When people talk about something being a "classic", they mean it in one of two ways. The first is when we talk about a work being groundbreaking, visionary, a milestone work--something that changes the direction of everything that came before, for better or worse. The second refers to the sort of thing we could watch or read every week and never get tired of, because we love it just that much.
Call it the difference between The Great and The Favorite. We may all tip our hats to greatness, but it's our favorites that we're really paying homage to when we make our Ten Best lists. We may stump for something being great without realizing we're just trying to elevate out own tastes to the status of a required canon.
This is part of what makes it tough to talk about AKIRA, especially after twenty-five years. It may be a great film--a visionary one, a technically prolific one, a pathbreaking one thanks to it being one of the first anime products distributed on home video to an English-speaking audience. But I'm not sure it's the kind of movie I can watch more than once a year as a movie, because the more attention I pay to the story (as opposed to just the imagery), the more I see how jaundiced and misanthropic it is. And yet I do love the movie, even when I know full well how hard it works to be unlovable.
But maybe lovability, empathy, is beside the point with AKIRA. People originally made the same complaint about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey on its release in 1968: there wasn't anyone in the film to empathize with, save maybe HAL 9000, and "he" was only distantly human by way of being homicidally insane. Few today make such complaints about 2001, mainly because 2001 offers so much to a viewer not hung up on such things. AKIRA is just as problematic--not least of all because it's so much more violent and openly cynical about humanity, but also because it doesn't have the benefit of being as broad a cultural touchstone as the other film.
What AKIRA did and does have is the support of anime fandom, and so its status as a classic in anime circles is indisputable. Why it is a classic is another story--not because it doesn't deserve to be called that, but because how it captivated one generation of anime viewers after another has as much to say about anime fandom as it does the Japan it sprung from.
Meet the new Tokyo, same as the old Tokyo
It's hard to watch AKIRA's opening moments and not think it's a deliberate allegory for Japan's own experiences in the wake of WWII. Tokyo had been firebombed (something explicitly shown in Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies), but over the next fifteen years was rebuilt into a glittering, neon-slathered megatropolis. To Japan's far right, it was all emblematic of a country that had emerged from the ashes of the war only to sell its soul to worldly commerce.
AKIRA opens by striking those same notes of death, rebirth, and decadence. First the Tokyo of old is destroyed in “World War III”, then rebuilt again decades later into a megatropolis even more sprawling and ugly than the previous real-world one. Advertising blares from every building façade and rooftop; streets are snarled with traffic; revolutionaries and dissidents clash with police in thoroughfares; public works projects are either abandoned or at a standstill. If anything it's reminiscent of the civil unrest that ripped through Japan in the late 1960s, something director Katsuhiro Otomo (born in 1954) would have lived through and remembered firsthand.
With a backdrop like this, it's little surprise the movie doesn't offer us much in the way of sympathetic characters. The protagonists — "heroes" is the wrong label — are a pack of teenaged biker-gang members, the Capsules, who spend most of their time either bunking off school or getting into road-ripping motorcycle-mounted battles with the rival Clowns gang. The Wild One or Streets of Fire, this isn't: the de facto head of the gang, Kaneda, stands out more for his souped-up bike and his candy-apple-red jacket with its pill-and-smarmy-slogan emblem ("GOOD FOR HEALTH — BAD FOR EDUCATION") than because he sports any palpable personal charisma.
One night after a tangle with the Clowns, Kaneda and the Capsules almost plow into Takashi, a boy standing in the middle of the highway. With his bluish skin, white hair, and wizened features, he looks like a case of progeria. Tetsuo, the runt of the gang, almost collides with him head-on and is badly hurt, but then military helicopters appear and round everyone up. They're suspected of being part of the same revolutionary cell that liberated the kid from his army captors, but Kaneda could scarcely care less about politics. He's more interested in scoring some skirt time with Kei, the cutie he saw elsewhere in the roundup (and who also happens to be a member of the revolutionary cell in question).
It's the army, and its leader Colonel Shikishima, who hew closest to being AKIRA's version of the real-world reactionaries who shook their collective heads at postwar Japan's decadence. Shikishima's hard to like, but also hard to dismiss: on the one hand, he's dedicated to defending the city from another disaster, but on the other hand he's subjecting Tetsuo to the kind of psychic tinkering that might well cause a redux of it. The movie further stacks the deck in his favor by pitting him against the city's bureaucracy, a round-table of old fogeys too obsessed with petty infighting to ever get anything done. They want him to face a hearing for what he's been doing with that "grotesque kindergarten" — meaning Takashi and his other brethren, who have been predicting disaster — and are more interested in scraping together funds to finish the Olympic stadium in time for the games next year. That last is another obvious echo of real-world history: Tokyo's hosting of the 1964 Olympics, which became a pretext for reviving all manner of conservative political agendas.
