Motorcycles and explosions galore in Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira

Captivating, violent and action-packed, Akira is an epic anime film set in a corrupt Tokyo of the future. Scientists unlock God-like powers in a troubled teenager and, as his growing powers corrupt him, he draws his friends into a battle to save Tokyo from a devastating holocaust. Part adrenaline-pumping adventure and part hallucinogenic nightmare, Akira explores deep questions about the nature of friendship, vengeance and power.

Tetsuo, the subject of these experiments, is an awkward and self-conscious teenager plagued by surreal hallucinations where everything in his shadow crumbles into bits—including his own body. As he hunches over the pavement trying to scoop his imaginary intestines back into his gut, Kaneda, his lifelong friend watches, angry about the government’s experiments on his friend—but he is powerless to stop the limitless rage being unleashed within Tetsuo.

Later, as Tetsuo rampages through the city, drunk on his seemingly limitless power, he rips a bright red curtain from a storefront he has destroyed, fashioning a makeshift cape for himself: he is a child king, a villainous superhero and wounded little boy who holds the fate of millions in his hands.

The hand-drawn artwork of this film is as impressive today as is was when it was released. You can lose yourself in the lush details and vast landscapes of the futuristic city—and in the awesomely disturbing visuals. And while Akira is a something of a meditation about humankind’s spiritual connection with the universe, it is at its heart an intense action adventure that builds to a truly epic climax. Akira was, and is, a groundbreaking film that set the stage for the Japanese anime explosion that followed on its heels.

The film is based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a hugely popular Japanese comic. Otomo was approached to direct an animated feature of Akira and he agreed under the condition that he retain creative control. When the film was made, he was only halfway through the print version of the series, so, for the film, he condensed the existing storyline and created a new ending. In the following years, he went on to complete the printed manga series, which totaled over 2,000 pages.

He was inspired by American films like Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider, and insisted on telling the story through movement and action—no static talking heads. And, unlike previous anime films, he took on the gritty themes of government corruption, disillusioned teenagers and underground resistance groups.

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Obsessed with breaking the Japanese tradition of cheap animation, Otomo created the most expensive Japanese animated film of the time, costing over eight million dollars. The finished film is fully animated at 24 frames per second, contains 2,212 shots, uses more than double the normal number of custom paint colors and was shot on 70mm in order to capture every detail of the intricate illustrations.

Recognizing that music would be the glue that held the film together, Otomo searched for music that felt like it was from the near future, but of no particular genre. He enlisted Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi, a cutting edge group of musicians who combined human vocals, ethnic instruments from around the world and digital synthesizers. The scoring process took six months and was completed before they started animating the film.

Upon its release, the film sold out in theaters throughout Japan, eventually recouping its massive production costs almost six times over. But Akira’s legacy was also to introduce the Western world to this striking new take on Japanese anime, and to pave the way for films like Ghost in the Shell and Paprika.

Revered as a landmark anime film, Akira has become a cult classic and tops countless anime films lists (competing fiercely with Miazaki films like Spirited Away). It maintains a nearly 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes Movie Review site and received a ‘thumbs up’ from Roger Ebert. There have been recent attempts to make a live-action version of the film, but no luck so far—which may be a good thing, after all, it would be hard to complete with this version of the film.

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