A review requested by Frankie Shoup, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I should like it very much if it were a bit easier to find any English-language resources on the reception granted to the 1988 anime feature Akira during its initial release in Japan. It was an enormous hit with quite a wide reach of influence, this is well-known and easily deduced from the sheer number of subsequent films that are in some manner Akira-esque. But I wonder if it was in any way seen as actually groundbreaking in its native country. Because holy shit, was it ever seen that way in the West. On its brief but staggeringly important release in the United States in 1989, it was hailed as one of the most important flashpoints in the history of animation: this was the first time that the great majority of English-language critics and scholars ever had to go head-to-head with the idea of an animated film with complex world-building, philosophical and narrative density, and especially its unstinting violence, gorily depicting a world in which many awful things happened to the deserving and undeserving alike, abruptly and brutally. An animated film for adults, in short.

Why Akira? Why 1989? Hell if I know. Anime had been addressing ever kind of audience in Japan for years, mostly without making serious inroads to the English-speaking world, though in 1985, an enormously compromised edit of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind had made at least a small impression. While that's not an adults-only proposition like Akira, it's clearly not a "kids' film" in any usual sense of that phrase. Meanwhile, the well-publicised career of Ralph Bakshi had been raising the profile of grown-up animation for close to two decades by that point. And yet Akira got all the credit. Possibly because of the classy implications of importing a movie from a foreign country. Probably because Akira is, even without being a landmark, a hell of an accomplished movie, a triumph for director Otomo Katsuhiro, adapting his own manga. It's one of the most lavish of all anime features in its vast, highly detailed backgrounds and even more in its unusually high frame rate - not even Studio Ghibli, anime's most reliable international superstar in the quarter century since Akira hit big, routinely animates on ones (that is, one drawing to one frame of exposed film; on twos, or one drawing to every two frames, is infinitely more common and even that is mostly limited to "expensive" animation) outside of selected showpiece sequences, but Akira's entire running time is on ones, as far as I can determine. That's as niggling and technical as it's possible for praise to get, but there's no pretending it doesn't matter - even if you don't know what the fuck "on ones" means, or even how animation is actually done, the unconventional fluidity of Akira is blatant, and it makes richer, more realistic, and more absorbing than it's possible to describe in words.

The vividness of the animation helps breathe an extraordinary amount of life into the film's design, which is absolutely to the good of all: on top of having beautifully organic animation, Akira has a perfect, if not totally unprecedented world to set its characters in, a post-war future in which the nukes of World War III (which the film cheekily identifies as first falling on 16 July, 1988, the date of its own premiere) have gutted the city now called Neo-Tokyo and forced it to rebuild in a desperate combination of hardscrabble survivalism and kinetic future tech. The result is a slippery world to pin down, in which bombed-out urban wastelands rub elbows with sleek futuristic motorcycles and bright lights. It would be a lie to say that nobody had seen anything like this before - it's one of the countless films to borrow huge chunks of its design mentality from Blade Runner - but it has the goodness to be a thoroughly successful version of itself.

Let us descend now to the rough streets of Neo-Tokyo, and the point where I'll stop having such breathlessly enthusiastic things to say about Akira. Whatever government exists is busying itself with God knows what secrets, playing mad scientist with the lives of the citizenry. Two such citizens are teenagers Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo) and Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu), best friends since they grew up in a state children's home, and currently the leaders of a biker gang, the Capsules. One evening, while having what appears to be an utterly normal bloody battle with their arch-rival gang, the Clowns, the Capsules cross paths with a full-on shadow government crisis, as the police attempt to detain the strange little person Takashi (Nakamura Tatsuhiko), with the body of a child, the face of an ancient old man, and skin the color of antifreeze. The run-in with this being goes badly for Tetsuo, who is taken by the police and brought to the attention of Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho), the scientist in charge of whatever experimentation caused Takashi to end up the way he did, and Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro), the military liaison to Onishi's project who has rather snarling misgivings about the whole thing.

