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Why the pioneering Japanese anime ‘Akira’ is still relevant 30 years later

Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” takes place in 2019, in a dystopian version of Tokyo. (Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo)
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We’re protesting in the streets, bracing for the next violent attack and debating how civil to be in confronting a government some say is wildly overreaching.

There’s a reason a Japanese animated film from 30 years ago still has resonance in America today.

Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave the clearance for niche pop culture properties to enter the mainstream, Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” served as an entry point for Westerners into the world of Japanese animation. The frenetic cyberpunk anime, released in Japan on July 15, 1988, showed that cartoons across cultures could address larger social issues. Its intricate, futuristic cityscapes and its evocative tale of telepathic power inspired a generation of works to come, including a Kanye West music video and “Stranger Things.”

In “Akira,” an event akin to the Big Bang consumes Tokyo, leading to World War III. Years later, in 2019, the streets of what’s known as Neo Tokyo are rife with violent protests and marauding biker gangs. One gang member, Tetsuo, wrecks his bike after a harrowing chase with a rival gang. In the wake of the crash, Tetsuo begins to develop strange telekinetic powers that he harnesses to threaten an entire military complex built to keep those with supernatural powers at bay. We learn that the explosion that started the film was the work of another child, Akira, who also has abilities incomprehensible to the world at large. The story is, in part, an allegory for the fallout from the nuclear bombs dropped by the United States during World War II — where Akira represents the bomb and Tetsuo is the dreaded next calamity.

In “Stranger Things,” Eleven is a child who, similarly, escapes from a government facility and learns that she possesses supernatural powers. In a 2016 interview, the Duffer brothers said the influence of “Akira” was “obviously a big one” on their Netflix show.

Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi,” cited “Akira” as an inspiration for his film “Looper,” which features a child who is able to kill his would-be assassin using only his mind. Kanye West has called the anime one of his favorite films, and the music video for his hit song “Stronger” features multiple shot-for-shot remakes of key scenes. Influential streetwear brand Supreme released a collection of apparel in fall 2017 with artwork from “Akira” and Otomo.

The film landed in the United States in 1989 at the now-defunct Biograph theater in Georgetown before making a tour of art house theaters, on its way to becoming a cult classic. Christopher Bolton, a professor at Williams College and writer of “Interpreting Anime,” saw it at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago in 1990 and remembers that, compared with previous anime he had seen, “it was just something on a bigger scale in every way: the huge picture on a theater screen, the length, the ambition and musical soundtrack,” which featured a hodgepodge of influences including Beethoven and Bach, Indonesian folk, and prog rock.

“I think it announced to the American public a kind of potential for this medium, which generated a lot of excitement and has played out in the last 30 years as this kind of anime boom,” Bolton said.

The Washington Post’s review of ‘Akira’ from 1989

For the film’s cyberpunk look, Otomo drew from his own pop culture obsessions, including “Blade Runner,” which influenced the towering skyscrapers of Neo Tokyo, and “Tron,” whose neon-illuminated motorcycles inspired the hordes of biker gangs.

Otomo had been a respected illustrator of manga, Japanese comics. But for “Akira,” instead of trying to match his anime peers in Japan, he was working from European comic artists such as Moebius — an influential artist for the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Otomo’s drawings for “Akira” were distinctive for their realism; he used lighting, color and an attention to detail to create a vivid, lived-in space.

“It was very atypical of a lot of Japanese animation, which has a very kind of formulaic visual style, which is very big-eyed characters, and everything is very cute and juvenile,” said Peter Chung, a director, animator and creator of the popular 1990s animated series “Aeon Flux.” “I think ‘Akira’ stood out because there was an attempt to appeal to an international audience.”

Chung points out that the massive budget and production apparatus also played a part in its wide reach. But the visual resonance comes mainly from the singularity of Otomo’s work. Otomo was helped by the culture of the Japanese animation business, which favors auteurs over collective studio efforts such as those of Disney and DreamWorks Animation.

That’s why many fans are worried about Hollywood’s planned live-action remake. Warner Bros. has been working on one on and off for more than a decade, as it’s passed from “Mad Max: Fury Road” director George Miller to Jordan Peele — who has called “Akira” one of his favorite films but who eventually turned down the project.

The recent backlash to the whitewashing in “Ghost in the Shell,” another anime-turned-live action movie, which cast Scarlett Johannson as the Japanese main character of Motoko Kusanagi, is emblematic of the pitfalls that studios want to avoid. Because anime properties have so many distinct thematic and visual nods to Japanese culture, bringing them stateside is tricky.

“I don’t think it was any big secret that we were trying to do it in America, and take a different approach to it being in an American city,” said David Scott, an art director of movies such as “Avengers: Infinity War,” who was attached to an “Akira” production. “There were two [problems]: How do you bridge to American audiences and make it relevant to people who weren’t the sci-fi fans who grew up knowing what ‘Akira’ is? And how do you sell that to an American audience that’s not familiar but still keeping the core of what makes it so great?”

“Thor: Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi is rumored to be attached to the current iteration of “Akira,” and has said in interviews that he intends to use an all-Asian cast and primarily use Otomo’s more expansive manga version as inspiration.

LeSean Thomas, an American animation producer who is living in Japan while developing an anime series for Netflix, is one of those fans concerned about a remake. He fell in love with his craft not through “Akira” itself, but through a mistakenly purchased VHS documentary showing behind-the-scenes footage and interviews inside Otomo’s studio. What worries Thomas about a new “Akira” isn’t the potential for misguided casting. He just thinks Hollywood needs to have some more failures before it develops a brain trust that understands what makes anime like “Akira” compelling — and noted that early Marvel efforts were not as well regarded as the current cinematic universe.

“It’s going to require someone to treat anime with the same hardcore, nerdcore love and respect and honor and protection the way we treat the Marvel and DC Comics,” Thomas said.