Akira is widely considered to be the greatest anime ever made, and is almost definitely responsible for the popularity of anime in North America. Keep in mind, it was released in 1988 and before that time there were not a lot of Japanese anime series or movies that had made it to the States. Some exceptions to this are the movie Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958) and the series Astro Boy (1963). If you are not familiar with these titles then that is completely alright.
Akira has managed to remain just as popular and impressive today as it was when it was released in 1988. Perhaps this is due to what an incredible story it tells. Possibly, its due to the almost impossible level the animation reaches. Or maybe, its simply because it has the absolute coolest motorcycles ever imagined.
Regardless, the story of a gang of young street kids who get tangled up in something much bigger when one of their number begins exhibiting psychic powers is still mind-blowingly good. Secret government projects, apocalyptic scenarios, futuristic cities, and teenage biker gangs. Add all that together and you end up with a film that had to develop new animation techniques just to finish its production.
The Graphic Novel vs the Movie
The movie Akira is based on the manga, the Japanese equivalent of comic books, with the same name. The manga was serialized from 1982 until 1990, so when the movie was being developed the manga had not yet finished. However, since the creator of the manga was also the creator and director of the Akira movie did this not pose a problem.
Seeing as how these two works of art were created by the same person but shown to the world in two different forms of media, we will shortly go through the similarities and differences between Akira the movie and Akira the manga.
Visually the two share similar looks, however the manga uses a monotone, black and white colour palette which concentrates on depicting the landscape through just the basic outlines. The film incorporates a lot more colour to give the environment and surroundings a greater sense of style. Mind, this difference is because a manga is typically in black and white, with the occasional coloured page at the start.
Storyline wise the movie is like a condensed version of the manga, which is to be expected since the manga was worth a total of 2000 pages. As a result a lot of the backstory and additional characters were cut. Of course, with such a big production mistakes were inevitable. One of such mistakes is the mis-gendering of one of the characters, as depicted below. In the movie she, or rather he, only appears in a few scenes, but in the manga she plays a much larger role.
Japanese animated films, such as Akira and Metropolis, commonly refer to the cultural and historical events of destruction. The apocalyptic events, staged at an immense scale ranging from a single city to an entire world, are presented as a normative condition of human existence. The event of destruction is thus heavily de-contextualized and mythologized, as historical, political and economic causes are replaced with mythical, supernatural powers. The difficulty to understand ‘why’ the destruction is happening corresponds to the Japanese understanding of atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an apologetic view of the Imperial Japan, and even denial of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki becomes a historically de-contextualized and mythologized event. The apocalyptic events of destruction are then reduced to mere fantastic imagery of mushroom clouds and abstract spheres of light gradually consuming the urban landscape. The individual human experience of suffering is largely absent, as is the entire period of reconstruction that occurs in the inter-apocalyptic interludes.
Aside from the large explosion at the beginning, there are other parts of the film that resemble real life events that have happened in Japan.
The colonel for example leads a coup that suggests Japans’ pre-war or post-war remilitarization. Graphic images of street demonstrations recall the massive public protests of the 1950s and 1960, whose targets included Japan’s support for U.S. military policy.
A vaguely defined group of “urban guerrillas”, suggests the Japanese Red Army terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s.
Movies that were inspired by Akira
Looper & Chronicle
Both movies share a character whose psychokinetic abilities will eventually turn them into a monster.
The Matrix on the other hand mostly takes cues from Akira in the way that the action scenes are set up and filmed.
The final battle of Dark City is an obvious nod to the final battle in the animated film.
Mr. Otomo insisted that each and every scene in the movie be given the exacting attention to detail, something which can be seen in this background. This picture is a view of Neo-Tokyo at night. You can see that every building, no matter how far in the distance, has individually painted windows. The horizon indicates a night sky illuminated by the city. The highway has cars and movement. The trees have leaves. They even painted airplane lights on the towers of the skyscrapers. But it is actually only one of many backgrounds in Akira, and only a part of it can be seen during a grand total of six seconds in the film itself. And not even a very important six seconds, as it’s just two characters talking about Neo-Tokyo.
Please skip to 1:15 for the afore mentioned six seconds of footage.
This particular scene alone is made of 9 different components, five of which are the buildings, but the other ones are the background, the wall in the foreground, and the two characters.
This attention to detail can also be found in the cinematography of the film. Akira was a film made for cinema, created with 160,000 cels of animation designed for a 35mm print. Akira’s visual language in the film owes a lot to the study of photographic realism. The film uses spherical and anamorphic lens flares, interactive lighting, texture, motion blur, camera angles and focal lengths, perspective and parallax, as well as incredible fidelity of detail.
Pan and scan over a large forced perspective frame simulates a tilt up with a wide angle lens, the highly detailed city increases the sense of scale of the explosion which follows.
Interactive lighting enhances the verisimilitude of the wall textures.
