Akira Review

I remember back in 1991 walking into my local video rental store and watching them place a brand new title up on the shelves, a cartoon that had a young man with a machine gun on the front and a 15 rating no less. To a 12yr old back then this seemed like the edgiest thing ever – a cartoon for adults! It would be a couple of years yet until I would shoot up to adult height and grow myself a pimp moustache, so I got my slightly older best friend to rent the title for me and we ran back home to watch this film immediately.

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That film was Akira and it was the start of what would gradually become a tidal wave of Japanese animated films bombarding the UK. It was a benchmark film, more so in the west than in Japan; here in the UK back in 1991 you very rarely saw animation aimed at teenagers/adults unless it was smutty sex comedies like The Big Bang, so Akira seemed like a revolution in the medium. It was the film that brought terms like Anime and Manga into the mainstream vocabulary and it kickstarted an entire industry. Back at my home in 1991 watching Akira on a 14” TV I immediately fell in love with the film – I didn’t understand half of it but the action, the animation, the visuals, and music completely captured my imagination and started a love affair with anime that has stayed with me to this day.

Set in the not-too distant future, 31yrs after a devastating explosion decimated Japan, causing World War III, Akira tells the story of biker gang cohorts Kaneda and Tetsuo, a couple of teenage delinquents who spend most of their nights racing around Neo-Tokyo. One night, near the crater from the bomb blast, Tetsuo almost crashes into a small boy who emanates force that explodes Tetsuo’s bike. Kaneda watches in shock as the boy fades away to nothingness and a mysterious government agency arrives looking for the boy, then take Tetsuo off for treatment. Unable to find out where Tetsuo has been taken, Kaneda and the rest of the biker gang scour Neo-Tokyo looking for their injured friend. Their search leads Kaneda to a resistance group led by Ryu and Kei who are seeking to liberate an entity known only as “Akira” that has been imprisoned in stasis by the government agency. When Tetsuo re-emerges from hospital with paranormal abilities that are gradually growing out of control, fracturing his mind and making him drunk on power, he and Kaneda are put on a collision course with each other, the government, and Akira that could lead to another cataclysmic event.

It took Katsuhiro Otomo eight years to complete the six volume manga serial from which Akira is adapted. When the work was done Otomo had crafted a genuine masterpiece of science fiction, an epic page-turner with thematic richness that matched the output of the greatest masters of the genre. At over 2000 pages long the manga represented a titanic challenge to adapt into film form, which led Otomo to a complete re-imagination of Akira rather than an adaptation; one that would emphasise style a little more over substance. So much of the manga’s content is excised that Akira the anime becomes primarily an action film, putting it more in line with your Ridley Scott classics over Tarkovsky or Kubrick, but it still retains a depth that you won’t find in a purely mainstream endeavour.

It’s cerebral at a very fast pace, demanding heavy concentration to avoid bewilderment. Otomo was forced to be completely ruthless with the narrative, skipping past almost all the moments when the action would slow down so exposition could take over and help you join the dots. The final act in particular is recondite and has an ambiguity you won’t find in the manga, this is mostly down to the fact that Otomo didn’t finish his writing the comic until 3 years after starting work on the anime, so what we see in the finished film is more of a slightly rushed first draft of what would be a grander concept in written form. Akira is a film that demands multiple viewings, and could best be described as what you’d get if Star Wars was beaten around the head by Philip K.Dick, then kicked about by Stanley Kubrick at the end.

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Akira may look a little dated by today’s standards, but back in 1988 it represented the pinnacle of cel-shaded animation. Otomo strove to make the film as closely to a live action production as possible, and incorporated a number of cutting edge techniques to bring out as much realism from the animation as possible. The end result was a breathtakingly detailed world, where each cel of animation is meticulously designed, and in places, strikingly beautiful. The night time sequences in particular were exceptionally crafted, thanks to the extended colour spectrum they painted with, which used darker, richer tones to create a more tangible sense of nightfall in Tokyo. There’s a tremendous sense of motion to the animation that brings the action set pieces to life with exciting effect. This is because Akira is made up of over 150,000 cels – more than 20 cels per second – which is considerably higher than your typical production, producing a fluidity not quite seen before on screen.

The audio design was equally pioneering; the amount of incidental sounds that create a complete environmental effect is staggering. Shoji Yamashiro developed a score that was completely unlike anything heard in the medium before. He was given complete freedom by Otomo to come up with his own sound, the only mandate: make it feel futuristic! Six months later he had crafted a truly avant-garde soundtrack that was rhythmic, haunting, and powerful. His work creates an ominous, brooding atmosphere that you don’t quite pick up from reading the manga.

