Akira (1988) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

2019 was a hell of a year!

Akira is a ground-breaking Japanese animated film that creates beautiful moments while telling a dark, futuristic tale. It follows several tried and true sci-fi themes, while further defining the genre of anime and animated science-fiction films.

First Impressions

The trailer for Akira doesn’t explain too much. It looks like a futuristic Tokyo (called Neo-Tokyo by the narrator) shot with some beautifully drawn animation. There are explosions, motorcycle chases, attack helicopters, and a man and his son running from….something. This doesn’t look like the standard Japanese animation from the late 80s, so let’s take a look at what Akira has to offer.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


Akira title card.

The Fiction of The Film

On July 16, 1988, a nuclear explosion in the heart of Tokyo touches off World War III. Thirty one years later in 2019 life continues with motorcycle gangs racing through the city. One gang includes Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata) and Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki), who battle on futuristic motorcycles in post-war Neo-Tokyo. Tetsuo crashes into a young boy emblazoned with a #26,  on his palm, and the two are taken away by the Army. Kaneda and the bike gangs are rounded up as well and interrogated at the Olympic venue for the 2020 Olympics where he spots a beautiful girl, Kei (Mami Koyama), along with a number of other anti-government resistance members.

Tetsuo escapes from the hospital where he is being held. Colonel Shikishima (Tarô Ishida) debates killing Tetsuo with Doctor Ônishi (Mizuho Suzuki), when it’s revealed that he might hold the same power that Akira unleashed on Tokyo in 1988. One of three aged-looking children Kiyoko (Sachie Ito), #25–and compatriot to both Takashi (Tatsuhiko Nakamura), #26 and Masaru (Kazuhiro Shindō), #27, warn the Colonel that Akira will return. Tetsuo attempts to leave town with his girlfriend but is stopped and beaten by the Clown Gang, but is soon saved by Kaneda. Tetsuo begins having headaches and hallucinations and is picked up by doctors, led by members of the armed forces, and returned to the hospital.

Th4e Colonel meets with the Supreme Executive Council to warn them of the risk Tetsuo may pose, but they are more concerned with anti-government protests, budget spending and their own political advancement than the possibility of another destructive “accident” in the city. Meanwhile, Tetsuo is visited by the three children, revealed to all have psychic powers, and provide the boy with nightmarish scenarios designed to kill him. Tetsuo’s latent powers grows and he begins to go mad with an inability to control it.


Many aspects of Akira are famous, but probably none as much as Kaneda’s motorcycle, and this particular slide effect which has been copied in numerous other films and shows.

Kaneda teams up with Kei, and Ryu (Tesshô Genda)–the leader of her activist group, to break into the facility and rescue Tetsuo. Kiyoko speaks through Kei and explains what is happening to Tetsuo and the need to stop him. Tetsuo goes on a rampage through the town, after rejecting Kaneda’s offer to help, and uses his new-found psychic power to hunt for the remains of Akira. A number of citizens believe that Tetsuo is the second coming of Lord Akira, the Enlightened but get caught up in an attack between him and the army.

Tetsuo heads to the Olympic stadium and raises the cryogenic sphere holding the remains of Akira from deep in the ground. He is disappointed to only find tissue samples, but still feels the presence of Akira (known as subject #28) in his head. The Colonel, who has taken control of the military and arrested the council in a coup-d’etat, unleashes the power of SOL-740, a space laser on Tetsuo in hopes of stopping him. It shears off his arm, but he uses his new found power to gather machine parts and crafts a new one.

As the attack continues, both by the army and Kaneda, Tetsuo’s body deforms into a giant mass of flesh and debris. The psychic children unleash Akira, who unleashes another singularity, sucking in Tetsuo and much of Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda is trapped as well, and experiences flashbacks of the children’s training, and his initial friendship with Tetsuo before being returned to the city by the children. Tetsuo, along with Akira and the psychics, are all present at the birth of a new universe, while Kaneda, Kei and the Colonel witness a new day over the ruins of Neo-Tokyo.

All I know is what Roy said. He said Akira has achieved pure energy.” – Kei


Colonel Shikishima discusses the protocols with Doctor Ônishi in case Tetsuo’s powers were to match with Akira’s. They observe a circular graph (produced with rudimentary computer graphics) indicating his power levels.

History in the Making

Akira is one of the most monumental and groundbreaking films looked at on Sci-Fi Saturdays, so it’s fitting that this movie helped kick off the start of the fourth year of articles here at RetroZap.com. The film, which is an animated movie from Japan–known as anime, was based on a popular Japanese graphic novel–known as manga, from 1982. The roots of anime go back decades in Japan and at the time may have been seen as based on a certain type of genre: giant robots. Anime series like Mobile Suit Gundam or Macross (1982) were extremely popular, with the latter debuting to Western audiences only three years later. But as with Western animation, not all works fit in a specific genre. The 80s saw a wide range of works, not all being science-fiction based. The world was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki’s work with films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989-which became the top grossing film of its year and out performed Akira). There was also the infusion of martial arts related anime with Dragon Ball (1986), and sports related anime with Captain Tsubasa (1983). But the things that really helped anime grow during this decade was the advent of home video, and the wider international releases of some of the titles.

