The most obvious choice needs neither lengthy introduction nor explanation. Widely hailed as a pinnacle of the medium and by some critics as the
greatest anime film of all time Akira is an epic of no parallel. Originally a manga serialized over the course of eight years (1982-1990) in , the story is set in a dystopian future “Neo-Tokyo” in 2019. A cyberpunk odyssey, Young Magazine Akira investigates themes including nuclear fall-out, the navigation of youth in an apathetic society, the tragedies of war and militarism at large. In the Akira universe, an atomic explosion annhilates Tokyo in 1988, triggering World War III. More than 30 years later, the population suffers from an oppressive regime, massive crime and corruption at all levels.
While the manga (now collected into six highly sought-after volumes) is impressive, the film is in a league of its own. Released in 1988—no doubt to coincide with the nuclear explosion in the manga—
Akira was considered an instant classic, and one of the most well-received anime films of the era. With an unprecedented budget, ¥1.1 billion, it was one of the first Japanese films to use full cel animation (akin to Disney) over “limited movement”, which at that point was industry standard. With over 160,000 individual cells, pre-recorded voice acting—a rarity in Japanese anime—and limited use of CGI, Akira was not only decades ahead of its time, but set the precedent for big budget animated pictures thereafter.
While the film was written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo— creator of the
Akira manga —the manga was still in the midst of writing an eventual conclusion, so the director opted to go another route with the film. Initially hesitant to adapt his work to an anime format, Otomo agreed to a feature but only if he could write, direct and produce a stand-alone film. Additionally, he demanded a large budget, incorporation of CGI and full cel animation, which would allow him to create a wide variety of fully-rendered backdrops, something he considered a necessity to bring Neo-Tokyo to life. Rather than give away an ending his readers had been building up to over the course of the previous six years, the second portion of the film diverges drastically from the manga’s intended plot, and instead ends with a vibrant psycho-kinetic big bang.
Akira follows the journey of Shotaro Kaneda, leader of the Capsules, a biker gang that is in the midst of an on-going war with their rivals, the clowns. In the opening scene, a brawl breaks out, and Kaneda’s best friend, Tetsuo, gets seriously injured when he crashes into Takashi. A psychic esper, Takashi escaped with the help of a resistance organization attempting to expose illegal experiments conducted by the government. Following the collision, Tetsuo wakes in a hospital, where the same shady government organization has been running experiments on him. Although they discover his budding psycho-kinetic abilities, Tetsuo manages to escape and return to the Capsules. While free, Tetsuo’s newfound abilities profoundly change him, as he grows increasingly arrogant and violent, prone to psychic migraines and eventually returns to the hospital. As the plot progresses, we follow Kaneda as he attempts to save his friend, navigate the resistance movement, deal with a military coup and uncover the massive deception at the heart of the nuclear explosion that led to the formation of Neo-Tokyo.
While the film lacks the considered pacing and dramatic build of the original source material, it more than makes up for it with mind-shattering visuals, immersive world-building and intricate camerawork. Simply watching the characters interact is immensely satisfying. More than an excellent film,
Akira is a case-study in authoritarian dictatorships, government/populace relations and, with this list in mind, Japanese biker gang hierarchy.
Kaneda’s gang, The Capsules, is a textbook example of
. Prominent throughout Japan, bōsōzoku is sub-culture of motorcycle customizers and enthusiasts, not necessarily (but often linked to) biker gangs. Famously chopping off their mufflers to create incredibly loud noises, these crews roam en masse, shutting down streets, racing and causing general mayhem. One of many rebellious Japanese youth subcultures, most bōsōzoku members are in their late teens and early twenties; it’s a sharp distinction from American biker gangs which stereotypically consist of men well beyond high school age. Always lead by a “captain” or “leader”—like Kaneda in the case of bōsōzoku Akira— the head biker can never be overtaken and sets the pace, course and tone for the gang proper. These gangs are known for driving recklessly at high speed—not racing, but rather for thrill. To claim their set, members will often wear similar moto-jackets and pants, with appearances ranging from 1950s American Harley-Davidson style, to Dainese racing suits and even punk-style gear. Often, a patch or logo on the back of the jacket— the pill in the case of Kaneda’s Capsule biker gang, for instance— acts both as a sign of membership and alerts rival gangs of your sworn allegiance.
Considering the plot of
Akira, understanding the generations-old traditions present in bōsōzoku culture have huge implications. The recurring skirmishes in the film with the Clowns, for instance, where members do battle with wooden clubs and pipes, stem from a deep-rooted history of gang warfare amongst rival tribes. When Tetsuo races off ahead of Kaneda, he violates a long-standing code: never pass the leader. In doing so, he crashes, setting off the chain of events that leads to his eventual destruction. Everything down to Kaneda’s uniform can be traced to this niche sub-culture, the understanding of which is paramount to fully appreciating the films iconic style.
At this point,
Akira is more than a cultural icon. Kaneda’s style is so notable, that even casual fans are likely to think of the film the moment they spot a red leather jacket out in the wild. In the nearly thirty years since its release, the film has affected countless designers, from Yohji Yamamoto—whose collaboration with Dainese riffed on eerily similar themes—to Rei Kawakubo, who, recognizing the importance of the film, hand selected illustrations from publisher Nobrow’s archive to make limited edition collage totes, sold exclusively at the Comme des Garçons store in Aoyama.
Beyond fashion, the film has resonated across the creative spectrum. John Gaeta, mastermind behind the iconic “bullet time” scenes in
The Matrix, has sighted Katsuhiro’s work—particularly Akira—as direct influences. Kanye West’s “Stronger”, is a direct homage to the film, with Kanye and director Hype Williams openly discussing their admiration for Katsuhiro’s singular vision.
More than simply a film,
Akira is at the root of what makes great anime. It is at once highly stylized, imaginative and slightly ludicrous, yet grounded by highly-relatable characters and challenging psychological concepts. At its core, Akira transcends the genre, and is not only a great movie, but a visual spectacle that will inevitably stand the test of time.