Tetsuo, resentful of pity, disgusted by his perpetual lowest-rung status, isn't interested in being anyone's plaything, but he keeps finding himself forced into the role. He breaks out of the hospital where he's being tinkered with, rejoins his girlfriend Kaori, and steals Kaneda's bike — only to have a run-in with the Clowns and suffer the indignity of being rescued by Kaneda yet again. But this time his anger triggers agony and hallucinations (including a horrifying flash shot where he imagines himself spontaneously disembowelling), and when Shikishima comes to reclaim Tetsuo he's only too pleased to see his work coming to fruition.
Kaneda, too, gets an upgrade of sorts: from hoodlum to quasi-revolutionary, and from that maybe even to defender of the human race. After another run-in with Kei and her cohorts, he's able to get slightly into their favor by saving Kei from the police (one thing they do have in common is their contempt for the powers-that-be), and he's drafted into their service for their next mission. They aim to spring Tetsuo from the hospital and, if necessary, leverage Kaneda's friendship with him to that end. But Tetsuo's powers have waxed far out of anyone's control, and he tears a swath of destruction across town towards the Olympic stadium — under which the secrets of his power, and others like him, have been kept on ice this whole time. Only Kaneda might be able to stop him, and that only because of what little bond they have shared as kids who grew up in the shadow of a world that didn't particularly want them around.
Fandom, then and now; AKIRA, then and now
When AKIRA first appeared on video store shelves in the West, it constituted one of the very few animated features that did not assume that "animation" meant "children's story", and that took its ideas and its wide-gauge vision as seriously as any live-action film. These facts have the quality of a litany now: it's bordering on cliché to use anime's not-necessarily for-kids label as a point of distinction.
Thing is, AKIRA was far from the first animated feature seen in the West to to have attempted such things. Ralph Bakshi had been trying since the Seventies to create animation for adults, and had never garnered more than a small cult following. But AKIRA on home video also helped kick open the door to anime in the West, and that momentum helped garner the film an audience it might otherwise never have been able to acquire independently. Not in the sense that AKIRA undeservingly rode on coattails, but that anime fandom in general helped created a receptive audience for AKIRA, an audience many times larger than any that might have sprung up on its own if the film were simply a standalone cult item.
As a result, AKIRA became something of a rite of passage for the first major generation of non-Japanese anime fans. In the early Nineties, it was one of a handful of titles that one had to see to wear a fandom badge of any size at all — and a big part of that was because the number of anime titles that were available at all were so few, something as momentous as AKIRA could stand out all the more and become all the greater a landmark. But as the anime market expanded, so did fandom's rites of passage, to the point where an entire generation of fans could consider themselves initiates, if not seasoned pros, without ever having seen AKIRA at all.
I don't believe this by itself is a bad thing. It's a sign of how much more plural and expansive anime fandom has become, and how the process of being welcomed into the fandom is now a good deal more self-guiding. But it's now easier to say no to the film, as a fan, simply because there are that many more points of entry for anime fandom. It isn't just the '80s look that dates the film (and even that doesn't date it all that much), but rather the audience it has now vs. the audience it had then. Fans today are certainly likely to find the film far less shocking than it was back in 1989. By the time today's anime audiences get to AKIRA, they've most likely already experienced blood-and-bullet ballets like Black Lagoon and Hellsing, or ero-guro fusions of sex and sadism like Shigurui.
Maybe it sounds like what makes AKIRA most notable is its shock value, which is wrong. But it's hard to watch the movie, even after twenty-five years of stiffer stuff having come along and become far more readily accessible, and not be struck by the film's faithless attitude towards the human race. For a movie that is allegedly about the power that lies dormant within every human being, and maybe also every living thing, period, it barely has a single human being in it worth caring about in the first place. The only two who stand out as being sympathetic are Kei and Kaneda, the former more despite her politics than because of them, and the latter only as we learn about the bond he shared with Tetsuo as a kid — and that's more in the realm of backstory than anything we see put onscreen. The bond between Kaneda and Tetsuo is one of the few crumbs of sentiment thrown to the audience from a story that could have been renamed Overkill of the Übermensch.
