Akira ★★★½

1st Katsuhiro Otomo

NOTE: Watched English dub.

This was my first real taste of anime. Back when I was 19, this felt impossibly cool and edgy, especially to someone whose exposure to Japanese cinema had been Ghibli and the occasional Kurosawa/Mizoguchi. Watching it after six years, I must say I'm disappointed, for while the moments of sheer exhilaration do remain, they're muddied by elements that have dated badly and some which were there from the beginning. The character of the Colonel, who willingly stages a coup d'etat to ensure his plans go ahead and frequently rants about how Neo-Tokyo needs to be reshaped because of its degeneracy, jars badly with the current concerns around fascistic takeovers, especially considering he is meant to be a sympathetic figure. The roles for women also leave much to be desired, especially Gaudi, who gets assaulted by a group of bikers early in the film and spends the rest of it worrying about Tetsuo, leading to a messy end. Sure, we have Kei and the young girl, but they're side characters in the very macho main story, filled with posturing, skirt-chasing and very cool motorbikes.

But the biggest problem is the script, some issues aggravated by the dub I saw but some inherent. Otomo's script was condensed from an eight-year long manga, a complex and multi-stranded narrative that encompasses a number of different angles; the psychic awakening, the citywide corruption and the Colonel and his scientist. The script tries to cram all three into two hours but skimps quite badly on the detail in each story; the backstory between Tetsuo and Kaneda, for example, are only briefly sketched. There's a subplot involving one of Kei's compatriots and a high ranking member of the Neo-Tokyo Council that is confusingly wrapped up by Otomo. It's very bitty with too much going on, and this isn't helped by the sheer banality of the dubbed dialogue, a frequent problem of dubs. The dialogue seems to only follow the logic of the scene itself, completely isolated from the rest of the film. Maybe watching the original Japanese version will clean this up for me.

But lest you think I'm merely here to gripe about Akira, there is so much to adore here. The soundtrack stands the test of time, largely using Indonesian percussion and voices in the creation of a spellbinding soundscape. The images of bodily distortion are truly horrific, especially when Tetsuo reduces a a doctor and two guards into a red smear on a wall. The art style is superbly detailed, ranging from the complex cityscape complete with its advertisements and its computer screens to the detail on the dirt in a prison cell. And the narrative itself revolves around one of my favourite subjects, namely the idea of being given infinite power controlled by your mind. But the whole film just doesn't hang together as well as I remembered it. For me, anyway.

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