Even if you’ve never heard of 1988’s Akira, you’ve probably experienced it one way or another. Kanye West’s song “Stronger” is based on Akira and Michael Jackson and featured a clip of Akira in his “Scream” music video. Films such as Josh Trank’s Chronicle took major inspiration from Akira with the same plot of a teenager losing control of their powers. Wes Anderson used a shot from Akira to make it his own on the Isle of Dogs. The director of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo, even drew a poster for Isle of Dogs. Comic book artist Dustin Nguyen used a hallway shot of Akira for Descender. A film that has such a widespread effect on media is pretty amazing, to say the least.

Tetsuo raises the ground with his telekinetic abilities in Akira.
Credit to: Tokyo Movie Shinsha

Akira didn’t just inspire western media, it changed it. Before Akira, the west was accustomed to child-friendly animation. The idea of a telekinetic teenager becoming violent and grotesque was unheard of in western animation. With a lot of undertones related to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Akira was anything but sunshine and rainbows.

The Quality Of Details Used In Akira‘s Animation

Animating Akira was a long, expensive process. Animators worked with cels (a transparent sheet) to bring the city of Neo-Tokyo to life. While it is common to use four or five cels in animation, Akira’s animation team used nine layers of cels in some scenes. Layering cels on top of each other made the film look fluid and believable. The characters appeared to be expressive and the background was warm. Director Otoma said he intended for Neo-Tokyo to be a character and the animation style made it so. Even more impressive, there were twenty-four frames in one second of motion. With the film being roughly over two hours long, there were about 180,000 frames that had to be drawn by hand!

A motorcycle racing through the beautifully drawn buildings. The red and orange lights stream behind the bike. An example of the stunning animation in Akira.
Credit to: Tokyo Movie Shinsha

Lighting was one of Akira‘s most notable claims to fame. Nowadays, digital software illuminates animated scenes. Akira had to create light from scratch. Having to create light by hand allowed animators to make light a strong presence within the film. The neon lights made up Neo-Tokyo which gave the film a futuristic, grungy, cyberpunk feel. Every saturated neon sign, glowing keyboard, blinding beam, and motorcycle headlight were important.

The Powerful Themes In Akira

In the present day, the pandemic has made the world a scary place. So, it is easy to understand how people look for ways to cope with real-world issues by delving into fictional worlds. Films often serve as a catharsis for people to talk about their painful history or current experiences. Akira, back in 1988, was a surreal way of addressing the pain Japan had felt over the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings forty-three years prior. In the film, Akira was a young boy whose telekinetic abilities got so out of hand that he decimated Tokyo, Japan. We saw how the city and its people coped with Akira’s destruction thirty-years later.

After Akira’s decimation, the government still looked for ways to harness psychic powers. They even continued to experiment on children. Tetsuo was an orphaned teen who got tangled up in the experimentations. The symptoms he experienced as a result of harnessing his powers were similar to that of nuclear victims. Tetsuo suffered mentally and physically until he physically couldn’t take any more.

Kaneda's motorcycle gang all stop in fear as the police shine a light on them.
Credit to: Tokyo Movie Shinsha

Other themes present in Akira were religious and political zealotry, disgruntled and abandoned youth, friendship, the dangers of technology, corrupt government, and fear. Not only did Tetsuo embody nuclear war victims but also the fear of a future that repeats the past. Although Akira had desolated Japan, the government hadn’t learned from their prior mistake. Tetsuo was in danger of becoming the next Akira. A bomb waiting to explode.

We Are In Charge Of Our World

Tetsuo had great power but was emotionally damaged from being orphaned and feeling like he had no place in the world, which resulted in his powers going haywire. Youth are the future, but what kind of world are we, as a society, setting them up for? The character Kei, a member of an anti-government organization trying to gain information on Tetsuo, did well when she described what Akira was. Akira was the “ultimate energy.”

Tetsuo looks at his sparkling hands as a giant beam aims to take him out.
Credit to: Tokyo Movie Shinsha

Energy is present in all things, but if the power and responsibilities human beings have been given to something simple like an amoeba (whose job is just to devour) horrors can ensue. When humans are given “ultimate energy,” the power that should only belong to unknown things greater than us, we self destruct. We even hurt others, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It is important to remember who we are as human beings and what we are in charge of. Akira is a cautionary tale about what happens when power corrupts humans and when humans don’t take care of one another. We would do well to heed the warning.