The Art of Anime: Akira (1988)

Akira (1988)  Key Master Setup

Anime—the catch-all term for hand-drawn and computer animation produced in Japan—has sprouted its own deep-rooted community, culture, and legacy in the Western world. Despite its widespread reach, though, there are many misconceptions about anime simply due to a lack of understanding from foreigners. Those unfamiliar with anime—and by extension, manga, or Japanese comic books/graphic novels—may be surprised to learn that the art form has produced some of the greatest, most influential film and TV works in recent memory.
 

While some may view anime shows as mere cartoons, its rabid fanbase attests that anime is an artform. A compelling case for this argument is present in Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk anime film Akira. A true phenomenon in itself, Akira is a masterpiece of a film that deserves your attention.

What Is Akira About?

Contrary to the views of the unfamiliar critic, not all anime is childish, sexualized, or shallow. Stories within anime are mature, complex, and rich with cutting social commentary. Akira is the quintessential example of brilliantly crafted anime, based on the manga of the same name, first published in 1982.

 

Based in a futuristic version of 2019 Tokyo— called Neo-Tokyo, after the original Tokyo was destroyed by an explosion of unknown origin that catapulted the world into World War III—the city is plagued by civil unrest, corrupt politics, a crumbling education system, biker gangs, and drug use.

Akira (1988)
Akira (1988), Art of Akira via Tumblr

Teenage members of a biker gang called the Capsules and childhood best friends, Kaneda and Tetsuo, find their already tumultuous lives changed forever when they encounter a child with psychic powers in a freak accident while on the run from another gang. Afterward, Tetsuo begins to show signs of psychic abilities, too, and his powers become harder and harder to keep in check as they develop rapidly.
 

As the government scoops Tetsuo away from his friends to test on him, it’s revealed that there are more children with incredibly destructive and dangerous psychic powers being kept secret by the Japanese military, who are all part of a mysterious, conspiratorial government project known as “Akira.” In an epic, action-packed race against a whole host of government, military, and activist groups, Kaneda must save his friend before his abilities spiral out of control.

 

Spanning six volumes and over 2,000 pages, not every plot arc and detail was able to fit into Akira’s cinematic adaptation. The production process of adapting manga to film was so intense and laborious that it required an entire committee of organizations to work together to bring the film to life.

Production Process

The “Akira Committee” was the collective name for the seven Japanese entertainment companies that helped produce Akira. According to Crunchyroll, the budget for the film was $5.5 million (¥700 million). Katsuhiro Otomo also only agreed to the film’s production on the condition that he could retain creative control over the story as director.

 

Like other hand-drawn animated works of the time, Akira was created with the use of celluloid, transparent sheets, or “cels.” The subject of a scene is drawn directly onto the cel, and the cel is then overlaid on a static background image. These backgrounds are also hand-drawn and highly detailed. Then, the character is redrawn in a slightly different position on the next cel. When photographed in sequence and played back, the illusion of movement is created. Akira contained over 160,000 cels.  An oft-cited fact is that Akira’s animators had invented 50 new, completely unique colors for the film, as much of it is set at night. This was unusual for anime at the time as depicting night shots with many moving elements proved to be challenging, thus the film’s color palette consisted of 327 colors in total.
 

A behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Akira included in the film’s VHS release further details Akira’s use of color sharing: “The film takes place mainly at night. If you look at the color chart, you will see the tremendous variety of dark tones,” explains Kimie Yamana, Akira’s Chief Colorist. “Many colors you wouldn’t see in any other animation. There’s such subtlety in the various tones, that you wouldn’t notice them on a television screen. But in the theater, the large variety of colors really makes a difference. It helps to create the night scenes. But it was quite difficult.”

Akira (1988), Art of Akira via Tumblr
Akira (1988), Art of Akira via Tumblr

Fans continue to discuss Akira’s groundbreaking use of light, color, and animation techniques today. The film’s technical achievements are in part what enabled Western audiences, who had previously never had any exposure to anime, to resonate with it. The impact Akira had on young viewers is evident now more than ever, as a number of directors, musical artists, and writers have publicly praised the creativity of Otomo’s work, or have paid homage to Akira in their own productions.

Inspiring and Influencing Creators Today

In the 35 years since it debuted, Akira has influenced countless pieces of sci-fi fiction, popularized a motorcycle slide, and been called Ye West’s “biggest creative inspiration.”

 

Akira is a staple among the cyberpunk subgenre of 80s sci-fi. Cyberpunk typically describes works of science fiction that feature “future urban societies dominated by computer technology.” Other examples of cyberpunk films from the 1980s include Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987), and Tron (1982). Recent examples of cyberpunk films include 1999’s The Matrix and 2002’s Minority Report.

 

Akira has also had a heavy influence on the story of Netflix juggernaut Stranger Things. A piece from Abraham Josephine Riesman for Vulture notes the similar character personalities between the two. Additionally, the psychic-powered children being used as weapons by the government in Akira are occasionally referred to by test subject numbers that are tattooed on their hands instead of their names, much like Eleven in Stranger Things.

Cineaste365 (February 5, 2014 - DAY 116) , AKIRA, Katsuhiro Otomo, 2014, Dennis Amith via Flickr.jpg
Cineaste365 (February 5, 2014 - DAY 116) , AKIRA, Katsuhiro Otomo, 2014, Dennis Amith via Flickr

Perhaps the most enduring image from Akira is the slide performed by Kaneda while riding his iconic red bike at the beginning of the film. Appropriately dubbed the “Akira slide,” this move has been referenced in various media over the years. An article from Collider notes that the Akira slide has been referenced in shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and other anime such as Pokémon. More recently, the Akira slide has made an appearance in Nope (2022), directed by Jordan Peele. Peele, a known fan of Akira, was offered the opportunity to direct a live-action adaptation of the film but declined.
 

Another creator who has been very vocal about their love for Akira is the controversial rapper Ye West (formerly Kanye West). As reported by The Fader, West has made multiple tweets referencing the movie and explaining its influence on him.
 

In the music video for “Stronger,” a track from his 2007 album Graduation, West pays homage to Akira through a variety of shots that are lifted directly from the film’s action-packed opening. Japanese text in a font similar to the Akira logo intersperses the video as West raps.

In one scene, West can be seen laying in a rotating, robotic testing machine similar to the one Tetsuo finds himself in after gaining his psychic powers. Throughout the video, people on motorcycles ride through a Japanese city at night with long, vibrant light trails flowing behind them.
 

Nearly 40 years later, Akira has come a long way from its original legacy overseas. Both the manga and the film are well-known pieces of pop culture among Westerners, with Otomo’s gripping story inspiring all kinds of artists from diverse backgrounds to this day. The incredibly challenging task that was its production has allowed Akira to be more than just a popular piece of anime media. It is art. But instead of the artist being one person, it was hundreds. The animators, artists, writers, composers, and Otomo himself are able to see the effects Akira has had on the world since its release in real-time, setting a new standard for anime, sci-fi, and animation as a whole.


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