Sci-fi has gone through several phases throughout its existence, from the campy pulp fiction novels of the early 20th-century, to the epic saga of blockbusters like Star Wars. But when the world grew more cynical and pessimistic of the future, sci-fi followed suit with the creation of the cyberpunk genre, depicting dystopian worlds where corporations are the rulers and futuristic technology oppresses, but also frees.
This is the world that the 1988 anime film Akira inhabits. Japan has done gritty cyberpunk before (see Megazone 23 and Bubblegum Crisis for earlier examples) but nothing as grand as this. It’s considered a landmark in Japanese animation, as well as the influence for several well-known live-action movies. But why is it considered one of Japan’s greatest anime films and should you watch it for yourself?
1. The setting is good old-fashioned cyberpunk.
Akira takes place in an alternate 2019, more than 30 years after a mysterious explosion destroys Tokyo and ignites World War III. As such, the newly established Neo Tokyo is a place of futuristic technology and progress, but is surrounded by reminders of the city’s destructive past.
This place has all the trappings of a good cyberpunk film: motorcycle gangs named after drugs, mysterious psychic children, government conspiracies, and revolutionaries trying to change their world for the better. The hustle of the city and the events that transpire in this film also make this world feel very lived-in, and you almost want to visit this world for a night. But only one night, because this place is kind of crazy.
2. The art and animation in this movie are phenomenal.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the movie is how freaking gorgeous this movie is. The city skyscrapers of Neo Tokyo looms over you but glitter in neon lights, while the ruins of old Tokyo stand in stark contrast to the bustle of the city nearby. Everything is highly detailed, from the architecture of downtown Neo Tokyo, to the graffiti plastered on the walls, to even the expressions on the characters’ faces.
This movie also moves like no other anime film does; this movie’s animation has been described as having a kinetic energy to it, and you can definitely see that when watching it. The character animation is extremely expressive and lively, bringing out the characters’ best and worst emotions. I also love the motorcycle scenes in this film, because they showcase the film’s setting in a thrilling way, while also containing some of the coolest action scenes in the film. This film will make you want to ride a motorcycle and try all the tricks the motorcyclists do.
3. There’s violence gore-lore.
(That was a terrible pun, please forgive me)
I’m not gonna lie, this movie can be pretty disgusting. This movie revels in the amount of violence it displays. People are beaten to a bloody pulp, shot in multiple areas, gassed by the police, and killed. You’ll lose track of how many characters end up on the chopping block, and how many of those people died in the brutalist way possible.
This is also the goriest film I’ve ever sat through; I’m not sure I can even say what kind of gore there is without feeling nauseous. Just remember that this is set in a world where anyone can die at any time, and where morals are set aside for the pursuit of power and destruction. Speaking of which:
4. The themes are relatable to anyone who’s felt small.
When talking about this movie, not a lot of people mention the movie’s simple plot is actually somewhat relatable. You might know someone who has always been the punching bag of others, who seemed too cowardly and weak to really make a contribution to others. You may also have come to see how our government tends to put the well-being of others on the back burner, and focuses on the militaristic might of the country.
Tetsuo is one of those people who society considered small and disposable, but after the meddling of the government, ends up becoming one of its most powerful-and its most dangerous, becoming the government’s worst nightmare and causing their eventual spiral into destruction. It’s a pretty terrifying sight to see, but a cool-looking sight at that.
5. Its cultural impact on American pop culture
Akira did really well both in Japan and outside of Japan. Here in American, it revolutionized the way people saw animation and what could be depicted in animation. And like all revolutionary films, it has made a splash in our popular culture. The screeching motorcycle slide is one of the film’s iconic moments, and pretty much everyone has tried to emulate it at some point:
But the entire film itself has inspired other filmmakers. Yes, The Matrix was inspired by Akira (though the original Ghost In The Shell movie was a bigger inspiration). Other films and television shows inspired by Akira include Inception, Looper, Chronicle and of course Stranger Things. The success of Akira in America also began what is now known as the 1990s anime boom, which brought us some of our most beloved TV shows and video games, such as Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z.
It can be a hard film to watch sometimes, but overall Akira is a fun time at the movies and an important film in the history of animation. It’s also just a damn good-looking film, so if you want to marvel at the power of animation, this is the movie to make you gawk. I highly recommend this film if you are a lover of all things sci-fi, and especially if you are a fan of movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix. It’s definitely up there with other cyberpunk greats.