Whilst the film’s narrative is considerably different to the original source in many aspects, there’s still a rich tapestry of themes coursing through Akira. There’s socio-political commentary, the post-war bomb paranoia, the generation gap in Japan, drug culture, body transmogrification, messianism, and other apocalyptic scenarios. It asks questions about governments that are given total jurisdiction over its citizens and how far they are willing to go to protect the society they rule over. It ponders the morality of science left unregulated and used for militaristic means, and how advancing technology shapes the world around us. It looks at the individual in society and asks whether they have the ability to make real social change, but also examines how individuals flock together around any person or concept that appears more enlightened or powerful in times of great crisis, and the self destructive possibilities that could entail. At its core Akira is simply a film about the human condition, and its potential – for good and bad.

It also forms an intimate snapshot of Japanese culture in the 80s, you can replace the first world cataclysm and subsequent WWIII with WWII and the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many of the themes and commentaries of the piece fit into place. Is it perhaps no coincidence that in the manga the 38year timeframe between the first explosion and the commencement of the story is roughly the same interval between the end of WWII and the date Akira was first put into print? In that interval Japan had changed radically from a very insular, traditional country to a densely populated, capitalistic, techno-country with Tokyo the mecca of that technological boom. In Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo explores the huge gap between the pre-war generation and generation X (a chasm that has been growing between each new generation and the last in Japan) and criticises the age hierarchy that dominates the Japanese establishment. In Akira the heroes are juveniles living on the fringe of a repressive society; these are themes that are pretty universal.

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Akira has long been lauded as a landmark film within the Anime industry. It was the last genuine classic of the 1980s, a decade that was peppered with some great science fiction and fantasy anime work, like Laputa, Nausicaa, and Wings of Honneamise. In the west it awakened a new generation of film fans to the brilliance of the Japanese animation industry, and ensured cyberpunk – a somewhat fading genre by the end of the 80s - would find resurgence in the early 90s. Every year in Japan you find Akira clones coming out trying to match the formula of developing a prophetic, apocalyptic narrative that culminates in lofty meta-physical musing, but almost all of them aren’t even remotely as involving as Otomo’s magnum opus. It may not capture the full depth and scope of the manga serial from which it came, but Akira is still essential cinema.

Presentation

Akira was originally released on Blu-ray with a nice 10-page colour booklet that chronicled the remastering process of the project, unfortunately this was limited to the first pressing only, and now Akira only comes with a notice on how to store and play the disc. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have a problem with this, but Honneamise have the gall to maintain the lofty $50 for this release, and to add insult to injury in Japan this exact same Blu-ray is permanently available to consumers. Honneamise seem to be forming a pattern of screwing over their US customers, it really annoys me that after years of only being available in the U.S on an extremely poor MangaUS DVD, Honneamise released their namesake: Wings of Honneamise onto Blu-ray at an extortionately high retail price and with a limited pressing, which has led to it being OOP for a long time now. You think the Japanese were denied this classic after an initial batch? Not a chance!

The 1080p, 1.86:1 transfer comes with some fractional window-boxing, so the actual picture information is only 1891x1016. This transfer has been well received by reviewers, but my overall impression is that the print used is in need of a more detailed restoration. It’s not that Akira looks poor on Blu-ray – this is clearly the best the film has ever looked in digital form – it’s just that the print is quite inconsistent and Bandai have produced a transfer that ebbs and flows in all departments like a moody tide. Many of the niggles stem from the photographic process of transferring the animation cels to film, as this has clearly resulted in a lot of flecks and dust particles being ingrained into the image. It looks like some noise reduction has been applied to combat this, but not enough to nuke the specks because they appear frequently in this image, ranging from being fairly heavy in a few scenes to minor pops here and there throughout the majority of the film. Still, as a result of the mild noise reduction there does appear to be a drop in detail between frames at times, and lines do have a tendency to appear blurry and thinned out sporadically throughout. In general the image has decent clarity for an aged film, but the detail in the worn print can drop considerably more than once during certain scenes, in response there is some clear edge enhancement applied, it is pretty omnipresent but nowhere near as pronounced as on the Pioneer DVD’s transfer.

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Grain is equally all pervasive and can vary wildly between pretty defined to thick and fuzzy, which is something a more meticulous restoration could have seriously improved. Colours are nicely reproduced, obviously there’s not the same gradation you’d find in a modern animated film, but each colour in this transfer is nicely separated, reds in particular look luscious and deep. There’s a little bleed in them here and there, but nothing too noticeable during standard playback. As mentioned in the film review Akira had advanced black tones for the time, but they're still limited by today's standards, so that and the worn in look of the film leads to some wishy-washy black levels at times, but overall brightness and contrast is very pleasing and shadow detail is very good.

There’s a form of wear in the print on two, maybe three occasions where light patches not unlike splice marks can be seen, shown in the grab above. Another mild artefact that appears a few times throughout the film is a slight blurry outline around the actual outlines of characters, which you can see in the screengrab below. The extent of the artefact varies, and at its worse it looks a lot like ghosting, but these characters are stationary the majority of the times it appears. It feels like something inherent to the print rather than a digital error, and could possibly be a shadow between the character cel and the background painting it was placed on. One thing that pleasantly surprised me given the length of the film and the amount of space taken up by the audio tracks, this AVC encode is excellent and there are no compression artefacts to report on despite average out at a reasonably low 19.58Mbps.