While Western audiences were used to seeing animation from television shows (usually with low frame rates and simplistic storylines) and feature films (with themes of friendship and musical numbers), Japanese imports challenged these preconceived notions of what animation was supposed to be. In 1988, for example, the animated films released in the United States included Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time, Disney’s Oliver & Company, and the live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which based a lot of its style from 1940s studio animation. Western fans of anime would have to wait a couple years to see Akira when it debuted on home video. It was not widely released theatrically in the United States except for film festivals, but people that followed the medium would have probably known about it and been able to get details on the film. The film would eventually be a sought after and influential benchmark for animation in the West, and grow to be an important turning point for the Asian market as well.

Surprisingly, Akira was not a successful film in it’s home of Japan, coming in as only the 6th most popular film that year, and making only $1.6 million on a budget of $5.5 million. However the international appeal of the film re-invigorated the anime industry of Japan leading to many other popular and long running series including Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. Akira used its massive budget to create mind-blowing detail on the world of Neo-Tokyo. It had the ability to show slow motion, and spend time on elements of the world that might not otherwise be focused on in traditional animation. It used special effects to illustrate the afterglow of the motorcycle tail lights, and intricate modeling of the various explosions and debris fields. All of these choices that director Katsuhiro Ôtomo made helped define this film, his adaptation of his own manga, as one of the primary examples of the medium.


Kaneda and Kei, having recently escaped military captivity, discuss their next move with fellow gang member Kaisuke.


While much of what makes Akira memorable lies within the visuals of the film, the film also takes cues from various other sci-fi films and stories. The main thrust of the film is Tetsuo gaining new powers and advancing beyond human consciousness by the end of the movie, with the help from the three children and whatever had become of Akira. This is similar to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where humanity encounters its next step in its evolution. However, these moments shown in Akira are a much more violent evolution, coming at the cost of other human lives. If both Akira (in 1988) and Tetsuo (in 2019) both transcended this plane of consciousness, it came at a catastrophic toll of hundreds of thousands of lives, or more, in Tokyo. Conversely, Dave Bowman’s ascension to a higher plane (as the star-child) only affected himself (the crew deaths were a result of HAL’s contentious programming). In both stories, the idea that mankind can achieve something greater is paramount, though Akira presents that change as a more painful process, rather than wondrous.

Other aspects of the film borrow elements from dystopian and cyberpunk films and stories. Blade Runner is an obvious choice of the inspiration for the look of Neo-Tokyo, with its neon and advanced technology. But there are other aspects of Akira that hadn’t been explored in film much before. Like the sci-fi/horror film Scanners, the militaristic use of human subjects in experiments on psychic powers (often referred to as ESPers) is a large part of the film. These experiments pre-date the film’s opening moments when Akira’s consciousness devastates Tokyo, and the numbering of the subjects in the film indicate he was actually a newer recruit than Kiyoko, Takashi or Masaru. These children, who seem to have stunted growth in some ways–being close to 40 years old based on birth records shown on-screen, make for pitiable heroes as they protect more people from potentially dying. They seem to understand the potential of their power, possibly due to the fact that they were trained for this possibility ever since the government pulled them into the experiments. But Tetsuo has never been trained to have power like this. His fears and rage at always being told he’s too small or being beaten by stronger boys, takes control, and he sees the sudden arrival of these powers as his ability to get revenge on those that have slighted him.


Tetsuo uncovers Akira’s remains, but finds only pieces of the psychic. Interesting and non-traditional animation techniques were present throughout this film.

Societal Commentary

The power that corrupts Tetsuo is a widespread theme in Akira. His inability to cope with the sudden powers and strengths that his accident causes ends up being more of a hindrance rather than a help. As an underdog type of character, his wish to “get back” at his abusers becomes foremost in his mind, leading him to strike out at the one person that actually wants to help him, Kenada. Though Kaneda is not without blame for putting him into this situation. Much of Tetsuo’s resentment comes from his position in the gang. The film opens with Kaneda telling Tetsuo that his motorcycle is “too much” for the younger boy. Tetsuo mumbles under his breath that Kaneda is wrong. Later, a flashback at the end of the film shows how the two boys met, and how Kaneda stood up for Tetsuo, even though he was beaten by bullies for doing so. This earlier moment shows how far the two have come. In the end, Kaneda’s heart is in the right place and he does seem to care about Tetsuo’s well-being, even if the day-to-day interactions come down to a more terse and teasing tone.

