Some themes are timeless: rebellion, power, corruption, the rigors of disenfranchised youth — well, at least to Katsuhiro Otomo. In 1988 he was throttled into Japan’s spotlight as the crowned king of animation (referred to as anime overseas), eventually proving to audiences worldwide what was once just a myth: Cartoons aren’t just kid stuff.
So open your mind to the world of Akira, being released on VHS and DVD this week, a desperate, perilous tale of a childhood friendship that is rocked by a twist of fate. Two delinquents, Kaneda and Tetsuo, warped by an urge to revolt against smaller factions of society — wreaking havoc on the streets of Neo Tokyo against meter maids and cart pushers — are the key to setting Otomo’s epic into a downward spiral. It is their childhood bond, one founded on Kaneda’s leadership and Tetsuo’s subservience, that guides them into their teenage years, only to be corrupted by an accident.
But the audience is left to wonder whether the calamity is truly freak or a plotted kidnapping. During a gangland rumble, atop motorbikes and gripping steel wedges, Kaneda and crew split the heads of a rival street tribe, the Clowns. But it is Tetsuo, set in a common fit of rage, who meets with an odd demise — which, as the story thickens, flings his mind of hate, soaked in oppression, in hyper-motion. By speeding ahead of his companions, chasing a vying goon, he shakes hands with Satan by swerving to avoid a small boy.
Moments after a brutal explosion, military helicopters lower from the midnight sky; soldiers shower the scene with spotlights and body-bag threats. Kaneda is forced to watch Tetsuo’s fried body, bruised and shattered, be carried away as he lies on the pavement at gunpoint.
Akira’s plot thus far may appear ordinary enough. But rather than veer in a more politically correct position (like Walt Disney, Don Bluth and other predators of the prepubescent animation market), like Mel Gibson’s Payback, every character has a venomous tang. Kaneda — along with his teenage cohorts — drips with transgression. The military colonel leading the cover-up is relentless in his quest to unleash a monster. Activists, who try desperately to save Tetsuo and other children that were cursed by similar fates, slaughter humans to induce their quest. Even average citizens, marked with a common urge to hate something — anything — break into wild riots for the most unscrupulous reasons.
And Tetsuo, of course, is passionate about his private revolution, killing scores of Neo Tokyo denizens between blinks, but he doesn’t know why. His isolation in elementary school is provided as a flashback motivation, but is far from tragic enough to inspire his glamorous frenzy. Maybe it is just a hysterical mentality, an influx of crazed behavior, that screamed to popularity after the bombing of Tokyo decades before. Or, chances are, Tetsuo is the Antichrist epitomized — pure and unrestrained. He is a character, like Nicholson’s The Shining persona, that simply erupts like Mount St. Helens — it just takes a violent prong to set the rage in motion.
The prong, in this case, is brain therapy from the military. Tetsuo is dubbed experiment No. 41, and after immersive conditioning and probably some surgery (the process is never fully communicated), his latent physic abilities are quickly compared to that of a sleeping giant, locked away after the war in subterranean, nuclear storehouses. Like Akira, the previous “research” subject (a youngster less than 10 years old), Tetsuo can detonate human bodies as if they were cans of Raid in a microwave without the slightest brush of a finger — just by thinking about it.
Alas, Akira is inherently a yarn about mortal rebirth. The film preaches that for society to regain stamina, to appropriately rebuild after the third world war, it must do so amid ruins — the streets must be cleansed of their toxins, the evil must be disintegrated. So, in a slick and disturbing turn of fate, Tetsuo is also a savior, no matter his decisively hellish collapse.
But thanks to Pioneer Entertainment, Akira is now more than just a benchmark in anime — it was also the recent recipient of a $1 million makeover. Color restoration, completely remastered audio and loads of other aesthetic features were spruced up to help the film endure for centuries to come.
There are a handful of stout extras burned onto the supplemental DVD. The most phenomenal is a 15-minute featurette detailing the restoration process, including the high-definition film transfer, the recording of a new English dialogue track and the mixing of the film’s crisp Dolby Digital audio.
There is other “bonus material,” including an interview with the Akira’s writer-director, 4,500-some production stills, and other assorted documentaries (all stored in a catalog since the film’s 1988 theatrical release), but there is a missing piece. Though it is quite rare on any anime DVD, an audio commentary (with the chief animator, storyboard artist or a film historian — or even Roger Ebert) would have been the cherry of this two-disc set. Akira is something special — like many anime imports — and it deserves a bit more.
Just do yourself a favor. Watch the movie, then cozy up with the 2,000-plus page manga by Otomo (collected in six volumes by Dark Horse Comics). The silver screen translation can never compare.Jon M. Gibson says "Respect the anime." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org