Overall I was very pleased by the transfer, it’s clearly a very good job, but given the exceptional standards in the audio department and the fact this was essentially a 20th anniversary HD release of one of the seminal Japanese sci-fi films, I can’t help but feel that Akira deserves a great video transfer to match the sound, rather than merely a very good one.

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Ironically for a film that was shown in theatres 20years ago in stereo, the big selling point of this release is the Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that boasts an impressive 192Khz 24 bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, which as a bitrate that is up there with the video at around 14Mbps. The film’s composer Shoji Yamashiro oversaw the new remix and to say he’s an expert in the field of audio presentation is probably an understatement in this case; what he’s produced here is an astonishing sonic presentation that completely redefines Akira on the home media format. Dialogue is remarkably clean and crisp for its age, obviously it doesn’t sound as pristine or smooth as a contemporary track, but you can really fool yourself into thinking it was recorded this decade. The overall sound is extremely expressive, with an expansive soundstage both front and back that makes constant use of the rears. Bass is exceptionally defined, so when those kettle drums kick in they’ll rattle your lungs. Audio dynamics are equally impressive, every element of the original sound is beautifully separated to create a richly layered sound that has immense clarity and may take unsuspecting viewers by surprise when action and dialogue are linked, forcing your ears to put in overtime to separate all the information being thrown at them.

Now, I say all the original audio elements are included, which is true, but comparing the new remix to the stereo track on this disc it is blatantly obvious that there are extra sound effects in the remaster. All you have to do is check out any of the bike chase sequences and listen out for all the clinking of shattered glass whenever a bike crashes, none of which is in the stereo track despite the glass clearly being shown on-screen. These effects were present in Pioneer’s remaster back in 2001 and are carried over to here. All the new sound effects are integrated seamlessly into the film, and they all correspond to what we see happening on screen, but I’m sure purists will scoff at this audio track on principle. Even so, I can say without doubt that this is one of the best remasters I’ve ever heard, one that turns Akira into a truly cinematic experience and I cannot begin to express just how good Yamashiro’s score sounds on this track!

Purists needn’t fret though, because the Japanese LPCM 2.0 track ticks all the boxes for a faithful reproduction of the original audio presentation. It has a clean, natural sound with very clear dialogue that only tears whenever Tetsuo goes into a fit of emo screaming, although the bass is a little hollow. Elsewhere the bass is punchier although still a little loose; the dynamics are strong and the excellent sound design is given room to breathe. There is some obvious hiss present, but it’s barely noticeable as this is an impressively cleaned up track.

The Japanese DD5.1 track presents the same remaster as the TrueHD track and it’s every bit as aggressive as that track, but clearly doesn’t have the same level of clarity, nevertheless it will prove a good substitute for viewers who can’t handle HD audio, the only real criticism I can throw at the track is that the rear channel is a little too high, which throws off the balance of the soundstage.

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The only English track on this disc is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. I was expecting it to be taken from Pioneer’s own remix, but surprisingly this remix doesn’t feature the extra sound effects found on the Japanese 5.1 tracks, instead simply remixing the exact same track you hear on the LPCM track across 5.1 channels. It’s a very strong audio track, and given that the English dub was recording around 8-9 years ago, it is generally a little crisper and more consistent across the film. The rest of the audio, whilst still impressively clean and defined, does fall short of matching the Japanese TrueHD track. Still, it makes for a very nice intermediate between the Japanese LPCM and TrueHD tracks.

Optional English and Japanese subtitles are available, the former are almost identical to the English dub, but I believe the Pioneer dub was based on the original subtitle translation of the film anyway, so in this case dubtitles do not necessary indicate a bad translation.

Extras

There aren’t many features on this disc, just two teasers, two trailers, a TV spot and some very nicely presented storyboards. There are 369 screens in the storyboards, each containing 2 pages which themselves contain 5 storyboards each. I should point out that my copy of PowerDVD v8 couldn’t handle this disc well at all, stopping every time I tried to access the extras from the menu, but then the interface on this version of PowerDVD is so counter-intuitive that I can only presume it was designed by demented gibbons as a cruel joke on fans of the HD format, christ I miss the days when all you had to do to navigate a disc was point and click!

All extras are presented in 1080p AVC with optional English subtitles.

Overall

Akira is one of the all-time classics of science-fiction anime. It created a whole generation of anime addicts here in the west, and now thanks to Honneamise’s Blu-ray release – which features solid video and one of the finest audio presentations I’ve heard on a digital format – it can do it all over again.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
10 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 20:20:11

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