Animesque: The nuclear mind

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‘Akira’explores urban decay and the nuke

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer


In the dark days of the 1980s when animation was considered mere childish entertainment, Japanese anime appeared and proved that animation could be a form of art. This was accomplished with a specific formula that’s apparent in a lot of the “golden age” stuff to date: cyberpunk setting, detailed animation, gratuitous violence, and meditations on consciousness or technology, with bonus points for blunt metaphors regarding nuclear devastation.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, understandably, major turning points in Japan’s history: once-proud conquerors laid low by ill-used power and all that. As such, there is a lot of Japanese fiction that deals with the concept of the selfish pursuit of power that cannot ultimately be controlled. It’s where the concept for Godzilla came from.

In Akira’s post-post-apocalyptic future of 2019, after destruction by a mysterious explosion and subsequent Third World War, Tokyo has been rebuilt into a towering neon obelisk. Protest groups and creepy cults clash with a corrupt military government. Wayward youth take to the streets to wage high-speed gang wars on souped-up motorcycles.

Amidst the chaos are the Capsules, a gang made up of teenage reform school students with serious anger issues. They’re led by Kaneda, who acts like a hot-blooded, Japanese James Dean—Rebel Without a Cause jacket and all. Wannabe biker Tetsuo looks up to Kaneda as an idol, but despises always playing second fiddle to him.

During a fight with rival gangsters, Tetsuo comes into contact with a shrivelled, childlike being that possesses inexplicable psychic powers. Having escaped from the local military-industrial science institution, the creature is scooped up by the army along with Tetsuo, who begins to develop powers of his own. Kaneda throws in with the rebel protesters in a bid to rescue his friend, and maybe get a date with Kei, one of their higher-ups.

As Tetsuo becomes intoxicated with his psychic power, his inferiority complex explodes, and so does most of Tokyo. Japan just can’t catch a break, it seems. Now idolized by a group of nutcase cultists, he no longer has to grudgingly rely on Kaneda’s protection. The military tries to stop Tetsuo, but like in the Godzilla movies, you know how that goes.

Akira’sgreatest strengths lie in its visual storytelling and the quality of its animation. Every scene is absolutely packed with detail that provides a wider context for the world of Neo-Tokyo. The twisted childhood imagery of the fever-dream sequences Tetsuo undergoes as his powers begin to manifest is Slendermanlevels of disturbing. The soundtrack is a little maudlin, but creates a grandiose atmosphere otherwise marred only by a subpar dub.

Although the Kaneda/Tetsuo conflict is compelling, the second half does feel swamped in destruction. Plot points like the history of the AKIRA project and the ironic end of the corrupt government officials get lost in all the commotion, which makes it difficult to suss out the anti-war message.

The show manages to end on a hopeful note. Even after all of the devastation, the wayward youth may have a future. Akira may not be a great film, but itis worth watching for anyone who wants to retrace the steps of animation’s journey towards the status of art.