Why Akira is Still Relevant More Than 30 Years Later
May 9th marks 34 years since the release of Akira, and the Japanese anime is still considered one of the best of all time. The cyberpunk cult classic is a masterpiece not only in the world of anime, but in the entire genre of sci-fi. Akira continues to influence creatives all over the world today, but what exactly makes it so good?
The Plot of Akira (Spoilers!)
Akira was created by Katsuhiro Otomo, a Japanese manga artist, screenwriter, animator and film director. The film is based on Otomo's 1982 manga of the same name.
The story takes place in a dystopian 2019, 31 years after an explosion destroys Tokyo and sparks World War III. The city is rebuilt as the futuristic Neo Tokyo, home to Shōtarō Kaneda, a leader of a motorcycle gang. His childhood friend Tetsuo Shima somehow develops psychic abilities after a motorcycle accident and is captured by the government who use him as a test subject. In a bid to try and save him, Kaneda and his biker gang cause chaos throughout the city.
Meanwhile, a rival biker gang tries to find the secrets of the mysterious “Akira” and bring their own ideals to the government. As the story progresses, the sinister truth behind the explosion that destroyed Tokyo begins to unravel. Plus, you learn more about how Tetsuo got his telekinetic powers.
An epic plot like that is worthy of extraordinary production, right? Well, the creators didn’t disappoint.
How Was Akira Made?
Otomo personally storyboarded the entire animation, but in order to realize his ambitious vision on screen, he collaborated with several different media companies and animation studios, which were collectively known as the “Akira Committee.”
Otomo was able to secure a large production budget of ¥1.1b yen (around $10 million), making it the most expensive anime ever produced at the time. When Akira came out in 1988 in Japan, it was like no other anyone had ever seen before. And to this day, there are no other animations that look quite like it.
The detailed post-apocalyptic sci-fi world and its characters were brought to life using the cel animation technique. That means that the team of 60 key animators hand-painted the background, mid-ground, and foreground of every scene, resulting in over 160,000 animation cels (this is 2-3 times more than a standard animated feature film) that were photographed and strung together at 24 fps (frames per second).
The animation team didn’t cut corners, but that’s why they were able to achieve the perfect fluidity Akira is famous for. The animators used a Quick Action Recorder, which allowed them to quickly digitize frames and play them at 24fps to check that their sequences run smoothly before moving onto coloring cels.
The animators even combined some CGI in certain places, which was a relatively new technology at the time. These small but important elements helped shape the film’s futuristic vibe.
Akira is particularly famous for its color palette. The animators used a whopping 327 different hues to convey its vibrant, futuristic world. Since most of Akira takes place at night, creative use of color was needed to make the cinematic scenes shine like a city that never sleeps. That meant that 50 out of the 327 colors were entirely unique and created just for the film.
Light is another factor that makes Akira so unique. The film opens with a flickering streetlight that helps set the dystopian scene. Throughout the rest of the film, the Akira world is saturated in neon hues that illuminate the pulsing city and capture the magic of the characters.
It’s hard to believe that every light source was painted by hand. That includes the light trails that beam from the characters’ motorbike headlights, backlighting, and lens flares.
Accurate Lip Syncing
From a gang of biker friends to strange psychic children, the character designs in Akira are brilliant in many ways. However, there's one particular piece of movie trivia that makes them extra special.
Traditionally, recording character voices is one of the last steps to finishing an animated film. However, for Akira, the makers decided to record the voice actors first. This is called “prescoring” in the film industry and is typically only done in western animations.
This meant that each character was drawn with synchronized mouth movements based on the real actors’ faces. This was extremely time-consuming for the animators, but it meant that Akira stood out among other animated films at the time that didn't have such dynamic characters. Other films with dialogue typically created a limited series of basic mouth positions that were used over and over.
For many Akira fans, it’s the original soundtrack that really makes it.
Just like the lines were recorded before the animators started working, the music and sounds were created first. Therefore, the music created actually inspired much of the visuals.
A synclavier—an early synthesizer and audio sampling device—was used to create the eerie sounds that feature throughout the film.
Otomo also recruited Japanese music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi to score the Akira soundtrack. The huge collective consists of hundreds of people from all walks of life and is led by composer Tsutomu Ōhashi. Geinoh Yamashirogumi is known for fusing different styles of traditional music from all over the world to create its eclectic sound.
When Otomo came to Ōhashi with the job, he asked that he base the score around two themes: “requiem” and “festival.” The collective used a mix of instruments to compose the dystopian, futuristic soundtrack that brilliantly captures the energy of Neo Tokyo, including a digital synthesizer and Indonesian bamboo percussion. Different genres of music were also combined to create the soundtrack’s unique sound, including traditional Japanese music (Noh), European classical, and progressive rock.
Appealing to Western Audiences
Akira was released in the United States in 1989 and totally changed how the industry viewed animation. At the time, people viewed the genre as one purely for children, but Akira showed the world that an animated film could be catered to a mature audience. However, unlike western films, Akira didn’t censor itself. It fiercely crashed the Hollywood scene with gang violence, outrageous corruption, and troubled characters. And everyone loved it.
Otomo never intended for Akira to appeal to audiences outside of Japan, so it was a big surprise when the film was a huge success in the United States. In fact, Akira is arguably responsible for popularizing anime in the West, making it a landmark anime film in Japan. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus reads, “Akira is strikingly bloody and violent, but its phenomenal animation and sheer kinetic energy helped set the standard for modern anime.”
Akira’s Influence on Pop Culture
Despite Otomo’s claim that he never intended Akira to appeal to the wider world, the film is full of western influences. For example, both Akira and Blade Runner are set in cyberpunk metropolises in the year 2019. However, Akira didn’t only borrow from pop culture—it added to it.
Unsurprisingly, Akira influenced countless filmmakers and TV producers. Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, cited Akira as an inspiration for his film Looper. And the Duffer brothers said in an interview that Akira was a big influence on their hugely popular Netflix show, Stranger Things. Just like Tetsuo in Akira, Eleven from Stranger Things is a child with mysterious supernatural powers who escapes from a government facility.
In 2002, Warner Bros. acquired the rights to create a live-action remake of Akira, but it hasn't been easy. So far, the remake has seen at least five different directors and ten different writers attempt but fail to turn the anime into a live-action film. Perhaps this is because the original film is so hard to live up to.
Akira has even influenced the music world. Michael Jackson included a clip of Tetsuo falling from a skyscraper at the end of his music video for Scream. And Kanye West’s music video for the song Stronger pays major tribute to the anime film.
Akira has also been adapted into a number of different video games. In 1988, Taito released an Akira adventure game in Japan. International Computer Entertainment also produced a video game based on Akira for the Amiga and Amiga CD32 in 1994. And with the film's DVD release in 2002, Bandai released Akira Psycho Ball, a pinball simulator for the PlayStation 2.
That's a Wrap
Have you seen Akira? If not, we hope this blog post has convinced you to take the time to do so.
To this day, Akira is still considered one of the best anime of all time, but there are plenty more worth knowing. Check out our previous blog on The 20 Best Anime Movies of All Time. And if you're a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, we delved into the fascinating history of Studio Ghibli in this article.
If you haven't already figured it out, we're total animation nerds here at Vectornator. Check out the rest of our Blog for even more articles on the topic.