In some form or another, I've been around anime my entire life. A bunch of the cartoons I watched as a kid were anime, and I also had a chance to watch various anime movies that crossed over into the mainstream throughout the 90's and early 2000's. In the early 2000's I dipped my feet a bit deeper into that world (including watching my first proper show as an adult – Cowboy Bebop), but I quickly lost interest due mainly to lack of availability, and spent the next ten years or so watching the occasional big time movie that came to my attention as I did in the 90's.
Recently, my interest in anime returned with a vengeance, and I've now watched quite a bit of it and learned quite a bit about the anime world in general. So, now that I have a broader knowledge of the medium, and a better understanding of the cultural context, does the anime I watched before I watched anime hold up? And I'm not really talking about the objective quality here (although I certainly will touch on it). I mean, do those movies deserve the status I afforded them back when I didn't know shit about anime?
Now, granted, the movies I will discuss here are, for the most part, big titles (since those were the only ones I would hear of being an anime outsider), so I doubt any of these posts will be complete trashings. However, these aren't going to be so much about the numerical score I'll end up giving each movie, but rather an examination of the various elements through the prism of someone who has now seen a lot of what the medium has to offer (or certainly a lot more of it), and who knows a bit more about movies in general than he did ten years ago.
That being said, the first movie I will rewatch is Akira.
Akira – 1988
Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is probably one of the most recognizable anime for the non-anime crowd. I know plenty of people who don't watch anime but have seen it, some of them multiple times. It tells the story of Kaneda and Tetsuo - two biker hoodlums in a dystopian cyberpunk Neo Tokyo who unwittingly get caught up in a terrifying secret government experiment.
I have no idea when I first watched Akira (considering how long it's been in my consciousness, and the VHS release history, it was probably around 93-94), but I watched it several times in the mid 90's, and probably again in the early 2000's. However, I haven't seen it in at least ten years and I only remember vague details about the plot and characters. The one thing I do remember was that Akira was probably the movie that first made me think of anime with a sense of reverence. There was something so visceral and shocking about a "cartoon" being this mature, and I was blown away at the time. So, after spending about 20 years in my brain, and being one of the driving forces that led to my eventual anime obsession, does Akira hold up?
Well, this movie has been synonymous with anime for most of my life, and for a damn good reason. It's every bit as good as I've always thought, and I now appreciate things about it that I didn't at the time. To use one of the most tired clichés in existence: They don't make them like this anymore. This is going to be a bit hard to describe, but this movie has something that anime has lost since that time. That's not to say that anime has gotten worse – in fact, I am a big opponent of claims that anime sucks now – but there is something about Akira that you will never find in new movies, just like how Blade Runner has something about it that you don't see in science fiction movies anymore. It's an intangible. A feel. A certain kind of personality or attitude. It also has a level of maturity that is rarely seen in anime today (a notable exception would be the Kara no Kyoukai movies), which again is something I have a hard time describing. It pulls no punches in describing the dark, dystopian reality of Neo Tokyo 30 years after World War 3 – the world has truly gone to shit: Rampant crime, corrupt politicians, anti-government riots, terrorist attacks, religious Luddites praying for the salvation of the mythical hero Akira - the city feels alive. Neo Tokyo is almost like a character in the movie. Unlike many shows or movies that deal with far reaching consequences and the lives of millions of people, Akira takes the time to show you those people – what their lives are like, why they are so angry, etc. Next time you watch an anime from the past decade, ask yourself this: How much information do you know about the characters that are completely unrelated to the story? I'm talking about the people walking down the street or the people in the background wherever the main characters are. How much do you know about their lives?
Take the scene pictured above, for example – the biker gang was just released from lockup, and Kaneda has maneuvered the cops into releasing Kei as well. They are leaving the station and Kaneda is trying to ask her out. It's your typical "the girl doesn't care about the scummy dude" scene, but look behind them – there are riot police and camera crews in furious action. In fact, the entire sequence at the police station is just like this too – there is a flurry of activity going on, most of it unrelated to our story – it feels like a little snapshot taken from a place that really exists.
Here's another good example – look at these pictures taken from the council meeting scene. Nowadays it would be a group of super clean looking people in a super clean, slick, futuristic boardroom. Instead we see dirty cups of coffee and water, papers and folders strewn everywhere, disheveled and stressed politicians with their ties loosened crushing cigarette butts into overflowing ashtrays. They are clearly feeling the pressure of the anti-government protestors, their empty coffers, and the internal power struggles. It has an organic vibe that is simply lost in most current anime.
I watched the Blu-Ray version of Akira and it is spectacular. The city is epic, the action happens on an enormous scale, and some of the sequences look so good you can hardly believe that this predates computer work. It also epitomizes the dark, monolithic, hyper-urbanized look of the 1980's much like Blade Runner and also the Watchmen graphic novel (the movie certainly looks great, but it has less of that 80's vibe to it. Like I said, that stuff just can't be recreated). It is also full of the prevalent themes of the time – the cold war and nuclear scare, urbanization and globalization, the dangers of scientific advancement, etc. It also has a genius score by Shoji Yamashiro, which features some very interesting uses of vocal tracks as instruments along with ethnic percussive elements like wood blocks. Luckily, Akira was spared the early days of the synthesizer, which pervaded many of the American cyberpunk counterparts at that time (once again I will mention Blade Runner and its synth-heavy Vangelis score).
The only slight criticism I could give Akira is that I didn't feel it established Tetsuo's character and his relationship with Kaneda and the rest of the biker gang enough. Granted, they did a pretty good job with the time constraints of a two hour movie, and fleshed out some of those details throughout the story, but I would have loved to see Tetsuo's frustrations and hidden animosity and jealousy of Kaneda expressed more clearly at the beginning, which would have made his arc even more powerful. Still, they did manage to do this, but to a lesser extent. Overall, there is a lot of story to tell here, and they manage to tell it while also taking the time to properly set the scene (as I described above).
In conclusion, there is definitely a reason that Akira is a member of the anime pantheon. Its influence is still very apparent in many ways. In fact, the 2012 movie Chronicle clearly takes a lot of its cues from Akira, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was the main inspiration behind it. It survives not just because of its cult status and the fact that it was a groundbreaker, but also because it still feels fresh and relevant in terms of style and also message. I really don't know why I allowed so much time to go by without watching it, but that is definitely a mistake I shan't be repeating.
Stay tuned for more of the anime I watched before I watched anime.