Revisiting Akira - A Nonbeliever Takes a Second Look
For many years now I've been one of those anime fans who rolls their eyes with disdain whenever some newbie fanboy (or internationally-respected film critic) starts raving about the brilliance of Akira. This tripe has to be anime's "ambassador to the west"? Dear god, why?! I'll give the movie credit for raising anime's profile, certainly, but I've never been happy with people holding up Akira as an example of everything that's cool about Japanese cartoons. Of course, in recent years the mainstream public has been presented with a lot more options -- Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, now the Cowboy Bebop movie -- but it still keeps coming back to Akira. The specter of Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 film, based (allegedly!) on his own "classic" manga epic, will seemingly haunt us forever.
Recently, Dark Horse Comics, working with their frequent manga collaborators Studio Proteus, decided to compound this problem by finally releasing a complete, comprehensive translation of the original manga series. This was attempted many years ago by Marvel's Epic imprint, in a less convenient format. Dark Horse favored rather larger collections, and has packaged the entire Akira manga into six volumes.
When Dark Horse first announced their acquisition of the series, I was a little intrigued. Although, as noted above, my relationship with the movie was not one of passionate love, I had become one of those people who were constantly saying "Yes, the anime stinks, but apparently the manga's much better". Uh-oh -- Dark Horse was presenting me with an opportunity to test that theory for myself. Of course, not having enjoyed the movie, why would I bother sampling the manga? I tucked the idea away in the back of my mind -- a possible future experiment...
Well, I'm only human. Curiosity wore away at me until I finally purchased volume one of the manga. I read it. Was it brilliant? Was it a work of such genius that I instantly awoke to the glory of Otomo and came to understand how perfect the Akira anime actually is, as only the faithful can comprehend? Er, no. But you know what? It wasn't too bad. It was interesting enough that once I was done, I picked up book two, and then made my way to the end of book three (the half-way point of the story).
The series wasn't giving me any particular thrill -- there was nothing there that was spectacular enough to explain the book's eternal uber-classic status. But it was compelling enough - just barely - to keep me reading. It was certainly lacking something -- I found that there were no really likeable characters; no hero to latch onto, no protagonist worth cheering for. The "main" character, of course, is Kaneda, who doesn't even come close to being an admirable or charismatic lead. Frankly, he tends to be a jerk. Of course, he does have a certain rough charm, and after he disappeared for an entire volume, I did find that I was happy to have him back.
This is not to say that the series suffered in his absence -- in fact the opposite is true. The book undergoes a major shift at the halfway point, and once I had started volume four I found myself dealing with something that was considerably different and far more engaging. It didn't take me long at all, once I was into the second half, to realize that suddenly Akira had become a book I couldn't put down. An altered physical and social environment, prompting new spins on established characters, transformed the series into something identifiably similar but further evolved. Where the first half was "okay", the second half was, in fact, something that was leaving a greater impression. Something so gripping that the passable-but-less-inviting flavor of the earlier volumes was completely forgotten.
Mind you, I can't say I'm especially fond of Otomo's art. Very few of his characters are visually distinctive, which means that occasionally - moreso earlier on - it's a little tricky to tell who's who. This gives an added appeal to those characters that are very different, like the Colonel, Chiyoko and Joker. Where Otomo excels is in presenting sprawling cityscapes, vast depictions of Neo-Tokyo in pieces. This man was born to draw property damage. He has an extraordinary gift for visualizing destruction. Not in a violent, graphic, human way - though of course there is a bit of that! - but in an ageing, degenerative, devastated and entropic sort of way. This is a city which has endured multiple armageddons, and it shows -- but at the same time Neo-Tokyo displays an obvious and undeniable determination to continue, regardless of the beating taken in the process. It's a very fitting attitude for anyone involved in this story.
So, now that I was armed with experience of the manga, I sat down to watch the movie again. Was my view of the anime changed? Of course it was. Will I now sheepishly confess that the movie is indeed the stunning masterpiece so many hold it to be? No. I can appreciate it much, much more now - and to be honest, it wasn't quite as incoherent as I remembered it. I also thought the animated Kaneda was a little more likeable than his comic book counterpart. But this is still a film that tries to squeeze far too much stuff into a ludicrously small chunk of screen time -- even after completely discarding fully fifty percent of the story. Making this movie was a mistake. I would love to see Akira reanimated, properly -- ideally as (at least!) one full TV season of twenty-six episodes or thereabouts. Possibly even a trilogy of movies could go closer to doing the manga justice than the mediocre film we currently have.
I'd have to assume that this has been said before, but that old Akira movie? It's a trailer, nothing more -- an unfathomably tiny glimpse into something greater. And as far as I'm concerned -- the many aspects of the story which were jettisoned to cut the running time? They're all the interesting ones. Similarly, most of the best characters are largely or entirely absent. It amazes me that the same man who created the manga had anything to do with this film. How could he stand to watch his epic saga mangled, or at least neutered? Then again, I suppose that if you know your work has to be cut to ribbons, there is some creative solace in holding the scissors yourself. It's a pity that the Otomo interview is missing from the Australian release of the Special Edition DVD (though at least we did get both English dubs!) as I'd love to understand his motivations better.
If you enjoyed the movie, take the time to read the manga. It may even be available in your local library. But don't make the mistake of believing that the anime is anything more serious than a music video or a sample clip, a curiosity: A more colorful look at the first half of the story, without the redeeming benefits of the manga's greater second act. Maybe one day the rest of the story will find its way into our cinemas or onto our TVs. Until then, we can make do with the book. It's a good book. Honest.