Akira, to use a cliche, simply needs no introduction. It is one of the most expensive and best-looking animated films ever made, and an unrivaled work of pure spectacle. Moreover, almost immediately after arriving on our shores, it became “required viewing” for folks like us: seeing Akira for the first time is that essential stepping stone from “interested in anime” to “fan.”
Or so I thought. Anime fandom is getting younger while Akira gets older, and I’ve had too many conversations with Narutized anime fans who, at best, have a vague notion that out there, somewhere, a film called Akira might exist. Akira’s been reviewed and analyzed to death over the last twenty-plus years; I’d rather talk about my experience with the film, and why this generation of fans ought to keep it on the required reading list.
I’m not as old as some of my Colony Drop colleagues, but I got into this stuff young enough so that my best bet was the Japanimation aisle at the local Blockbuster, full of Streamline classics mottled with “adults only” stickers. Akira carried two stickers from Blockbuster, as well as one printed on Streamline’s original packaging.
These warning labels made the film frightening, and therefore instantly attractive. As with all things denied to children, the fact that you weren’t supposed to see it made seeing it essential. But not, we decided, until we were “ready.”
One of our friends had, however, somehow seen Akira. His name was Charles and he always had a mysterious air about him, as if at 13 he’d seen and done it all.
Charles described (again, in hushed tones; Akira was the kind of film you didn’t want the teacher to hear you talking about) a few scenes to me in all their bloody, graphic detail. He also promised how in a matter of moments, I would even “forget it was animation” and be fully immersed in the experience.
Finally, somehow, I got one of my parents to rent me Blockbuster’s warning-covered copy of Akira. I can’t remember how I navigated around the adult-only stickers; in all likelihood, they didn’t even notice. My parents would become increasingly used to me checking out films with bizarre foreign titles in the coming years.
Unfortunately, the Akira I’d built up in my mind and the film on my TV screen didn’t mesh. I was confused, bored, and certainly never forgot it was animation. I fell asleep about 2/3rds of the way through, when (spoiler alert!) Tetsuo discovers Akira is nothing but bits of intestine preserved in freeze-dried tubes.
My expectations for the film, of course, had been monstrous. The quality of the dub probably didn’t help either, though today it’s remembered fondly for being incomprehensible and for Cam Clarke yelling “Tetsuo!” a lot. Like, a lot.
Something must have stuck, though, because I was still interested in the film. A few years later an online friend sent me a fansubbed copy (through the mail; this was long before we upgraded from dialup). The file was on-par with Youtube quality-wise and corrupted in places, but I must’ve watched it at least ten times anyway. The film grew on me with each viewing, as I began to have an idea of what exactly was going on. Finally, the now-defunct Geneon, which was once the now-defunct Pioneer, released the film on DVD in stunning quality and, most importantly, with a new translation. I bought it at the now-defunct Sam Goody the day it was released. Now it’s out on Blu-ray, and you can bet I’ll be snapping that puppy up as one of my first HD discs.
Again, this film’s been talked to death, and I don’t want to review it, per se, but I am interested in why it keeps bringing us back. I think the aforementioned sense of spectacle plays a big part. Aside from the bi-yearly Studio Ghibli release, we don’t see much anime with a ton of money at its disposal, and we’re forced to live with cels that move at eight frames a second, scrolling backgrounds, and the like. Akira is our chance to see what the Japanese can do when they’re allowed to really flex their animation muscle. Everything in this film is, for lack of a better word, big.
But we already know all this. This article’s for you, you Naruto/Death Note/whatever fans. This film is pretty important, and you owe it to yourself to see it. Check your local Blockbuster.