Most of us modern anime fans weren’t around when Akira graced our screens back in 1988, but it left so much of a mark that we’re still talking about it nearly thirty years on. Those who watched its release recommended it to those younger than them, and that trend has continued to this day to make Akira one of the most timeless and influential anime films of all time. Akira has influenced not only other anime and manga, but also films in the west (seen Tron? Without Akira, it would be totally different). So what exactly makes Akira the legend that it is? What footsteps did it leave other shows to follow?
It was written by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto, based off the manga of the same name, which is also exceedingly popular. Set in 2019 in a dystopian Tokyo (as hilariously inaccurate as 1988 visions of the future can be), we see the focus on adolescent biker and psychic power-user Tetsuo and his biker gang. As Tetsuo is detained for his powers and goes on a rampage, his friends and the authorities must stop him from releasing the also-imprisoned psychic ‘Akira’, who could destroy the world.
The film focuses mainly on the first half of the eight-volume series, although it does steal parts from the second half towards the end of the film – making the plot just a little more confusing. As a hard sci-fi film with cyberpunk undertones, it’s a mish-mash of so many different elements that it’s pretty difficult to keep up with for a newcomer. Regardless, it became the ‘gateway’ show for many people in the west as the first anime to teach us all that anime is not just for kids.
Speaking of influencing the west: Akira did more than just teach that anime is also an adult’s playground. It taught so many people that anime existed in the first place. It was one of the first anime to gain any notable popularity in the west, opening up the doors to many other favourites. Fist of the North Star, Gundam Wing, Slayers, and a tonne of other old-school classics might not have been so popular had it not been for the opportunities brought to them by the showing of Akira. These shows were so many people’s first anime, and many people see the late 80s and 90s to be the golden years of anime, before it became the more commercialised system some say we have today. Maybe Dragonball was the series that most people remember from their childhood, but Akira is definitely the film.
Akira has not only been influential in the west, but of course in its home, the Japanese anime industry. The film was received so well that other studios now had the freedom to create philosophically, mentally challenging shows knowing that they would work. Serial Experiments Lain came onto the scene in 1998, a knot of ideas rivalling Akira itself. About a teenage girl who develops a special connection to a virtual reality network, it throws in all of the cyberpunk elements that Akira brought to life, and gives us so much to think about that we hardly remember it’s an anime at all. Akira introduced the world to the capabilities of anime, and Serial Experiments Lain continued this fast-growing legacy. What shows like these two do is highlight the importance of ideas/themes over an easy narrative, and there are few like them. There are no limits when a show explores how we see reality or the capabilities of the human mind.
Not only do the complex ideas and awesome action give Akira its fame, but other elements make it the timeless gem that it is. Its budget was stretched to the max, allowing for CGI and excellent visuals to blow other 80s anime out of the water. Many older shows are difficult for modern fans to watch because we’re so accustomed to seeing perfection, but to the viewers in the 80s and 90s, this was perfection. For a film with such intense action, the creators of Akira have given the industry a lesson in doing it right.
In the western world of Hollywood film, Akira’s ideas influenced famous works like Tron and The Matrix, allowing it to gain the respect of those who usually would have nothing to do with the anime community. The film gained a place on Empire magazine’s 500 best movies of all time, and has been said to be a huge influence on the sci-fi genre all over the world. Akira became one of the few anime to break the boundaries of Japan and the western anime community, and prove its worth among the elite.
So it’s been 28 years since Akira aired, and that fact that we’re still talking about it today should be reason enough to give it a watch if you haven’t already. It introduced anime to the western world as a grown-up form of entertainment, proved to everyone that anime can be deep and thought-provoking, and it influenced other popular shows like Serial Experiments Lain. Without films like Akira popularising the medium, we might not have had a chance to see other great classic anime. Akira, despite being the mind-boggling cluster of craziness that it is, definitely deserves our praise for its ongoing legacy.