AKIRA is one of those larger, iconic names of anime, for those in an interest in film, but with less knowledge Japanese animation. Aside from it, you're most likely to hear about a Studio Ghibli work (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle), or maybe Pokémon the First Movie. But the lack of exposure of anime in western cinema makes AKIRA feel more special than it would otherwise. This well-constructed film bridges a gap between the average moviegoer, and the dedicated fan of works from Glorious Nippon.
On the 4th of July, the York City Screen showed the latest remastering of AKIRA, with re-tweaked graphics and surround sound, in a similar fashion to the occasional remastered releases of Disney animated films. While a portion of the proceeds went towards The Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund, this showing was mostly to promote the remastered release for DVD and Blu-ray (and maybe the terrible live-action version that's been hinted at).
AKIRA follows motorbike gang members Kaneda and Tetsuo, who are caught up in a street riot and military attack. While Kaneda is cool, charismatic and strong; Tetsuo is much more aggressive, temperamental and harbouring an inferiority complex. During the riot, Tetsuo is heavily injured and taken into a military hospital, where he is experimented on - research into reawakening latent psychic powers in children - Project AKIRA.
The experiments go better than expected, but that means trouble for Tetsuo, as the more he develops his telekinetic powers, the looser the grip on his sanity and self-control become. When sent entirely off the deep end, the film's blockbuster action sensibilities take over, and we're treated to some spectacularly animated scenes of military taking on a lone teenager - with the teenager winning.
While the film rests heavily on the well-trodden tropes of underdogs finding new power and governmental experiments gone wrong, taking into account the film's age (1988!), AKIRA may very well have set the groundwork for these concepts to appear in many action films to come. That's not to say, however, that AKIRA doesn't handle it's story without grace or cleverness - having the awkward Tetsuo as the protagonist rather than the more capable Kaneda is an interesting subversion, and the portrayal of just what the psychic powers are capable of are subtly foreshadowed and have sly callbacks to other works in the history of anime (the Dragonball Z reference is easy to spot, but props to you if you notice - or have even heard of - Locke the Superman).
The third act of AKIRA is definitely its most memorable, but how the story is tied up is rushed and under-explained at best. This is down to the film actually being an adaptation of the AKIRA manga - an incredibly long work that had its last third truncated for the movie, which already had a 2-hour running time. The manga goes into much more depth about the resolution of the AKIRA experiment, and how the city survives after it's been ravaged by government warfare and psychic teenage tantrums.
While most works of anime struggle to hold much interest or appeal in a western market (nerdy fanbases notwithstanding), AKIRA manages to be accessible and dynamic in the way that Sudio Ghibli films don't always manage. It's a wonder that more feature-length anime hasn't followed in AKIRA's 23-year wake.