4K Blu-ray review: “Akira – 4K” (1988)

“Akira – 4K” (1988)

Manga

Running time: 125 minutes

Written by: Katsuhiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto based on Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo

Directed by: Katsuhiro Otomo

Featuring: Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Taro Ishida, Mizuho Suzuki and Tetsusho Genda

Kiyoko: “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future that we can choose for ourselves.”

Critical Commentary

Released recently on 4K Blu-ray is the manga “Akira” (1988) that was the first movie to really expose mass Western audiences to what manga could be as well as becoming a global phenomenon that has only grown stronger over the intervening thirty years.

“Akira” is regarded by many critics as a landmark anime film, one that influenced much of the art in the anime world that followed its release with many illustrators in the manga industry citing the film as an important influence. Manga author Masashi Kishimoto, for example, recalls becoming fascinated with the way the poster was made and wished to imitate the series’ creator Katsuhiro Otomo’s style. The film had a significant impact on popular culture worldwide. The film led the way for the growth in popularity of anime outside Japan as well as Japanese popular culture in the Western world. Akira is considered a forerunner of the second wave of anime fandom that began in the early 1990s and has gained a massive cult following since then. It is credited with setting the scene for anime franchises such as PokémonDragon Ball and Naruto to become global cultural phenomena. According to The Guardian, the “cult 1988 anime taught western film-makers new ideas in storytelling, and helped cartoons grow up”.

In Japanese anime, realism and style have a strange interplay that remains its defining visual motif. With its roots in manga, the anime artist commands both elements and takes complete control. In the case of Akira, Otomo’s realism presents itself in the form of painterly images depicting the incredible iridescent cityscape of Neo-Tokyo, the images only slightly less fantastic than the futuristic vision of Ridley Scott for his Tokyo-inspired Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982). On the other hand, Otomo employs a more comic-book stylization elsewhere, particularly in the less weighty and more actionized or comic relief scenes involving Kaneda. Anime often has these juxtapositions of style and tone, but few blend as well as Otomo’s approach in Akira.

His massive scope celebrates the glorious Neo-Tokyo, but his entertaining and thrillingly composed action sequences don’t betray, except in pitch, the other more grandiose visuals. With anime, sometimes the need for multiple artists working on a single film results in an inconsistency of style. Still, Otomo’s production spared no expense to bring uniformity to the screen. The result is awe-inspiring at times and completely immersive. At the same time, Otomo’s reach, given his unquestionably cinematic approach, becomes evident everywhere from countless other Japanese anime films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995) to live-action works like The Matrix (1999) and The Fifth Element (1997). But the film is much more than attractive visuals, sci-fi concepts, and rousing motorbike action.

Set in a dystopian 2019, Akira tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda, a leader of a  biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident, eventually threatening an entire military complex amid chaos and rebellion in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo.

After twenty-five years, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira still inspires awe. As a seminal work of anime, cyberpunk or otherwise, it still has yet to be matched in its epic stature. Hollywood has tried for more than a decade to produce a live-action adaptation, resulting only in false starts. But no amount of expensive computer-animated special FX, star power (names involved have included Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves, and Garrett Hedlund), or blockbuster production value could ever match the singular vision Otomo achieved in 1988. His limitless spectacle of a nuked world reborn into a frightening dystopian city—teeming with the subgenre’s usual range of cyberpunks, telekinetics, and authoritarian bad guys—may overshadow the emotional depth of his characters and their often overly expositional dialogue. But Otomo’s audience is so rapt by the proceedings that these criticisms hardly seem important. Akira remains so densely steeped in spectacle, out-there sci-fi ideas, and an overload of visual information that its social and cultural commentaries may go overlooked. Despite this unbalance, such an extraordinary achievement demands to be seen and seen again for re-evaluation into its deeper relevance—and to be appreciated as a landmark not just of anime but of international cinema.

Technical Commentary

Video

If you thought the 25th Anniversary Edition of Akira on Blu-ray (in SteelBook packaging) released in 2017 looked good, you’ll be even more impressed with this 4k Blu-ray upgrade. The video is presented in 2160p at 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio with HDR10 High Dynamic Range. The colors are vibrant, contrast is striking, and sharpness about as good as a 30 year old film can get. It’s amazing how rich the black levels can be in some scenes given the fact this is hand-drawn and not computer-generated animation. 

Some of the artefacts that were more evident in older Blu-ray and DVD editions were hard to come by in this edition, but it’s also worth noting that not all mistakes were removed. The amount of detail is really what’s striking on 4k Blu-ray. Much of the graffiti in the background images, elements like broken glass, texture in the brick walls, sidewalks and streets, are all more visible in 2160p. 

Audio

Japanese audio is the way to listen to Akira, with a 24-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that Sound Director Susumu Aketagawa says was remixed to take advantage of the higher quality format. English audio comes close with a 16-bit TrueHD 5.1 track (mixed in 2001), but is not as dynamic as the new TrueHD track. Listening to Akira in Japanese also just seems so much more authentic than with English dubs. If you don’t speak Japanese we suggest viewing subtitles to follow the film (at least to get a taste of the higher-definition Japanese mix). 

Extras

This 3-disc edition of Akira packages a separate BD-50 with bonus material (some previously released) that includes AKIRA Sound Making 2019, AKIRA Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, End Credits (From The Original 1988 Theatrical Release), Theatrical Preview — Trailer Collection (with English Subtitles), and Storyboard Collection. 

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