'Akira,' the beyond-reproach Japanese anime, plays at the Charles Theatre tonight
By By Jeff Miller
Dec 18, 2014 | 12:05 PM
Try and imagine what the inevitable live-action Hollywood remake of "Akira" will look like: directed by some Hollywood worker bee after Darren Aronofsky is fired a few days in from a script written by Guillermo del Toro; executive-produced by Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino; score by Hans Zimmer with a theme song performed by Linkin Park featuring Hayley Williams. And that's only if the studios think it could be a juggernaut with just enough critic-bait qualities to gain accolades and still become a Hollywood big-deal blockbuster. In other words, an "Akira" remake could be way worse than that. Then again, any remake would be pointless because the 1988 anime, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also made the manga the film was based on, is terse, brilliant, and beyond reproach.
A clandestine government organization responsible for developing the abilities of telekinetics happens upon the young and angry bike-gang member Tetsuo following a skirmish between rival youth gangs. The organization, which is led by the domineering Colonel and employs three grotesque child psychics (the Espers), unlocks Tetsuo's latent psychic abilities, but soon discovers he is much too dangerous and cannot be controlled. When Tetsuo learns his raw telekinetic power rivals that of Akira, a former test subject whose body was dissected, cryogenically frozen, and buried under the unfinished Olympic stadium, he sets off across Neo-Tokyo to unlock Akira's dormant power once more. Condensing the more-than-2000-page manga into 120 minutes has its drawbacks—the story moves at a rushed pace and some characters appear only fleetingly, if at all, which is frustrating the more you know about "Akira," though it also provides the film with a sense of a world much bigger than the film itself and rewards repeated viewings.
For many, including myself, getting to see "Akira" at the Charles tonight (with Japanese subtitles, a rarity) is a chance to re-examine its brilliance and dig deeper. Pay special attention to its Gamelan-inspired soundtrack composed by Tsutomu Ohashi. In the opening chase scene, mallet percussion and low-intoned chanting provide propulsive force and primal energy. Later in the film, Ohashi switches it up, utilizing sparse polyphonic chanting to create a disturbing unreality for Tetsuo's nursery nightmare. It would have been easy to pair the cyberpunk visuals with some electronic or video-game-soundtrack music, but Ohashi opted for something more minimalistic and primitive and timeless.
Also sit back and observe "Akira's" stylized world. Katsuhiro Otomo began writing the "Akira" manga in 1982, the same year Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" debuted. While Otomo likely borrowed from the cyberpunk look of Los Angeles for his original design of Neo-Tokyo, the anime significantly adds to the distinctive look. The monolithic billboards and dynamic advertising displays hide the grime of the streets, a dirty byproduct of a society living in excess; it is also a chance to counter some of the distracting and downright offensive Asian stereotypes Scott flirts with in his classic sci-fi. Otomo also uses the relatively endless possibilities of animation to craft a scene of hyper-violence with a staccato brutality to it that could rival Cormac McCarthy and could never appear in a film with actors. When Tetsuo kills a doctor and guard while escaping the hospital, we see their bodies exploded across the wall, and when one character is crushed, it would seem cartoonish if it weren't so unsettling. And again, it would be almost impossible to properly recreate "Akira" within the Hollywood or even the increasingly sophisticated American animation system. So enjoy the near-perfect realization of Otomo's epic manga, because imagine how much it would suck to hear, say, Liam Hemsworth screaming "Tetsuoooooo!"