In 1988, World War III decimated the planet, but new societies have arisen from the ashes, as has occured in Japan. Thirty years after, in New Tokyo, there is civil unrest as the authorities seek to keep order, and on the lowest level of that strata are the biker gangs, mostly teenage rebels who engage in battles on the streets astride their vehicles. One of those gangs is led by Kaneda (voiced by Mitsuo Iwata), who tonight is chasing after the clowns, one of their main rivals, but soon they are interrupted by the cops - and that's not all, as one of the riders, Tetsuo (Nozumo Sasaki) has a strange encounter...
Before Akira arrived in the West and briefly became the most famous Akira in cinema, anime was mainly recognised as the sort of thing taking up slots on the kids TV schedules, and had been for decades from Astro Boy and Marine Boy all the way up to what was known as Battle of the Planets or Ulysses 31 in the eighties. But this was something different to Western eyes, as the generations who had grown up watching these productions on the small screen were captivated by the thought that they could now continue to watch them as adults, and see animation specifically tailored for adults to boot.
Thus while Akira did become a minor hit in the West, its influence was significant, paving the way for Asian science fiction, horror, action, fantasy - all that stuff to truly take off and be given distribution there. In the years since, however, anime there was rarely allowed to be much regarded as anything more than a niche interest, with only the odd Hayao Miyazaki effort to be much praised and attain a profile of any great importance. Certainly as anime for adults became synonymous with the more lurid and perverse imaginings of their creators, for mainstream audiences it didn't really stand a chance, but Akira is still recalled, if vaguely, thanks to its impact back in the early nineties.
Of course, it does end up being dismissed to a point, and many of those who flocked to see it in cinemas never followed up their initial intrigue with it, but now we have had a deluge of anime since, does it hold up to take its place in any kind of cartoon pantheon? The answer to that was its vivid imagery might have swamped its themes and messages, as it did then, but Akira remained an impressive achievement that justified its cult status. Being made in the eighties, and based on director Katsuhiro Otomo's epic manga comic book, there was a preoccupation with the nuclear warfare, to the extent that the plot descended into an orgy of destruction early on and never emerged from it.
What Tetsuo sees is a child, but no ordinary little boy as his adult companion is gunned down by police with the result that the kid utilises his psychic powers to bring down a few landmarks in his dismay. Weakling Tetsuo is injured and whisked away to a top secret lab where he is experimented on, giving rise to his own latent psychic powers, as meantime Kaneda and the gang try to track him down. But it's too late, as the teen's mind is warped by his newfound abilities, and like many a Japanese fantasy villain before him he goes on the rampage. It's easy to sit back and watch the scenery and characters get smashed up, but there were lessons Otomo wished to impart, the usual ones about not allowing a totalitarian state to take over, but also the importance of not allowing youth to be corrupted. Here it seems the worst insult is to be called old, and the elder players in this sorry tale are at the forefront of corroding the promise of the young, which sounds like it should be uninspiring and petulant, yet coupled with Akira's tremendous visuals the effect was truly remarkable and mindbending. Music by Shoji Yamashiro.
[Manga's Blu-ray is in excellent condition, with only one flaw: it plays the American dubbed version automatically, so if you wish to hear the Japanese soundtrack you have to pause to adjust the disc's settings. Other than that the extras are a few trailers and whatnot, but the film is where your interest should lie.]