The anime at the end of the world
But again, that misanthropy may well be the idea. The whole point of the film is to show how the power of godhood is useless in the hands of morally and spiritually underdeveloped beings — that mankind, in his current state, will always fail to wield such power properly, whether it be the allegorical power of Tetsuo or the wholly real-world power of the atomic bomb. And unlike in the film, the human race won't have the luxury of being bailed out by others who have mastered such power, either. AKIRA excels at creating visual allegories for how godhood could fail us: when Tetsuo loses his arm to an orbital laser cannon, he psionically assembles himself a new one out of scrap metal and wire — only to have the arm uncontrollably grow wires like a potato sprouting in time-lapse, rooting itself into the (also thrown-together) throne he's sitting on. The problem with godhood, it seems, is that you don't get to choose what to be god of. (At one point Kaneda says to Tetsuo, tellingly, "You always wanted to be the boss; now you're boss of this pile of rubble.")
Even bleaker is the way Otomo sees the rest of the human race being on the losing end of this evolutionary leap. The onscreen carnage, especially in the final third of the film, is reminiscent of the city-trashing spectacles of a superhero comic, but without the heroism. That said, trying to make it heroic would have been foolish: even Kaneda's heroics (and the Colonel's, and most everyone else's) are supposed to be in vain. I suspect Otomo's message was that mankind has trouble enough just being mankind, and that godhood should be left to gods — but also that mankind is already a god of sorts unto himself, if only he can recognize this and use it properly. Hence Kei's speech about what it would be like if an amoeba manifested the creative power of a man, or the closing words from Takashi where he muses about the power we've witnessed being within us all. Presumably for good or ill; it's up to us. It's the one ray of hope, like the sunshine that finally cuts through the clouds in the closing scenes, that we get from a film that is known mainly for its unremitting bleakness.
But if AKIRA is best known for anything else, it's the imagery (what it sees) and vision (how it sees it) it brings to the table. For the few who knew of Japanese animation only through what got produced for TV, AKIRA was as far beyond all that stuff as Star Wars had been beyond cheapies like The Creeping Terror. Most people cite things like the opening bike chase or the scenes where Tetsuo devastates the armies put in his way, but my attention goes to little things — like the unnervingly fluid way the cooling tubes fall away from the giant underground vault as it's lifted out from beneath the Olympic stadium. As more and more of the gruntwork in animation is turned over to computers and the cost of hand-drawn work on this scale grows all the more prohibitive, sights like this grow all the more rare. It's no less difficult to turn out good CGI — in fact, it may be harder in some respects, because of how the eye's suspension of disbelief works — but the decline of any art style means the winking-out of that many more ways of seeing the world differently.
From timeliness to timelessness
It helps, though, to not look at AKIRA as a museum piece in the making, or as a demo reel for its animators. It never fails to impress me when I watch it, not for any one thing but for a whole family of things. What impresses me most, I suppose, is how it has assumed the status of being a landmark anime by being a landmark anime — not just because it has a strong fan following, but because it earns every bit of it in multiple realms. Like Royal Space Force: Wings of Honnêamise, the mere fact the film got made at all would have been enough by itself, but it actually fulfills its ambitions instead of just merely flouting them.
There's scarcely a thing about the film that isn't distinctive, although time and again when asked for a most striking example I fall back on the soundtrack created by the musical collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi (about whom depressingly little has been written in English). Like Philip Glass's work for the Qatsi films, it has gone straight from immediacy to timelessness. The score is is even more impressive on CD, where it can be heard without being edited to fit the film. And sadly it remains to date the group's one and only film score, but I could scarcely criticize them for not doing another when they have a batting average of 1.000 in that department.
It almost seemed like that for Otomo as well, since he didn't return to the director's chair for years on end. When he did, it was for Steamboy, released in 2004 after some ten years of development, a film as goofy and lightweight as AKIRA is stentorian and brutal. I'm not sure I blame him for wanting to do something a little more light-hearted, but with his live-action adaptation of Mushi-shi he showed he was more than capable of going back to some very deep wells indeed, and also creating something else that stood a good chance of outliving its moment in time.
If AKIRA has also outlived its moment in time and become more than just a staple anime entry point or a symbol of the kind of outsized ambition that barely seems possible in anime today, it ought not to be in spite of all the things that also make AKIRA intimidating and problematic. We can call the movie a landmark without having to love it, or even like it. But those of us that do love it should never feel as if we're defending the indefensible. I may be dismayed with how little faith it has in the humanity it is only too willing to obliterate, but I've lived with it long enough to know that not everything we love aesthetically also has to love us back.