We all have those movies we, for whatever arbitrary reason, have just never gotten around to actually watching. Sometimes we openly lie to people in casual conversation to avoid the inevitable Greek chorus of damning incredulity, pretending that we have seen said film, but “never all the way through” or “a long time ago.” But if Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime classic “Akira” is one of those films for you, it might be time to rectify that Thursday night, September 23, when it plays at The Charles.
“Akira,” adapted by Otomo from his own at the time unfinished manga, condenses and reconfigures over two thousand pages of comics art into a deliberate two hour runtime. The film takes place in 2019 Neo-Tokyo, a future thirty years out from a biblical catastrophe that decimated the original city when it was to host the Olympics. It follows Kaneda, the charming leader of a teenage biker gang, and his friend Tetsuo.
During a routine street battle with a rival gang, Tetsuo discovers he is an ESPer, an individual with latent psychic and telekinetic powers. His newfound powers rival and mirror that of another ESPer called Akira, whose unbridled strength was responsible for the destruction at the beginning of the film. These troubled youths run afoul of the secret military project that threatens existence itself, a story densely packed thematically, exploring nationwide trauma through the lens of science fiction as one of the most important texts in Japanese cinema.
For some, “Akira” has always been a pop cultural shorthand for coolness first and a deeper piece of art second. It’s been a little more than ten years since I last saw “Akira” on the big screen, but upon revisiting it recently on the little one that lives in my Macbook, I was struck by how well it holds up today. It’s easy to forget just how iconic and breathtaking “Akira” is to behold.
This is a film whose place in the modern cinematic pantheon is beyond certified, whose immediately recognizable cityscapes have long been pilfered as background visuals for many a “lo-fi beats to study to” YouTube playlist, whose unique aesthetic has grown so enmeshed into the internet design lexicon. From Kaneda’s pink polo drip to the frightening urgency in the film’s motorcycle chase sequences (Keke Palmer literally just did a “Kaneda slide” in “Nope” this summer), “Akira” feels like a movie that helped birth decades of fashion, tech, and artistic influence.
But “Akira” is not a film you can just passively absorb through Tumblr fan art and cultural allusions from other media. “Akira” must be seen and experienced firsthand. From its opening moments, it feels unlike anything else on this Earth.The movie opens with an incredibly efficient prologue, cutting from the inciting explosion that changed this world forever directly to its current state three decades in the future.
Within minutes of being shown various corners of this post-apocalyptic, makeshift new city, Otomo presents a future so lived in, so specific in its texture and tactility, that a quarter century of history does not need to be spelled out to the viewer. No need for the forty-five minutes of exhaustive preamble we’re used to from our blockbusters these days. Something catastrophic has happened. This is what remains after the smoke clears.
“Akira” is a startling film whose landmark animation makes it feel more modern than many more expensive features released in its wake. Every frame breathes and burns with an intensity too difficult to replicate even for the most devoted biters in the game. If you really want something pure, you have to go directly to the source.
“Akira” is screening on DCP at The Charles Theater this Thursday night at 9pm. It’s also currently streaming on Hulu.