At the end of Akira, a boy turns into a universe. Or maybe a new lifeform, or a higher state of consciousness, or a god. Hell, he could’ve turned into a Jaffa Cake for all I know, and it wouldn’t have changed the ending in the slightest. In fact it might’ve made more sense.
If Akira can be summed up in one word, it’s ‘ambiguous’. Character roles are ambiguous, explanations are ambiguous, the plot is left as ambiguous as the contents of my salad draw. It makes for a thought provoking movie, but a serially frustrating one as well, as you never actually know what’s going on. Even when a character asks a seemingly clear cut question they get a useless apology of an answer; when asked ‘what is Akira?’, someone replies with, and this is word for word, ‘Maybe there was genetic material in the air and water, even in the particles of dust and space, and if that’s the truth, then what sort of memories are hidden within them?’. Um, no, that wasn’t an answer. Oh never mind we’ll never know, since a plot convenience has just happened because of some similarly vague zombie mummy toddler pensioners and something something psychic evolution. Fair to say, it’s a bit unclear.
That said, Akira is undeniably an extremely good film, bordering on a masterpiece even. A tale of childhood friendship, mental instability, political corruption, war, social unrest and the danger and ethics of scientific experiments in the name of knowledge. It’s two hours long, which is almost unheard of for an animated film, and ramps up deliciously from a small gang of 14 year olds on motorbikes to complete citywide devastation with enough political intrigue, random superpowers and Silent Hill mindfuckery to keep you guessing.
It’s also, largely speaking, artistically impeccable. The visuals are astounding at times, with wide shots of the futuristic Neo-Tokyo on the brink of disaster particularly impressive. The sound design is practically perfect, similar to Ghost in the Shell with tribal drums and chimes flying around everywhere as well as the best use of silence I’ve yet come across. Interestingly Akira actually tries a proper attempt at animating dialogue where the whole mouth moves to fit each word rather than flap up and down like a flip book pedal bin. This can mean the dub gets a bit wonky at times where the words don’t fit the mouth movements, and irritatingly the most recent dub has the usual cast of one-voiced Americans that act with the intimacy and subtlety of a cow being hit by a train. Yes I’m looking at you, Johnny Yong Bosch.
While I gave it a lot of flak just three paragraphs ago, the plot is still definitely interesting and grabs you by the throat for the majority of the films runtime. There’s so many story threads happening at any one point it’s impressive it never once feels like it’s going to fall apart, and some of the foreshadowing, imagery and open questions are superbly executed. The lack of any and all explanations to the audience means you have a constant drip feed of implications and deductions which would be incredibly satisfying if they’d actually given a bloody payoff at the end. It’s a shame all of that stops when the infamous giant melting blancmange slug baby turns up and nobody cares about what anything is any more.
Speaking of which, there’s some pretty horrific stuff in Akira; in the first 15 minutes alone there’s a nuclear explosion, a riot, public execution by police, tear gas, dogs getting shot in the head, collapsing buildings and teenagers braining each other with hammers and motorcycles. It’s a violent, horrible world where everyone’s paranoid, incompetent and making the wrong decision at every turn. The police are losing control, the government officials don’t have a clue what a pavement looks like any more and biker gang wars are a daily occurrence.
Interestingly there aren’t really any heroes or villains in Akira, just bystanders, morons and assholes. The villain role ends up switching about 4 times as you realise the other guy was acting logically and sensibly, and the one clearly insane character is given the most development out of anyone, with possible mental health worries even before the government started poking his brain and turning him into season 1 Vegeta. The main character Kaneda doesn’t actually do anything in the plot other than stumble upon things and distract people, a role that could very well be filled by an inquisitive rat with pool cue. He is, however, the one true connection to the audience, as he’s only vaguely involved in things at best and never gets told anything. Whatever Kaneda works out, the audience has just about worked out as well, which is a sign of good pacing and gives us empathy with a character who gets more and more frustrated as the plot goes on.
So once again, the only issue I have with a Japanese story is how it ends. Akira is an outstanding film for 100 minutes, then something turns the bad guy into pudding, some meditating and flashbacks happen, the world explodes for no adequately explained reason and suddenly it’s all over, the doors locked and everyone’s gone home. The build up was bordering on insufferable due to how little information was given out, and the payoff did the opposite of what it should’ve done by adding more questions instead of answers. It doesn’t feel like an ending so much as a cliffhanger for a sequel that will never happen, which isn’t surprising given that the manga continued for another two or three films worth of story after it.
To finish; watch Akira, then Google what the last twenty minutes mean and watch it again. It’s undoubtedly extremely good, but if a story isn’t going to tell me things it better well show me them instead.