Tetsuo’s use of power comes into direct conflict with Colonel Shikishima and the military, who are also quite happy to use any and all means in their power to stop his actions. In actuality, Shikishima is the most pragmatic character in the film due to his knowledge of what has gone before. He knows that if Tetsuo seems like he is about to get out of hand, then they need to kill him, not wanting a repeat of what happened with Akira. But Doctor Ônishi is too wrapped up in the science of the process and is unable to see the dangers until after it’s too late. The doctor’s curiosity and inability to communicate the potential danger is his downfall. Interestingly the filmmakers have Shikishima survive the devastation of Neo-Tokyo, probably due to his straightforwardness in the matters. However, the use (and abuse) of taking in children to explore untapped psychic potential, and the cover-up of the city’s destruction caused by one of these children, is an abuse by the Colonel (potentially, as he seems as if he was involved), the military and the city council that empowered them.

With the city council, director Ôtomo portrays them in a manner that seems not too different from many people’s opinions of politicians, even today. These older men, who are tasked with looking out for the good of the city and its citizens are more concerned with the personal powers they wield and their “standing” within their politics rather than the inherent dangers that “might” occur. Mr. Nezu is the character that is singled out and shown as the worst example of these council members. He is the one person funding Ryu and the resistance movement in their battle against the government, being so corrupt that he wants to take as much money as he can while escaping the bloody coup d’etat. These more complex moral issues are moments that many animated films would probably never deal with, let alone discuss in such depths. Many live-action sci-fi films had not gone as far as Akira did to portray these deeper social and ethical issues. The evident theme of absolute power corrupts is on display as a prominent idea from the filmmakers.


The three ESPers, Kiyoko, Masaru, and Takashi, bond with each other other and the remains of Akira in order to stop the fleshy advances of Tetsuo’s out of control power.

The Science in The Fiction

At one point in the film, after Kenada is recaptured and jailed with Kei, she theorizes about how Akira and Tetsuo could have gotten the powers they have. She talks about the idea of genetic memory, in which there are certain aspects about language, knowledge and energy that are shared from generation to generation via genetic material. She wonders if there might be genetic material floating in the cosmos waiting to be inherited by some new life form. And if that’s the case, what would happen if an amoeba got the powers of a human, intimating that Tetsuo has received his abilities from a being of a higher power. At this point Kiyoko begins to speak through Kei indicating the inability for scientists to understand what was happening in the past with Akira, and inadvertently led to the fall of Tokyo.

While this is not the way that many modern researchers believe language or skills are passed between generations, Akira uses it as a springboard to demonstrate the sudden advancement of one member of the species with powers and abilities that are unknown to the species as a whole. The film suggests that Tetsuo’s accident, where he ran into Takashi on his motorcycle and was injured, somehow caused him to be “infected” by some genetic trigger that allowed the psychic powers to blossom. The film also suggests, through the flashbacks at the end, that the children were trained or coached by the scientists in order to tap into their latent powers; powers that seemingly anyone could possess. It’s an interesting supposition, but one that is not necessarily needed. While it’s convenient to be able to explain Tetsuo’s sudden onset of power, keeping elements like this as a little more mysterious can be more interesting, and less susceptible to logic, in the long run.


The spirit, or transcended being, of Akira appears to Kaneda as if in a dream, as he is bridged between the psychics.

The Final Frontier

For a story that was written as a manga starting in 1982 and released as a film in 1988, it’s interesting that Katsuhiro Ôtomo chose to set the event at the stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. How could he know that this very city would be chosen for the games in 2020, let alone be delayed by a global pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people? Perhaps the organizers of the Olympics, or the city of Tokyo, were influenced by the events of this story enough to attempt to hold the athletic event in this city. It’s certainly an interesting parallel of life imitating art.

As I was preparing this article, an article was released about a fan of the film finding a hidden message in one of the shots. The article mentions that a note pinned to a wall in one sequence appears to be a message written in Japanese using a Latin script. It translates, according to the source, as a hidden message from an animator complaining about the detail needed for the various background elements. Hidden images and messages in animated films are not new. The animators, like coders for video games, often insert easter eggs into their work as proof that they worked on a scene or sequence. Obviously the animator in this sequence seemed to be airing more of a grievance than just putting in a fun shout-out. Still, it’s an interesting, and timely revelation that happened to coincidentally show up.

Even after 34 years, Akira continues to inspire and touch other works of fiction in film and comics. The following wave of anime from Japan in the 90s would touch on similar themes and aspire to further levels of detail in their work. Western filmmakers would also take elements from this, and other, anime films for inspiration. The Wachowski’s would famously look back to Akira as an inspiration for elements of their Matrix trilogy (now a quadrilogy). It’s interesting to watch this film, which has so many elements that seem familiar to sci-fi stories, and think about a time when this was a weird and groundbreaking work, under appreciated by its country, and laying dormant waiting for the world to revisit it, much like the characters in the film revisit Akira.

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