Review for Akira
I don't know how I fell in love with anime. Certainly I have always loved animation, ever since I was a little boy, and I didn't discriminate in what I watched. Among those many animations certainly were anime, although I had no idea, and neither did I care where shows like Mysterious Cities of Gold, or Ulysses 31 originated. A key moment in the development of my obsession came twenty years ago. I can't recall if it was over one weekend, or two successive weekends, but BBC2 broadcast two anime feature films. Two films which burned the word 'anime' into my awareness, never to leave, and which introduced me to the amazing possibilities of this art form. The films were The Wings of Honneamise, and Akira. After that, I couldn't get enough of the stuff, with Channel 4's Late Licence inducing me to spend more of my student grant than I could anticipate on animated videotapes. Then the first anime boom went bust.
It was ten years ago that I first delved into the world of digital video, and one of the earliest DVDs that I bought was Akira, newly remastered, newly re-dubbed, and looking absolutely stunning. I could finally put away my carefully nursed 10-year-old VHS recording. That heralded the second boom in anime entertainment, a boom that is still going strong today. Now another ten years have passed, and it may just be time to ditch the DVD. For this is Manga Entertainment's 20th birthday. They've been selling anime as long as I've been fascinated by it. They've decided to celebrate by re-issuing Akira, the breakthrough and timeless anime classic that introduced this fantastic art form to the West, and it's finally getting the upgrade to Blu-ray, with high definition visuals, and a 'hypersonic' audio track. In another ten years, I expect to be able to pipe Akira directly into my brain, bypassing my eyes and ears completely.
After World War III and the destruction of Tokyo in 1988, reconstruction and regeneration have resulted in the metropolis of Neo Tokyo rising from the ashes. Society has rebuilt also and on the surface, the world seems to have healed from its wounds. But the fervour for reconstruction has faded by 2019 and Neo Tokyo's populace is beginning to show the strains, with anti-government demonstrations and terrorism rife. The youth are disaffected and rebellious, and it's one particular gang on which the story concentrates. Kaneda leads his motorbike gang against the notorious Clowns in a familiar turf war, resulting in confrontation and violence that the beleaguered police are hard put to contain. During one particular confrontation, Kaneda's childhood friend, Tetsuo is injured when the sudden appearance of a strange wizened child surprises him and his motorbike crashes.
The military, from whom the child has been kidnapped come to rescue him and take Tetsuo as well. They have been conducting experiments in psychic abilities in children since before the war and the wizened child is one of their subjects. Examining Tetsuo, they find that he has abilities beyond anything they currently possess and administer the appropriate drugs to awaken these latent abilities. While Kaneda and a young terrorist girl, Kei attempt to break into the military lab to rescue Tetsuo, his abilities manifest with frightening rapidity, he finds himself unable to cope with these strange powers and goes on the rampage. When he faces a group of the psychic children in mental combat, he learns of one stronger than him, the mysterious Akira.
The 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen image is lush. I certainly didn't spot any transfer issues like colour banding, aliasing, compression or noise. What we get here is a faithful reproduction of the film elements. It's clear, sharp, colourful throughout, and Akira has never looked as fine in terms of home cinema. Detail levels are stupendous, the sheer vision and imagination leaps off the screen, and the richness and variety of colour here puts the previous DVD transfer to shame. You will get the expected film grain; there is the odd moment of print damage, the occasional scratch, white flecks in darker scenes, and the odd moment of softness. This is after all a film nudging 25 years now, an old-fashioned cel acetate animation. The source material is always going to have issues, occasional cine-wobble, an odd warp in the print in one scene, there's very little you can do without a ridiculous degree of restoration (beyond that already accomplished by Pioneer in 2001). You'll also notice now the comparatively limited palette of colours, an issue when the images had to be physically painted, rather than created from the infinite variety available from a computer program. Akira was also revolutionary in the way that it used nighttime scenes, notoriously difficult to animate. Now you can see a comparative lack of detail in the darker images, again something foreign to modern digital animation techniques. One slight annoyance is that the image is letterboxed, apparently to counter overscan, but hardly an issue on modern sets.
Besides, if you are going to spend extra money on Akira, best do it here, on the audio. You have the choice between Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Japanese and English, and a DD 5.1 Japanese track for those without HD audio capabilities, and an LPCM Japanese stereo track, for purists who want Akira the way it was originally released. This is the reason to buy Akira on Blu-ray. The previous DVD gave good English, DD 5.1, but the Japanese was a disappointing stereo track. For the Blu-ray, we get a 'Hypersonic' Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Japanese track. If I quote some numbers here, that means that the audio was sampled at 192 kHz at 24-bit resolution. In comparison, the Dolby TrueHD English track here, like most High Definition audio is recorded at 48 kHz 16-bit resolution. Just like your average movie, that will peak at around 5 or 6 Mbits per second. The Japanese Dolby TrueHD audio on the other hand peaks in the mid 20s, 25 Mbits per second. In practice the bit rate of the audio often exceeds the bit rate of the video. That's unprecedented, and it's why Akira, on a relatively barebones disc, still has to be dual layer.
