How 'Akira' Has Influenced All Your Favourite TV, Film and Music
The iconic manga film is getting its third UK release in cinemas today – here's why you should go and watch it.
Whenever classic films are discussed, there's always that one guy. The guy who makes an audibly moist noise when he talks, whose homepage is a YouTube tutorial video on "How to Blow the Dankest Vape Clouds (3/6)".
You're not allowed to think Aliens is any good because the original Alien is far superior. Avatar isn't worth watching because it's just a frame-by-frame rip-off of Dances with Wolves, but blue. You shouldn't enjoy Let Me In because it's based on the superb Danish Let the Right One In, and if you knew ANYTHING about film you'd appreciate that all Hollywood remakes are horrible, ugly disappointments.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the classic 1988 Japanese anime film Akira, I am that guy. I am so that guy that I can barely see beyond the rim of my own fedora from all the vape smoke clouding my general vicinity. It is the only film I completely nerd out about, and I don't care how many friends I lose because of it.
Fortunately, I am not alone. Today, to mark the 25th anniversary of Manga Entertainment – the distribution company responsible for bringing a bunch of Japanese animation to the UK and US – Akira is getting its third UK release, playing in up to 70 cinemas nationwide.
For those who've already seen the film, you're probably now huge Akira nerds. For those who haven't, cancel this evening's Netflix-and-wallowing and go and watch it on the big screen. Why? Because it's one of the greatest and most influential films of the past 30 years, and you owe it to yourself to see it on a massive screen with really loud speakers.
Set in Neo-Tokyo after World War III, the story follows a gang of teenage biker rebels, specifically Kaneda and Tetsuo, as they accidentally stumble across a military project that plans to use telekinetic humans as weapons. Tetsuo is captured by the government and it soon becomes apparent he has telekinetic powers that rival those of the project's most powerful weapon, a child named Akira. Then – well I don't want to spoil it for you, but basically everything kicks off and it's amazing.
It's hard to imagine now, with Japanese culture very much part of the mainstream in the UK, but before the release of Akira in 1989, Japan and its art, food and animation was alien to many in the west. So much so that when Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas were offered the chance to bring Akira to the US in 1987 they famously turned it down, saying it wouldn't suit western audiences.
Which is strange, because the film's writer and director, Katsuhiro Otomo, borrowed a lot from what was popular in contemporary and classic western cinema at the time. Thematically, various aspects of the film are reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Stanley Kubrick's Space Odyssey 2001. He even makes strong references to Spielberg and Lucas' own E.T. and Star Wars, respectively.
Akira's combination of cyberpunk dystopia, youth alienation, scientific-based philosophy and grand scale visual bombast was already a staple part of the western sci-fi genre throughout the 80s, and its appeal became evident when it went on to gross $49 million worldwide when it was first released in cinemas – a lot of money for a film back then.
Talking about how the company started, Manga Entertainment co-creator Andy Frain would later recall in an interview with Manga UK: "I started thinking [Akira] was more than a great film – this might be a phenomenon. Were there more films like this in Japan? If so, we could treat them in music terms, like Def Jam: a genre in itself."
It was the first time the west had engaged with Japanese culture en-masse, and it made quite an impact: the film's influence is still apparent everywhere. In the area of film and television, you can see how it's shaped modern sci-fi as we know it. Films like Midnight Special, Chronicle and Inception all borrow thematically and stylistically from Akira. Two of those three even feature a child with destructive telekinetic powers as one of the main plot points. Another similarly influenced film was Looper, whose director Rian Johnson recently said in a Reddit AMA: "You can see the range of stuff I drew from, from Terminator to Akira."
In TV, Netflix's hugely popular love-letter to 80s sci-fi, Stranger Things, is based around Eleven, another child trained by some shady group to use her telekinetic powers as a weapon. The film set the scene for Pokemon, Naruto and Dragonball Z to become cultural phenomenons.
Away from film and TV, the movie has also touched musicians. Kanye West has spoken of his love for the film and even based his music video for "Stronger" completely on the storyline, basically playing a kind of Kanye/Tetsuo hybrid as the main protagonist. Its director, Hype Williams, said of Ye and the video at the time: "He was always inspired by Akira. There was a point where we really dove in and wound up filming parts of that movie for the video, but we decided to back off of it and do something a little more abstract for the final version."
The revolutionary OST from Geinoh Yamashirogumi even spawned a whole albums worth of electronica remixes last year from Bwana, called Capsules Pride.
So you can see just how much the film has influenced western culture since its original release 28 years ago. It was the first case of a Japanese film coming over to the UK and US and not having to water itself to be engaged with or lauded by critics. It opened the floodgates for not just anime but the whole of Japanese culture to be accepted by western audiences.
So if you haven't seen it yet, go and watch it; it's really great. I'll try not to block your view with my vape smoke.