30 Years Since Akira. Not Just Another Film Anniversary.

Blog, Inspiration

Tetsuo, from Akira

Tetsuo Shima, at his tragic zenith [digital sketch] 

I can’t paint a perfect picture of 1989 for you. I was 18, exploring ideas of a life outside Norfolk, growing my hair long and wearing clothes hippy enough that would turn out, two years later, to be “you’ll do as you are” for an extra role in a BBC period drama set in 1968.

Otherwise I can’t give you much detail about 1989. Can’t remember the political climate (‘peak-Thatcher’ probably), can’t remember that summer’s weather (so, average then), and couldn’t tell you what the movies or albums of the year were.

Except for one. Akira.

Seen at Cinema City in Norwich, now a Picture House (boo, hiss, treat your staff better y’villains!), but then the artiest cinema I knew and Akira would be the first time I’d go. Pretty sure it had a wine bar, olives not crisps, and showed films where no one had guns, or that had zero scenes with police in it, or that eschewed screen violence for emotionally-complex conversations. Obviously I’d avoided it til then.

I’d never seen anime at this point, nor watched a japanese film beyond the odd Godzilla here and there. So on this occasion, going to the flicks frankly felt more like a sixth-form field trip. But oh. Oh. Oh my.

While the movie, first released in Asia in 1988, certainly swerves in and out of the story presented in Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s original manga (which I began to read as soon as I could find it), Ōtomo kept a firm hand on the story and animation’s creative direction, personally and zealously story-boarding with a visionary level of detail. As such, the worlds of Neo-Tokyo and old Tokyo are utterly complete, their biker gangs utterly of their streets,  the militarised telekinetic-psychic children entirely necessary to protect what’s left of Japanese humanity post-Akira.

Step forward Tetsuo Shima. A life spent under the protection of the system and his best friend is finally given the tools it needs to step out of the shadows and into the light that only really Tetsuo thinks Tetsuo deserves. Only his teenage friends are capable to helping him, and he doesn’t want their help; Tetsuo is too old to be controlled, and too young to control himself.

It’s a masterclass this film, and not just in its visual design that in 1988 was truly astonishing and awe-inspiring.

Here’s my list of firsts experienced in that short time:

  • I cried at a cartoon. More than once. A lot. Not a good ‘date movie’.
  • A cartoon made me question the very nature of consciousness, science, the universe and what it looks like when someone gets knocked off a moving motorbike with a pipe.
  • While olives may be delicious and nourishing, cinema food they are not.
  • Explosions – particularly ones made of white light – are waaay more powerful when there’s no sound. And, related to this…
  • … you can hear your jaw-dropping and mouth-gaping when it’s really quiet.
  • It’s ok to not really know what happens to a main character at the end of a story. Uncertainty and closure are not mutually exclusive and it’s okay to confront and accept the limits of your understanding. If cosmic geometry and fractal shapes aren’t enough for you then, my friend, er, whatever.
  • A character at the peak of their powers can be a study in abject tragedy.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and celebrating the tenth anniversary of Akira at The Ritzy in Brixton, now also a Picture House (boo, hiss, treat your staff better y’rotters!), my friends and I watched it again, cried a lot again, had popcorn instead, and were treated to a sale of cels and process drawings. 1999-me is even vaguer than 1989-me (I appreciate the pattern, but trust, of 2009 I’m lucid and 2018 is still very fresh) but I won’t forget that.

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