In a futuristic Tokyo, a group of biker thugs become involved with a rebel group when one of their members is captured by a shadowy government organisation investigating psychic powers, after they identify him as a potential psychic. They manage to free him, but he is changed... obsessed with tracking down legendary psychic Akira, whom he blames for his own situation.
AKIRA was probably the first Japanese anime I saw, and it's fair to say that it blew my mind. Almost impossible to describe, a surreal cyberpunk vision of the future which incorporates themes and images which prove how very differently the Japanese viewed the medium of animation to Western tradition. Can you imagine Disney ever producing something as complicated, sophisticated and decidedly adult as AKIRA?
There are shades of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but mostly AKIRA is unique. To audiences expecting a cheerful family movie, perhaps with some nice musical numbers, I can only imagine what a shock AKIRA must be. I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema in San Francisco on the release of a new digital print in 2001. Highlight of the film was being in the lift afterwards with two American women who'd taken their infant child to see the film... they really were quite upset that they'd somehow been tricked into taking a child to see such a horrible film. A lesson there about doing your research, perhaps.
The new print looked exceptional, but was unfortunately shown dubbed into English. Dubbing doesn't tend to ruin anime as badly as it does live action films, because not so many compromises have to be made with translations to fit mouth movements or facial expressions. The first time I saw AKIRA it was dubbed too, but the 2001 dub was new and seemed worse than what I remembered of the original. The voice actors all sound far too old for their characters (and American), which just doesn't feel right. It's a common issue with English anime dubs, I find. In addition, the new translation seemed simplified... the film felt much less profound and mysterious than I remembered it being. I'm told it's actually more accurate though, and it had been quite a while since I saw the film originally, so it could just be that I was older and wiser and less succeptible to having my mind blown by something like AKIRA). The insertion of a couple of brief one-liners in the script definitely sounded out of place though.
AKIRA was completely hand drawn, and at the uncommonly high rate of 24 frames per second at that. As a result it looks remarkable, having a feel which more modern, computer-assisted animation doesn't quite capture (though that has its virtues and triumphs too). I dread to think how many man hours of animation time it must have taken, or what the budget for the film must have been. It was certainly worth the investment though.
I've seen a lot of anime since I saw AKIRA, but nothing that is as good as it. GHOST IN THE SHELL certainly looks amazing, and its "philosophy essay in the disguise of a cyberpunk action film" script makes for a pretty cerebral and adult experience (let's not talk about the sequel Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence though). MACROSS PLUS had fantastic animation and action sequences, and one of my all-time favourite soundtracks, but storywise it was just "TOP GUN in space, sorta". DEATH NOTE and GANTZ both started off really well but lost it in their second series (not really fair to compare a series to a movie, I guess) and FLCL was even weirder than AKIRA but not in such an intellectually engaging way.
Some of Hayao Miyazaki's films have come close, but nearly 25 years after its creation AKIRA still remains the benchmark for anime for me. In fact it is arguably the benchmark for Science Fiction in general, and I would rate it amongst my top ten films of all time, animated or not.