This has to be the biggest WTF movie I have ever seen. It is the summation of all your nightmares. Every. Single. One. It puts Hamlet to shame as a tragedy, killing off characters you barely remember in the most dramatic, gruesome ways. It may be thoroughly messed up in all aspects, but it is a classic, achieving several firsts during its Japanese production and English adaptation. Akira is technically an anime – a genre often associated with content for kids, however untrue that may be – but I would not rate it anything less than R, and I warn people with an aversion to cinematic violence that Akira is not a movie you should be alone in a room with.
Being over 18 and having already seen it, I was ready for the random decapitations and dismemberments, and decided that this time I should focus my efforts on trying to decipher the plot. So, here’s my best crack at it: Akira starts with two biker gangs going at it in the streets. One of the bikers, Tetsuo (voiced by Nozomu Sasaki), gets distracted and runs right into a very wrinkly, very blue, little boy. His bike explodes. The government shows up to collect the boy (an escaped test subject) and decides to take Tetsuo as well, since, you know, he’s wounded and dying. After running tests, they discover Tetsuo has a sort of genetic power which could rival that of the now mythical Akira – some fear him like the Old Testament, others worship him like the New, but all agree Akira was a walking nuclear time bomb. Rather than explaining all this to Tetsuo, the government lets him escape, leaving him to run back to his biker friends. Tetsuo then begins to hallucinate in the most painful way possible, and suffers explosive headaches. Writhing in agony, his friends repeatedly ask, “Are you OK?” until the government shows up and captures Tetsuo once again. Enter Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata). This Hell’s Angel with a heart of gold spends the rest of the movie trying to rescue Tetsuo from the government and eventually from himself.
It is no wonder Tetsuo goes batcrap crazy; the scientists choose to lock him up in the creepiest hospital ever in a room full of stuffed animals with no guests allowed except the wrinkly blue children. A simple explanation for the headaches would have been great before Tetsuo started going all Dragon Ball Z on the facility, in the street, on government property, in a baseball diamond…
Through it all, however, good-guy Kaneda is there to chase him down, hit on the girl, and yell TETSUO!!!!! He has to be the luckiest character in all of Neo Tokyo and any other apocalyptic nightmare movie I have ever seen. Other characters get flattened by falling rocks, shot way more times than necessary, squeezed by swelling walls, dumped off bridges, and riddled with various other injuries common knowledge tells us they will not survive. But Kaneda, although a bit dusty, perseveres like a cockroach in a nuclear wasteland.
Akira isn’t a light movie graphically, directorially, or philosophically. While the characters disintegrate and evaporate, so does your idea of what the hell this movie is all about. A mistaken messiah? An apocalypse we can’t avoid? The addictive pursuit of power? Akira breaks down so many walls for a 1988 movie I just can’t even deal. So although it makes me question why I decided to watch it while eating dinner, knowing now that I may never look at food the same way, I rate Akira 6 missing limbs out of 10.
PS. The original is in Japanese and, if given the choice, I would recommend you watch it with the English subtitles. The English version re-recorded the dubbing in 2001, so it’s not bad, but the original Japanese just seems to fit better.
Trailer (viewers be warned)