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'Akira' (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1989

Katsuhiro Otomoto's "Akira" is the most expensive animated feature ever made in Japan (over 1 billion yen) and it's easily the most impressive, as well. The two-hour film is adapted from Otomoto's popular biweekly comic and, in the manner of contemporary Japanese comics, it is super-colorful, explicitly violent, intellectually provocative and emotionally engaging with its Perils-of-Pauline pace. Otomoto has condensed the narrative sprawl of the comics to provide coherence, though there's a bit of "Back to the Future Part II" incompleteness to the story. That hardly matters, since the film moves with such kinetic energy that you'll be hanging on for dear life.

"Akira" is set in Neo-Tokyo in 2019, 31 years after World War III. The rebuilt city, looking like an animated "Blade Runner" prototype, is under military rule, though barely: Packs of motorcycle-riding cyberpunks race through the streets engaging in deadly jousts. One pack, led by Kaneda, has a run in with a physically withered but telekinetically charged child named Takashi. As a result, one of Kaneda's pals, the emotionally scarred Tetsuo, is captured by the mysterious military-scientific coalition that rules Neo-Tokyo. Soon, Tetsuo's powers grow out of control and he becomes the focus of a battle between oppressive authorities, an underground resistance group, Kaneda's gang and a trio of fellow psychics terrified that he will unleash "Akira" and once more destroy the world. All of this unfolds at a fast-forward pace.

What makes it work is the astounding animation, 160,000 cells worth. The detail is exceptionally realistic, fluid and multidimensional, suggesting both a futuristic world and ancient quests. Otomoto's neon-lit Neo-Tokyo is a marvel of post-apocalyptic tension and desires. "Akira" is equally astounding for its color design, whether in the brightness of Neo-Tokyo, the damp darkness of its underground or the steely edge of its scientific outposts and military hardware. It's a complete world sprung from Otomoto's pen and imagination, and realized in 327 colors.

A warning to parents of young children: "Akira" is not rated, but it does contain quite a bit of graphic violence, and not of the "Roadrunner" variety. When bullets fly, punches land and folks die, blood flows, copiously. There are several "Scanners"-style showdowns, "Altered States"-like hallucinations and none of the comic release usually found in cartoons. This is probably not a good film for anyone under 12.

Of course, "Akira" is not a long cartoon, but an ambitious animated feature that can be seen as a parable of scientific responsibility and cosmic rebirth, or just an action-packed serial. Or it can be seen as a visceral example of the future of animation.

Akira is not rated, but contains graphic scenes of violence

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