No, this is not me suddenly going back to reviewing classic movies, and it’s not exactly me giving the ‘Why was this so great?’ list. There is actually a timely reason to do this: it was announced earlier this year that Akira was going to be recut for both Imax and 4K, something that I really was excited to find out, although I honestly expected that it was going to either be delayed or cancelled altogether because of the pandemic this year. It fortunately hadn’t, and I was lucky enough to find a cinema in my area that was playing it.
So, since film reviews might now be slow for the next few months until we can figure out when studios are willing to start releasing their big films, let’s talk about Akira, which for me is a tough task. I’ve talked to death about this movie. My friends and I did and Anime Amigos episode where we compared it to another sci-fi epic, Ghost in The Shell, and it was a very close contest – I really recommend watching it on our YouTube channel. I also wrote about it in my book where I was discussing why it was such a big deal, the different English dub casts that have been assembled over the years and how it went into several different licensing issues, and the fact that the source materials, author and artist not only got to write the screenplay but direct the film, based on the fact of the booming Japanese economy at the time. If you want more information on that scenario, I really would recommend watching the Anime Abandon episode on YouTube of Akira, as well as the Anime Abandon on Katsuhiro Otomo’s follow-up several years down the line, Steamboy. I really would recommend it; it’s a fascinating watch. As a result, I’m really running out of things to say about it.
In case you’re curious, Katsuhiro Otomos’s work is amazing, and Akira really stands out as a sci-fi great. It has its issues, the major one being that the film was made when the source material wasn’t even finished or even close. In fact, the movie really only tells half the story, transplants characters from the second half into the first half, tacks on the ending of the source material, and alters the middle slightly. There’s a lot you could say about how the differences are. Having now seen the film several times and read the source material, a 2000-page manga, my personal opinion is you should absolutely see the film but the best way to experience the story is through reading the Manga (currently available in print in 6 volumes), an absolutely fascinating read. I was regularly reading this on the way to the cinema in Liverpool during train trips, and all I can say is that I’m glad that I went underground before my stop otherwise I could have easily missed it through how much I was getting consumed by the story. It truly is a great sci-fi story that’s probably even more relevant than it was before, even correctly predicting that Tokyo would have a successful running bid for the 2020 Olympics. If you want more knowledge beforehand though on Akira, once again I’m going to point you to a YouTube channel, this time ‘What’s The Difference’ which is an excellent piece-by-piece analysis of how the film changes from the source material.
So really, the question now is: what does the 4k version look like? Well, in short, I don’t think it has improved the picture quality all that much. Akira is a very well-animated film; it was remarkable for its time and works well within its budget. It ignored a lot of the rules of what you’re meant to do in an animation for the better. I saw an interview at the time which said that in that time in animation you were never to do scenes at night or would at least try to avoid them since you have less primary colours to work with. But Akira really proved that that was not the case – most of the scenes were shot in dark environments or at night but are full of life and the action is unbelievable. Otomo also does a really good job of making neo-Tokyo look lived in with its animation, but with this being my first time seeing the film on a big cinema screen I was very surprised to find out that I didn’t notice much of a difference compared to my special addition Blu-ray. Maybe if I get enough funds a year from now to upgrade my television to 4k I might try again to see if I can notice the difference when I’m closer to the screen, and it might have had something to do with the fact I was sat in the back row for safety reasons, but visually I didn’t notice an incredible difference. It certainly cleans up well and it gives a lot of animated films coming out now a run for their money, in spite of the fact that Akira is, to put it kindly, not one of best edited films ever – there are some points where you can tell Otomo is still learning how to transition scenes. Several scenes don’t really have a conclusion, they just sort of end with a fade, and that’s really more noticeable when you’re watching this in a big cinema environment and notice how abrupt it is.
However, where it has really improved is in the sound quality. While some sound effects did not benefit well—the stock sounds of dogs barking in the early portion of the film being a rather prominent one I can remember—some of the sound quality this time round is significantly improved, and that really made it worth seeing in a cinema. You can feel the explosions as they happen, and the bike noises make you feel like you’re genuinely in that high-speed chase. The sound quality alone was worth the cinema trip. And Akira is of course a visual spectacle but people forget how much sound quality adds to that visual fidelity. Scenes of Tetso pulling off mind-blowing feats really have their sense of scale this time around.
I already mentioned that this film still feels relevant today and that’s absolutely right. While its original story was themed around the atomic testing in Japan, you can definitely rework this story to a lot of what’s going on in the world right now. We still have stories of, basically, a generation failing the next and essentially dooming them for their own curiosity and self-preservation. You could really work it as the climate change scenario that we are in right now and will probably be the death of us all. And it always amazes me how often we state that we want to hand over the reins to the next generation, but by the time we do the promise that they wanted to fulfil is gone and they are as jaded as we are by the time they have the power, and have learnt nothing, continuing the cycle.Akira is the embodiment of that, however Otomo obviously didn’t have that foresight; his generational war that Akira functions around was based more on a generational divide that was going on in Japan in the 80s that was centred around a rise in youth crime. It’s often been speculated that this was down to the younger generation at the time trying to ignore the scars of WW2 whilst their parents who lived through it felt like they hadn’t taken it seriously enough, and we can see it in lot of Japanese media that came out at the time. Again, it always amazes me that a country that often is run by very right-wing individuals prominently has a lot of art that has a very left-wing attitude to the world.
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