There's no doubt about it. Thirteen years after its release in Japan, Akira is the quintessential cyber-punk anime feature -- and a bonafide classic science fiction film on any level.
Based on the original multi-part manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, Kodandsha Publishing put together a consortium of Japan's finest animation studios, under Otomo's direction and a banner called the Akira Committee, to create this modern masterpiece. It was the most expensive anime feature ever created (costing $8 million, a pittance compared to Disney features of the era), and no punches were pulled. The film retains Otomo's adult point of view; the violence, sex and raw language that properly set the story in post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo.
In 1989 Akira was looking for U.S. distribution just as Carl Macek and I started Streamline Pictures, a small U.S. theatrical and video operation specializing in Japanese anime. Kodansha had dubbed the film rather quickly in an effort to interest Paramount, Fox, Universal... anyone... in picking up the film for a U.S. release. Unfortunately, small-minded Hollywood had no idea how to sell an adult animation (they still don't) and had no idea there was any U.S. audience for this sort of thing.
That was a lucky break for Streamline Pictures. We enthusiastically booked the film (with 8 prints!) into art houses across the U.S. I had many great experiences with Akira, including two days in New York City, which I'll never forget. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Otomo and introduce him to our sold out movie audiences, present him to the press, escort him to a book signing and go out to dinner with him and his entourage.
I must have seen our version of Akira over 100 times, at least 50 times in theaters across the U.S. and just as many times when we later released it to video.
New and Improved!
Fast forward ten years later. Pioneer has now released a $1 million restoration of Akira on DVD -- and it is truly a must-have for anyone seriously interested in animation. This is Akira as you haven't seen it -- or heard it -- before.
Where do I begin? First I must recount, very briefly, the storyline. This is an adult science fiction story, set in the future, about members of a teenage motorcycle gang who get involved with a secret military experiment to contain a telekinetic force, the same force that destroyed Tokyo years before. When one of the gang becomes empowered with telekinetic powers all hell breaks loose.
Akira is loaded with spectacular images, beautiful art and animation, and an amazing musical score. Pioneer's new English dub is wonderful. The original "Streamline release" dub was flat and perfunctory -- now the character voices are alive with personality and good acting. For once the voices not only suit the characters, but they also match the mouth movements! And of course you have the option of watching the disc in Japanese with or without subtitles.
The picture is sharp, bright and colorful. The amount of details in the art -- the explosions, the buildings in the city and the effects animation, to name a few -- are crystal clear and perfect. As stated, I had seen Akira dozens of times, but watching this restored edition was like watching a new film... the original film! The film as Otomo intended!
The picture is letterboxed in it's original theatrical 1:85 to 1 screen ratio. The THX stereo sound is crisp. And a special feature allows the viewer to translate instantly any Japanese writing that appears untranslated in the backgrounds and original art. This is the ultimate way to see a Japanese animated film.
The second disc provided is loaded with extra goodies including The Akira Production Report, a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. Other extras include an interview with Otomo, the theatrical trailers and TV spots, interviews with the guys who restored the film, the voice over actors, as well as musical selections and a plethora of production materials like storyboards, original (unused) background art, theatrical posters, comic books and merchandise -- damn near everything!
Everything in fact, except anything to do with the original dub or Streamline's efforts to promote the film in 1990-1. Oh well, perhaps that's as it should be. This is the definitive edition of Akira, and I'm certain it looks better here than it ever did in a theater, in the U.S. or Japan.
Akira is a landmark anime feature that will stand with the works of Tezuka and Miyazaki as one of the most influential animations ever to come from Japan. Grab this DVD while you can.
The Special Edition DVD has a suggested retail price of $39.98 and includes a second full DVD of supplemental materials. A standard DVD of the restored film is also available for $24.98. Two VHS versions of Akira, the new, English dubbed version and the English subtitled version, are available with Dolby Surround Stereo audio for $19.98 each.
Jerry Beck is an animation producer and cartoon historian who is simultaneously developing a show with MTV Animation and writing a book for Harry N. Abrams Publishers. He also has a cool Website at www.cartoonresearch.com.