The lack of a skyline, mismatched perspective and extreme use of scale give an overwhelming feel to NeoTokyo’s oppressive cityscape.
Akira uses the physics of light and the conventions of live action cinematography as inspiration to create a more stylised and exciting visual style. Lights leave trails in the convention of long exposure stills photography and there is infinite depth of focus, leaving only the careful composition of the image to direct the viewers eye. The vast architecture of the metropolis of NeoTokyo looms at an impossibly epic scale, a constant reminder of the disparity between the rich and corrupt upper classes and the gangs on the streets.
The motorcycle lights leave trails that belong to long exposure photography, while stylised use of rotating lens flare enhance the perspective lines of this composition and make for a dynamic shot.
As mentioned before, Akira was released in 1988. In that same year Disney released Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Pixar, whose first full length film, Toy Story would not be released until 1995, released a five minute, completely computer animated short film called Tin Toy.
As can be seen the styles, but also the attention to detail is vastly different in these three movies. In the case of Tin Toy it can be explained because this is one of the earliest computer animated shorts, and as thus this entire industry of animation is still in it’s infancy. Aptly represented by the big baby on screen.
Over the years animation has gone from the space of paper, to the cel, to the film frame, and now to the computer frame.
Before the invention of the multi plane camera, something which I’ll get into shortly, the animators made use of transparent cells along with a steady background. Case in point, this scene of Mickey Mouse. This technique allowed animators to let Mickey move farther away from the camera, but also to allow him to come closer. However, the moment Mickey leaves the screen he takes whatever notion of dimension you have with him, showing how flat the background actually is. This also posed a problem when wanting to zoom in on things, for example a moon in a night sky. By zooming in on the background the moon also became bigger, something which would not happen with an actual camera in real life, at least not to that extent.
Photographing reality, at least a Disney style reality was the point of the new multi plane camera that was crafted by William Garity, then head of the studios camera department, and Roger Broggie of its machine shop. Developed as a vertical apparatus, the Disney multi plane device consisted of a camera shooting down through four horizontal planes, each of which could be moved and lit independently. Movement into or away from the image could produce a natural sense of parallax, more genuinely simulating our normal visual experience and conforming to natural laws of perception.
So how did they do it. The different elements in the scene were separated according to their distances from the viewer. This puts the moon on the plane farthest away from the camera. With the original picture broken down in this manner it is possible to control the relative speed of each individual part as it moves to or away from the camera. But the moon remains absolutely still, so it will always remain the same. Neither growing or shrinking in size.
The camera was not placed in front of the planes, it was placed on top of them in a vertical position. And so the multi plane camera was born, a technique that would be used for many animations.
The multi plane camera, for all its realistic effects, did not alter the fantastic elements from which the cartoons still drew their primary attraction, nor did it make the images themselves truly lifelike. It allowed to set the fantasy subjects within more realistic spaces, while also allowing the animators to approach those subjects as if they were real and as if the characters inhabited a three dimensional environment.
Disney for a number of years tried to develop ways of bringing together traditional hand-drawn and computer animation, integrating their aesthetics and possibilities. Following its groundbreaking work on the science fiction film Tron, which used then-state-of-the-art CGI effects to visualize the virtual world inside a computer, the company had combined conventional hand-drawn animation with computer imagery to produce the remarkably three dimensional ballroom dance scene of beauty and the beast (1989), the cave wonders in Aladdin(1991) and the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King.
Moving on to the first feature-length computer animated film, Toy Story, which is also the first theatrical film produced by Pixar.
With Toy Story (1995) the reality is impressive, a striking indication of what Pixar was already able to achieve with its RenderMan software, which was quickly becoming an industry standard. A convincing sense of depth because of its built-in multi plane effect, varied image textures, complex figure and structure modelling, thanks to its lighting effects these are all hallmarks of that “outside” space that narrative increasingly puts on display as it takes us deeper into its world, and as it unfolds its more complex vision of what lies behind those naïve and childish images on which the film opens.
What Pixar sought to do was to clear out a space for their own approach to animation, one that was intentionally “highly stylized-a cross between live action reality and a typical squash-and-stretch cartoon world”. In fact, that style would eventually come to be known at Pixar as “hyper reality”, a term that means a stylized realism that had a lifelike feel without actually being photorealistic. Pixar has consistently managed to address new challenges in digital animation, to develop tools for coping with those challenges, and even to fold the problems of digitally animating space into the space of its animated stories. It has as a result, consistently led the animation field into the digital era, while maintaining an important continuity, even a dialogue, with the traditions of conventional 2D animation. That success follows largely from the sophisticated conceptualization of computer animation that was practically forced on the artists and technicians at Pixar. They have had to figure out, essentially from the start, what could be done in and with this new approach to the art form, how they might negotiate with reality to blend together what we might think of as the simultaneously realistic and fantastic possibilities that both challenge and mark all digital animation.
In conclusion, animated movies have come very far in the last couple of decades, and I am certain that they will continue to grown and improve in the years to come.