The plot gets convoluted beyond the point that a summary is possible, but suffice it to say that Kaneda ends up in the orbit of rebels Ryu (Genda Tesho) and Kei (Koyama Mami) during his hunt to figure out what's happening to Tetsuo, though he's more attracted by Kei's appearance than her ideology. Tetsuo is busily trying not to get fucked up by Onishi's nightmare tests, in which he is stymied by the weird behavior of three of his predecessors in the program: Takashi, as well as Kiyoko (Ito Fukue) and Masaru (Kamifuji Kazuhiro), who share his eerie physical mutations. He's already failed, unfortunately: by the time he comes to, he's already been subjected to the experiments that will awaken his potent latent psychic abilities - as potent as the mysterious "Akira", which obviously means nothing at all good even before who know who the hell Akira might be - which quickly overwhelm his nervous system and later his entire body. Eventually, he has become so much more, and so much freakishly different than a human being, that everybody running towards him from different directions needs to work together to prevent him from turning into something powerful enough to destroy the city, or the world, or who knows how much.

This is, in its essentials, and using exclusively American cinematic touchstones, a '50s juvenile delinquency movie crossed with a '70s paranoia thriller that very suddenly transitions into a gory remake of the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey for its final half-hour. It would take an unabashed liar to pretend that this combination of ingredients isn't fascinating as hell, and worth seeing for its profound idiosyncracies even if it didn't work properly as a complete, cohesive movie. And I must now confess that to me, it in fact doesn't thus work. It's a very jam-packed movie, and there comes a point where the accumulation of narrative threads makes it pretty clear that there's not going to be a satisfactory way of tying them all off, not without falling back on the sudden arrival of an all-out spectacular action sequence. The movie has me by the throat for three-quarters of its running time, but once Tetsuo starts his ascent to godhood, marked by his appropriation of a bright red cape in parody of a superhero, it it feels like it's more interested in just finding a fucking ending, and throwing a lot of grandiose action to help it all go down. The enjoyable, highly distinctive characters turn into cogs in Otomo's gigantic machine; the themes double-down on being cryptic and cosmic at the expense of being truly satisfying.

I will bluntly declare that for virtually everything Akira does well, outside of its lush character animation, some other film, live-action or animated, has done it better. In particular, the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell is to me an across-the-board improvement: its world is more visually striking and complex, its story more engaging and resonant, its treatment of the thematic idea of the human body being warped and expanded by technology far more nuanced and rewardingly difficult.

This does put Akira in the "victim of its own success" camp: if other films have been able to improve upon, that's because it issued such a bold, loud, fuck-you challenge to the rest of animation and cinema at large. It's striking in its broadest strokes - the visual and narrative portrait of a rotting society held together with cruelty and desperation - all the way down to its finest details, like the way that the character design of Kaneda and Tetsuo mark them out as powerfully distinct personalities, the former wide-eyed and fun and friendly, the latter's high forehead leaving him with a perpetual scowl of distrust, even when he's smiling. And I might add, Akira is one of the inordinately small number of anime I have seen where the characters actually take on the characteristic features of Japanese people, rather than simply being big-eyed cartoon characters riffing on Disney.

There are individual grace notes in the movie that are utterly terrific: a nighttime horror show in which childhood objects turn into demonic apparitions; the speed and physicality of the motorcycle races through the scorched landscape. Yamashiro Shoji's score is masterful, combining sleek futurism with tuneless appropriations of older musical forms that give the film a remarkable sense of timelessness, considering how explicitly it defines its setting in 2019. The characters are sharply etched to lend the action-heavy thriller both pathos and spiky humor. And yet I find myself incapable of really loving it, for reasons I can't always quite pin down. It's handsome and preposterously ambitious, and even its worst narrative missteps are a factor of that ambition, which is a favorite flaw of mine. But it feels distant even so, just a little too aware of its accomplishments for them to be completely enjoyable and natural in their expression.