A cyberpunk thriller adapted from writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo's hugely popular series of comics (popular in Japan and in the United States, where it's available in graphic novel and comic-book formats), Akira is about rival gangs of motorcycling youths, a group of mutant telepathic children and a secret government conspiracy. Sort of a futuristic Rebel Without a Cause, with dollops of Total Recall and Village of the Damned thrown in for good measure.
The year is 2019, and the place is Neo-Tokyo, a city rebuilt on the radioactive remains of its namesake, which was leveled at the beginning of World War III. Akira opens on the elevated highways that ring this dystopian burg, where a club of motorcycling adolescents is out looking for heads to bash and property to destroy. When the teen bikers inadvertently cross paths with a pallid, green and wrinkle-faced child, all hell (almost literally) breaks loose.
The child, one of a group of psycho-mutants with tremendous precognitive powers, has escaped from a top- secret government laboratory, where ESP experiments are being carried out by a board room of politicos with a serious military-industrial complex. (The crinkly, orb-faced telepaths bring to mind comics artist Charles Burns' playfully defective characters.)
Akira is explicitly, even celebratory, violent - a-swarm with shootings, brain-crunching protest rallies, terrorist bombings, student rioting, police brutality. Blood is everywhere, painted lovingly.
Otomo's movie is rife with creepy, incendiary images. His is a world of techno-ecological disasters, of recombinant life forms, mind-invasion and psychic interfacing. It's a vision of the future that is at once startlingly imaginative and frighteningly like urban life as we know it today, poised on a new millenium.
It is also a movie that sports such exclamatory gibberish as "It's the ultimate scientific nightmare!" and (my favorite) "No! No! It's like a cosmic rebirth!" I don't know how the original Japanese scans, but the translated version gets pretty silly.
For serious students of animation, for hard-core comic-book aficionados and fans of the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Akira is probably a must-see. For parents with young children expecting a benign science-fiction excursion, it's a definite must-not-see.
For the rest of us, Akira is a hard call.
AKIRA * * 1/2
Produced by Ryohei Susuki and Shunzo Kato; directed by Katsuhiro Otomo; written by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto; animation supervised by Takashi Nakamura; photography by Katsuji Misawa; music by Shoji Yamashiro; distributed by Streamline Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 mins.
Parent's guide: Unrated (graphic violence; not for young children)
Showing at: Roxy Screening Room