isn’t straightforward or easy to immediately digest, but its remarkable visuals and exploration of humanity’s dark obsession with power may resonate now more than ever. Twenty-five years after Akira was first released, Otomo’s Neo Tokyo still feels like it’s about to explode.