Last Level Press

Film Review: Akira (2001 Pioneer Dub)

Reviewer: Olen Bjorgo

On July 16, 1988, Tokyo was blown up by a massive explosion. Thirty-one years after World War Three, Neo-Tokyo has risen from the ashes of the old city and is set to host the 2020 Olympic Games yet is plagued by motorcycle gangs, rebellious youth, and anti-government sentiment as the Japanese military works alongside the police to keep order. Everything changed in an instant when teenage street biker Tetsuo, a member and friend of Kaneda’s gang, encountered a strange boy with telekinetic power. Injured and taken in by scientists to study the stirring power within him, Tetsuo wakes up in a hospital as he hears a name: Akira.

Akira is, without question, a landmark film both in and out of Japan. It has earned the accolades of critics and fans alike and is widely regarded not only among the greatest animated films of all time but also an inspiration to other properties that came after it. Its popularity and cult status is believed to have kick started the massive anime boom that began in the early 1990s and even helped establish Manga Entertainment, an anime licensing and distribution company that brought Ghost in the Shell to international audiences. The film was even released on LaserDisc through the Criterion Collection in 1993. Without this film the existence of many things that some anime fans in America remember fondly probably wouldn’t have been. Truly, it is a modern masterpiece… right?

“Choose your next words very, very carefully.”

Visually, it certainly is. While from a distance Neo-Tokyo appears to be a glistening, glitzy city of lights it is rotten to core with corrupt politicians, discontent by the youth, violent police, and oppressive military action while the city is built up anew from the destroyed ruins of the former Tokyo and is the archetypical vision of the dystopian cyberpunk city that was popular in the 1980s. Everything on screen has such remarkable amounts of detail from the background enviornments to active machines to even the lights on motorcycles and vehicles leaving behind a fading stream of light. There are two things to be noted on the film in general: there is a lot of violent gore and the color red is the most vibrant of anything else seen. From spilled blood to paint, from Kaneda’s now iconic red motorcycle and clothes to the red cape Tetsuo wears late in the film, red is the most striking color in a piece where colors are more naturally subdued. Even the title of the movie is seen in bold, red, uppercase letters.

Sand rakes be damned.  This man has reached a level of zen the rest

of us can only dream of.

While the film is a sublime sight to behold, the audio pales in comparison. While the dubbing is fine, the soundtrack is a bit hard to nail down. More often than not, there really isn’t a lot of music to make note of but there are incredibly few scenes of complete silence, one of which is in space simply because there is no sound to begin with. However, there is one notable track with chanting as the story gets closer to the climax, one associated with who or what Akira is and what power Akira possesses, that conveys an unnerving and unnatural power of the universe; the awesome power and abilities of a god. This conviction is turned to eleven when Testuo begins to lose control of this power. Prior to this, it’s a slow and steady buildup and ultimately pays off in the end.

The same could be said for the progression of the story… kinda-sorta. The film is an adaptation of a massive manga series of the same name so much of what is given in the film is somewhat abridged or never outright explained. Aside from a brief caption at the start, we are left to assume that the destruction of Tokyo started World War Three and we know nothing else of the war. We see discontent and hear about anti-government sentiment, revolutionary terrorism, and student protests but we’re never given a solid answer for why these things exist other than to showcase that things are pretty messed up. For much of the film, we don’t even know who or what Akira is and the answer we are given is more of a philosophical idea than anything else. There isn’t a conventional good guy or bad guy since each faction we see is corrupt or unlawful in some way. In spite of the holes, the story just weaves its way to avoid them and presents a narrative that showcases essentially the rise and fall of Kaneda’s motorcycle gang.

“Capsule Gang?  Nah nah, too Dragonball. Reds? No, too generic.

I know!  The Sticker Brothers!”

It should be noted that the dub I watched is the 2001 Pioneer version rather than the original dub that people would have heard back in 1988 so the voice acting will involve those actors. While it was nice to hear a few voices that were go-to actors for the now defunct Bandai Entertainment, there are really two characters worth mentioning simply because we see them the most and aren’t simply one-note or underdeveloped. Tetsuo, voiced by the now-retired Joshua Seth (Digimon, Wolf’s Rain), has a relatively gentle voice but is far from innocent at the beginning of the film where he starts as a childhood friend of Kaneda and ends as a frightening arrogant force of destruction to supersede his inferiority complex. Kaneda, voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch (Bleach, Trigun, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), is quick on his feet, somewhat charming, and a leader until you’re reminded he’s a rude and violent delinquent but ultimately ends up trying to help his friend even if that means stopping him from killing everyone. Jamieson Price (Tales of the Abyss, Dynasty Warrior) gets an honorable mention as the Colonel because despite being a deep and booming voice of authority he seems to be the only other character that has an understood motive: the defense of Neo-Tokyo no matter the cost despite his hatred of short-sighted politicians and the city he must defend. While the remaining characters are not worth mentioning outside of maybe a synopsis of the film, all the actors had performed to a caliber worthy of this film and its legacy.

Speaking of…we caught  it.  Did you?

The film might be lacking in some regards but you can feel how this is a dystopia we are presented with and how the world might be coming to an end towards the end of the film when we see followers of a cult who believed that Akira was a god who would bring a final judgment to the world. The final battle is perhaps the greatest spectacle of the overall feeling of the film and its ending is… well, it’s unexpected and unexplained but not disappointing. If you’re a fan of anime or animation in general then this should be one of the films you should have in your collection. If you enjoy films like Blade Runner or cyberpunk in general, you might enjoy this or at least see how it influenced later media. However, if you’re a bit squeamish or sensitive to violence and graphic images then Akira is probably not for you. In the end it’s a film that deserves its accolades and, as far as I’m concerned, is definitely worth being considered a masterpiece despite its flaws.

Rating: 8.0

Visuals: 10
Audio: 7
Narrative: 5
Acting: 8
Atmosphere & Experience: 10

Final Verdict:


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  Director: Katsuhiro Otomo

  Producer: Ryohei Suzuki/

                   Shunzo Kato

  Studio: TMS Entertainment

  Release Date (U.S.):  Mar 30, 2001

  Release Date (U.K.):  Mar 30, 2001

  Release Date (JP):  Nov 9, 2002