Akira might be one of the most important animated feature films that’s ever come out of Japan. It has been hailed as one of the greatest science fiction and animated films ever to be released, and even Roger Ebert recommended it on more than one occasion. Released in 1988, it opened the floodgates for animation originating in Japan in the United States in the 1990s and beyond.
Based on the manga of the same name and written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira tells the story of a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk future deep in the heart of Neo-Tokyo. A young kid from a motorcycle street gang named Tetsuo crosses paths with the subject of a government military experiment and finds the military experimenting on him. They turn him into an impossibly destructive force, and only his friends and the other psionics in the government program might be able to stop him.
The aesthetic of the film calls to mind inspiration from films like Metropolis and Blade Runner, but the director often cited Star Wars as one of his prime influences. The street gang can easily be taken as the perfect mix between the Rebel Alliance and the street racers from Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti. The Japanese government in the film is reminiscent of the Empire as well, and the actual resistance and revolution has been keeping tabs on their illicit military experiments.
The film is still striking in its visuals and challenging ideas, often feeling more like a Kubrick film than what audiences have come to expect from anime films. There are many sequences that echo Star Wars, from a chase in a sewer that feels like a mix between the speeder bike chase on Endor and the garbage masher sequence, all the way to action sequences set on the streets of Neo-Tokyo that feel just like the Coruscant speeder chase at the beginning of Attack of the Clones. Through the film itself, Tetsuo can easily be seen as a Darth Vader-like character and the psionic abilities visually reminiscent of the Force. He’s twisted by the power he gains, inhabited by the destiny of something larger than himself. The concept of “Akira” itself is that it’s a mysterious power just like the Force, latent in all people, but they’re left to choose how they use that power.
The climax of Akira plays out as a battle between Tetsuo and his best friend Kaneda, much like the climax between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. Tetsuo even loses an arm in the conflict, not by a lightsaber, though, but by a laser. His arm even gets replaced for a while with a robotic arm that looks very much like Anakin’s in Attack of the Clones.
The most direct and obvious influence Akira actually had on Star Wars came in the form of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars microseries through the character of Durge. In the now Legends story, Durge was a bounty hunter hired by the InterGalactic Banking Clan to fight the Jedi during the Clone Wars. When he was attacked by the clones and Obi-Wan Kenobi, he loses much of his armor, revealing a body reminiscent of Tetsuo’s at the climax of Akira.
Soon, Durge consumes Obi-Wan into the bizarre patchwork of flesh that makes up his body and Obi-Wan begins to explode him from the inside via the Force. A similar thing happens to Kaneda, consumed into the mutating body of his friend. If one was to watch the Clone Wars microseries and Akira back-to-back, the homage would be unmistakable.
Akira was one of the most important factors that kicked off a hyper-awareness of anime and manga in the United States that began in the 1980s. It reached a fever pitch in the 1990s and now it is commonplace. Anime, brought to us in part by Akira, was one of the chief influences that George Lucas and team used for inspiration in designing the look and feel of The Clone Wars movie and television series that began in 2008. Much of the visual style of action sequences in Japanese animation came from what Akira brought, and much of the action we see in The Clone Wars is a generation or two or three removed from this reinvention of animated storytelling.
Otomo’s film is just one of many made in Japan that gives us a fictional view of life in Japan after a nuclear holocaust. The most notable of these films might be Godzilla, but like both of these films, this motif of Japanese cinema serves as the jumping off point for episodes of The Clone Wars like “The Zillo Beast.”
Akira was rated R by the MPAA for graphic violence and brief nudity, though in the UK it’s been rated both 12 and 15 at different times. My 13-year-old re-watched Akira with me for the purposes of revisiting it for this column, and it wasn’t too extreme, though he found the story a little dense. To audiences used to the more modern styles of animation, anime in particular, this film might seem dated, but what film about a cyberpunk future from the 1980s isn’t? Even with that feeling, the hand drawn animation is gorgeous, particularly the streaks of lights, the technology, and the explosions. It’s the sort of film you owe it to yourself to watch at the very least for the place it holds in the history of animated films. Besides that, it’s just really good; a beautiful blending of science fiction, animation, and incredible storytelling.
Note: It’s been said that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg said the film was unmarketable in America prior to its initial release, but I’ve not been able to find any evidence of such.
Availability: Akira is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and available for a modest rental fee on most streaming video platforms.
Bryan Young is an author, filmmaker, journalist, and the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith. You can also follow him on Twitter @swankmotron.