Akira is an animated Japanese movie that resides in the cyberpunk sub-genre because of its futuristic setting that juxtaposes an ever-advancing technological world with a human world that is fast degenerating and where social order is disappearing entirely. The film is hugely influenced by early cyberpunk films from the late 1960s and 70s such as Blade Runner. The film was the most expensive Japanese anime at the time it was made, with a budget of nine million dollars, or just over one billion yen.
The movie is based on the manga (Japanese comic) series of the same name, written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo had previously only worked in manga, but directed the film adaptation as his feature debut. The manga, like the film, is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of its medium.
The film is set in a dystopian society, so immediately everything is frightening and degenerating fast. The main character is the leader of a local biker gang, Shotaro Kaneda, whose best friend from childhood, Tetsuo Shima, suddenly develops strange telekinetic powers after being captured by government forces. He becomes psychotic and goes on a rampage, with Kaneda determined to stop him. His new powers become a threat to the development of Neo-Tokyo and threaten an entire military machine. While based on the manga, the film differs greatly in its plot lines; for example, despite the fact that the film stays fairly close to the original in terms of characters, it ends the story very early, and misses out most of the last half of the book. This is because the film ended production in 1987, years before the manga would eventually finish in 1990.
The film was highly praised for the quality of its animation, with 160,000 hand-drawn animation cels animated at 24 frames per second for its entire runtime, a rarity for anime of its period. It was also noted for its scientific accuracy. For example, when Tetsuo flies up into space to destroy a satellite, all noise dissipates, reflecting the relative silence away from earth, caused by the fact that there is no longer any medium for sound waves to travel.
Just like the manga, the film became a cult sensation almost overnight and gathered an enormous following, but it also achieved mainstream acclaim thanks in large part to the bold marketing of a pioneering animation distribution company called Streamline Pictures, founded by producer Carl Macek who had worked on the television series Robotek. One of the reasons for Akira's worldwide success was its successful VHS campaign, meaning that many Americans were exposed to anime for the first time. Akira was Streamline's first major project after its formation in 1988. The film is considered to be one of the greatest anime movies of all time, and one of the greatest animated science fiction films of all time as well. Grossing over eighty million dollars worldwide, it out-performed both all of the Japanese anime movies that preceded it, and all of the expectations for it too. It opened the door for the worldwide growth of Japanese pop culture (Hello Kitty was not even a blip on the international radar until several years after Akira's success.)
Thematically, Akira examines postwar Japanese society, particularly its youth. Taking place 30 years after World War III, and opening with imagery that parallels the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the society of Neo-Tokyo reflects Japanese society in the decades following World War II, rife with political turmoil and technological boom. Primarily following teenagers, the film explores the results of disenfranchised and abandoned youth, what causes them to rebel against authority, and what leads them to creating their own identities.
Five different directors and ten different writers have attempted to create a live-action movie adaptation of the animated classic but they all fizzled out at various stages of development despite the backing of Hollywood powerhouse Warner Brothers behind them.
The movie won a Silver Scream Award in 1989, for its director Katsuhiro Otomo.