Throughout the history of animated film there has been numerous films that can easily described as influential to the medium as a whole; whether it be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being the first full-length traditionally animated feature film or even Toy Story for being the first computer-animated feature film. However, one film that that I feel is just as important as both of those I just mentioned, but also goes beyond the realm of animation by influencing pop culture and crossing international borders while doing it, is none other than Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 masterpiece, Akira.
Based on the 1982 manga of the same name, which was also done by Otomo, the film is set in a dystopian 2019, where it tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda, a leader of a biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident, eventually threatening an entire military complex amidst chaos and rebellion in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo.
To begin with Akira’s many influences, I think the easiest thing to start with is it’s overall impact on anime–in particular how it boosted anime’s presence in the West. While Anime is huge and way more accessible nowadays, the same really couldn’t be said back then, as it was far more obscure and elusive especially back in a pre-internet era. This is why when it started to gain a cult following via numerous theatrical and VHS releases, it was a important contributor to the eventual increase in popularity of Anime here in the West. In terms of why Akira in particular made it big, there’s two major reasons. One, there was really nothing else similar at that time aesthetically, as it created a world that was truly one of a kind. At the time of release, it was the highest budget Anime film of all time, with a budget of of 1.1 billion yen (approximately 8 million U.S. dollars). Akira is chock-filled with so many detailED scenes and fluid animation which no doubt wasn’t an easy task. It used over 160,ooo animation cels to create all of that, and put that into perspective, using cel animation essentially means that the animators had to illustrate the background, middle, and foreground of each scene on three different cels. While it’s no doubt a huge time-consuming process and such isn’t a practice that is used much anymore, it paves the way for so many iconic and downright beautiful shots that shows how much you can really accomplish within the animation. It’s truly is a work of art.
The other reason why I feel Akira developed a cult following is because it really redefined how the West perceives animation and especially was pivotal for the rise of adult animation in general. Before Akira, animation in the West was almost exclusively marketed towards children. The likes of Disney and Warner Bros. animation wasn’t necessarily considered appealing to anyone outside of children and thus animation was given a stigma that it’s only for kids which is one that while not as widely believed anymore is still one that the medium hasn’t been able to get rid of completely. But Akira changed all of that, it featured heavy topics like corruption, violence and secret experiments and the characters weren’t necessarily all that family-friendly as they were either rebellious teens, corrupted adults or strange kids with immense telekinetic abilities. Akira didn’t want to talk down to their audience, they instead wanted to transported viewers into a world that they’ve never seen before and something you never find from Disney in a million years, which at the time was something the animation industry especially in the west really needed as it’s one of the earliest and notable examples of adult animation alongside The Simpsons (1989-present).
However, it’s not just animation that Akira has a major effect in, it’s also incredibly influential various other fields of pop culture. There’s too many to name, so I’ll just go by some notable examples. It’s either been inspired or even featured in two different music videos, that being Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s Scream (1995), and Kanye West’s Stronger (2007). Both Looper (2012) and Stranger Things (2016-present) have been cited as being influenced by Akira by their own creators, Rian Johnson and the Duffer Brothers, respectively. This isn’t too out of the ordinary given that both properties feature children with telekinetic abilities with both of them following different aspects of Akira. But one cameo I find interesting is that in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2017), Kanedo’s bike is featured alongside many other pop culture icons. Spielberg, alongside George Lucas, were originally offered the distribution rights to Akira, but both passed on it as they thought the film was unmarketable in the US. I can only imagine that both of them have long since regretted that decision given the film’s impact, and at least in Spielberg’s case, this cameo seems to rectify that a little bit.
I hope now with all of this in mind, you can easily why Akira is as revered and respected as it is and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. It’s worth noting that it’s one of only three animated films to be a part of the Criterion Collection, and I wholeheartedly believe that it more than deserves its spot.