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Akira (1988)

by on 2011/05/30

“Hey! What’s happened to me? I must be dreaming! I feel like I can take out the world!”

* * * *

From time to time I have made a complaint that goes something like this: “Too little content, spread too thin.” Akira has exactly the opposite quality of frustration. Based on a long-running manga series, this distillation is overlong, overstuffed, choppy, and complicated. Fortunately, none of these flaws obscure its excellence.

Set in 2019, three decades after a third world war, a new Tokyo has risen from the ashes, only to face new dangers. Postwar life is a struggle, one complicated by government conspiracies, military rule, and the common presence of battling biker gangs.

In the midst of such a battle, a young gang member, Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), is kidnapped by the government and subjected to secret tests. His fellows plan to find and release him. When they arrive, he’s been changed. Practically psychotic, he’s now obsessed with locating “Akira”, a force of ultimate energy.

On the page it sounds straightforward. However, factor in various gang members, a girlfriend, scientists, the military, politicians, and other rival guinea pigs . . . and “epic” fits the scope of the effort quite well. There are a lot of moving parts.

Add to the complexity an occasionally surreal direction. Words scattered throughout my notes include “abstract”, “hallucinatory”, “phantasmagoric”, “psychedelic”, “trippy”, and even “scary”. Fortunately, Akira manages to be all these things without any undue sense of confusion. We face a reality less shell-shocked by its setting than shattered by mental decline.

It’s a kaleidoscopic affair in more ways than one. The art is uneven from scene to scene, although parts could be intricate, beautiful. Others are much less so, more primitive. Still, everything shares a common luminescence. It looks as if the cells were painted on a frosted glass box and then lit, flickering, from within. It’s an odd but pleasing style, imbuing the telling with incongruous warmth.

Other aspects are just as mixed. One character possesses the telepathic ability to “inhabit” another’s body. I loved how we see the state of control in the recipient’s cosmetic makeup. Alternately, I didn’t love how very wide-angled scenes — particularly cityscape backgrounds — moved unconvincingly. It took me a few moments to realize the perspectives were visually clashing. (Then it took me the next two hours to recall the phrase “multi-plane parallax”.)

Normally I’d move from the visual to the auditory. Unusually for me, I didn’t notice it, by and large. As an audio producer myself, I’d venture it must have worked well. One thing jumped out, however, and bothered me a great deal. Every time a certain character manifested their powers, an over-the-top male chorus would shout a single word: “Dung!” I understand the apocalyptic intention, and yet its execution is comical.

Perhaps my reaction represents a cultural disconnect. I had few issues with the story, characters, script, or production, but many performances left me caught between amusement and incredulity. More overt emotions — surprise, anger, and interpersonal conflict — were often overblown. Less heartfelt than robotic, the participants seemed to be staging an academic exploration of feelings they had never themselves experienced.

As a result, the movie sometimes came across more cardboard than convincing, a contrivance devised for the mind, not the soul. Which is not to sell its entertainment short. Akira is rich with interest, dense with ideas, and an occasional feast for the senses. I’d still rather see this kind of piece than vapidity stretched feature-length.

* * * *

Rated R

125 minutes

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