What does that really mean? It means the first thing you do is that you turn down your volume if you at all respect your neighbours. What was originally a stereo feature has now become a fully immersive experience. Akira now makes full use of the 5.1 soundstage to put you right in the middle of the action, and the sound design is breathtaking. The action is resonant, explosions, gunfire, and motorbike chases are all recreated with vigour and vibrancy. The music is so wondrous and rich, that even though I have seen this film a dozen times and more, it really was like watching it for the first time last night. I was hearing sounds, recognising instruments, and vocal nuances that I never even knew existed. And through it all, the dialogue remains as clear as a bell.
I sampled the English track, and it's as good, technically speaking, as your average high definition audio track. If English audio is what you desire, then it will provide a superior experience to the DVD. It's just that in comparison to that Japanese audio...
The problem here is that we also get the legacy of that previous DVD release. We get the Pioneer dub, as opposed to the first Streamline dub, which many fans still have a preference for. We also get the pseudo-dubtitles again, although thankfully, the HOH elements have been removed. I never have to see (wind howls), or (dog barks) again. Normally I'm a dedicated hater of subtitles that follow the English dub, or as in this case, an earlier version of the dub script, but the problem for English listeners turns out to be the salvation of those who prefer the original audio. The Pioneer dub is simply too close a translation of the Japanese dialogue. Other than the odd colloquialism, it's stilted, awkward and sounds less natural than you would expect. It is why you won't hear me whining about dubtitles when it comes to Akira.
You also have the option of Japanese subtitles, a legacy of the original 2009 Blu-ray release.
That is a minor niggle for me, in that this disc is merely the 2009 US and Japanese Bandai Visual Honneamise disc ported over to the UK. Of course Blu-ray being something of an international standard makes that a plus, but the Honneamise disc lacked a main menu screen, which is carried over here. All this disc has is a pop-up menu based on a set of motorcycle handlebars. If you select main menu, they just pop up over a static cityscape image. On the UK disc, we get the Manga logo, and then the film autoplays. The Honneamise disc started with a language select screen, and that would have been useful here, as the film defaults to the English audio track. The first dialogue isn't heard for a couple of minutes, which is when I paused the film, selected the track I wanted, and started again. It is a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.
Remember when I said that it was time to ditch the DVD? Not yet! In terms of extras, this disc offers only 5 trailers and the film's storyboards, presented across 369 pages, but conveniently organised into a 36-chapter index.
The original Manga DVD at least had the Akira Production Report on a second disc, as well as a few other minor extras, while the US Pioneer 2-disc DVD release held even more in the way of documentaries and image galleries. Apparently Manga are no longer permitted to release the Akira Production Report in any format now. Hell, that Pioneer disc had something called Capsule Mode, a little subtitle goodie that translated Akira's on screen text during playback. Even that would have been nice. The visuals and the especially audio have taken a major leap forward with this release, but in terms of extra features, this is a major step backwards.
Akira is an epoch defining moment in anime cinema, in cinema full stop. After 25 years in public consciousness, surely it deserves the 'timeless classic' accolade. Rumours always abound of some live action remake on the cards, and one of these days it may actually happen. Akira also provides inspiration for countless artists, musicians, and filmmakers even now. It's like Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, Metropolis, Fantasia and all those other movies that define the lexicon of cinema. It defies critical analysis, and by issuing forth yet another review, the reviewer is either simply joining a chorus of approbation, or behaving like a reactionary simply to massage his or her own ego. Let me get my hymn sheet.
Akira is still the breathtaking tour de force that I first encountered twenty years ago. At the time, it redefined the sort of stories that anime could tell, announced to the world that animation could be used to tell intelligent, adult, and mature stories, that dark, gritty, and realistic were also tools in the animator's arsenal. Akira's blending of sci-fi and social comment still strikes a nerve today. The disillusioned and rebellious teen, gang culture, decaying and decadent societies, corrupt politicians, all these are staple ingredients of any counterculture story. What Akira does with these ingredients, setting the story in a future metropolis, is really neat, combining the recognisable and realistic, with the fantastic and utterly speculative. It's like the best science fiction, entertaining you and thrilling you with its elaborate concepts, yet all the while planting little seeds of contemplation, unexpected ideas that suddenly provoke thought when you least expect it, make you look at the world in which we live in a different way. Or it will have you and your best mate shouting "Kaneda!" and "Tetsuo!" across the street at each other, confusing the heck out of any bystanders.
I've always loved Akira, it's a film that defined my adolescence. It's my rebellious teen movie. For some it was Rebel Without a Cause, for others it was The Breakfast Club, for me it's Akira. Now that I have seen it on Blu-ray, I love it even more. The image certainly is a major step up from the DVD, although it isn't perfect. The sound on the other hand, particularly the Japanese audio has been given the full Spinal Tap. It goes all the way up to 11. Buy this Blu-ray, give your neighbours sufficient warning for them to secure any valuables and lock away anything fragile, then turn up the sound until your ears bleed.
Akira will be released on Blu-ray, re-released on DVD (probably the previous disc repackaged), and in a limited edition steelbook case, containing the DVD and the Blu-ray, as well as an exclusive commemorative booklet. If it's similar to the booklet that was released with the first press Blu-ray release in the US back in 2009, you may learn more about that hypersonic audio track.