This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
The Criterion Collection numbers the movies that it releases, so it’s easy to find that the first animated film they released was number 700, Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are only five others and none of them are what you’d call “anime,” though that descriptor is losing meaning in a changing landscape. I saw Akira, which Criterion has released but does not consider part of the main numbered line, this weekend and it got me thinking about what we’re willing to honor.
I saw Akira as part of a midnight showing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The place was nearly packed, even at midnight, for a movie that is now more than three decades old. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and enjoyed this viewing, with a 4K print that I’m not sure necessarily adds that much to an animated movie but was a nice experience all the same. What struck me this time was how much it hits the same way every time, with a first half that draws me in and mesmerizes me and then loses me a little before a stunning climax.
Akira is “the” anime, I think, and especially for Western audiences it was the first one to really click. It was advertised in America as “not for kids” on late-night commercials back in the days when you would send in payment over the mail and get a VHS tape. This predated Sailor Moon and was contemporary with the earliest versions of Dragon Ball, so those ads had to educate viewers about what they were even offering, much less why you should want this version of it. The exoticism of anime to the West is still very much a part of it, and why there were so many people in that theater in the wee hours watching it all these years later, and the climax of Akira probably did more to build that up than any one piece of media.
Testuo and Kaneda are part of a bike gang in a futuristic, but ruined, Tokyo. Tetsuo has an encounter with a mystical glowing child and becomes both very powerful and very sick. The government shows up and wants to reign in and explain his power, but Tetsuo sees the opportunity to finally get out of Kaneda’s shadow and rebels in the only way he sees available. We get smatterings of what life is like in this world in the background, with protests and street fires and government control gone mad, but mostly we follow these two kids as they advance towards a conflict. Kaneda is his friend, but he wants Tetsuo to calm down and be reasonable.
This big brother/little brother conflict is almost all of the second act, which I have to say feels hard to watch every time I see it. Part of this is the impact of the rest of the film. The conflict itself, where Kaneda finally confronts Tetsuo and the visuals begin to really go for broke, is what people remember, and for good reason. It’s visually arresting and it’s horrifying, but it’s also largely hand-drawn and beautiful. Even if you know what’s coming, the scale of it and the constant one-upping gets you every time. The artform and the audience came from this moment.
However, it’s the first hour that reverberates through art itself. Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the original Akira manga and directed the film, and it’s his Neo-Tokyo that you see over and over. The bike in Akira is iconic, but it’s the specific way that government control and scientific discovery without ethics and societal collapse is portrayed that became the template for how you show what might happen next. Otomo didn’t invent this, but the synthesis of it in Akira helped define a language for a world that’s advanced, but also failed.
Akira is hyperviolent, even for the genre, and remains a little shocking even today. It’s not for everyone and I say that even as someone that still feels a little hesitant to recommend anime in general to a broad audience. When I talk about movies like Paprika and Weathering With You, I want people to learn what those are and when they should watch them. I think you could put either of those on after dinner on a Tuesday and enjoy it with your friends, roommates, partner, or other weirdos that watch anime with you. Akira is not in that vein. This is a stepping stone to where we are now, but it’s also a pretty watchable version of that. The ending is still surprising and the climax, as we’ve been over, is one of the great visual displays in animated history. Criterion’s hallowed list may still be reserved for when Wes Anderson makes something animated, but if you’re willing to take a chance on anything that’s slightly out there but also very acclaimed, I really can’t recommend anything more highly than this.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It would be fair to say Stalker and Akira are “in conversation” with each other, I think, and I think both of them defined their respective genres for years to come. I’m more interested in the questions Stalker asks, and I think the pacing is a problem in both of them, but I think I have to side with Akira. On this recent watch that first hour really did capture me again, which is an accomplishment for something I’ve seen as much as I’ve seen this, and worthy of note.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona. My vote for the best anime film of all time is probably The End of Evangelion, a film with an undeniable debt to Akira. I also recently watched Megazone 23, another series that’s constantly compared to Akira, though I ran out of space to discuss it above. We’ll revisit all those connections at some point, and while I’m not willing to dethrone our current winner for Akira, if you have any interest in anime at all and haven’t seen it, I’ve gotta say again that you owe it to yourself to correct that error.
You can watch Akira on Hulu (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.