FUNimation release the 25th anniversary edition Blu-Ray/DVD of Katsuhiro Ohtomo's Akira today, a perfect opportunity to celebrate and re-evaluate the classic anime.
Condensing the plot of Otohmo's concurrently ongoing epic manga into a two hour film, the anime proved to be a runaway success and a gateway film for western audiences. The release of Akira in 1988, with the addition of Grave Of The Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro the same year, marked a new sophistication in Japanese animation and the start of its mainstream success worldwide.
2019: It's been 31 years since Tokyo was reduced to a crater in a sudden flash of light, sparking World War 3. The remains lie as a black hole at the center of the new metropolis, Neo-Tokyo, built on the rubble. The egotistical Kaneda runs the Capsules biker gang, while long-suffering sidekick Tetsuo boils under his inferiority complex. A motorcycle crash after a run-in with an escaped subject of psychic experiments puts Tetsuo in hospital in the custody of the psychic project's leader, Colonel Shikishima, and reveals Tetsuo's own latent psychic powers. Dissident revolutionaries, apocalypse worshipping cultists and a secret government project related to Tokyo's destruction, known as Akira, whirl around the developing emnity between the ever-more powerful Tetsuo and the befuddled Kaneda. Who or what is Akira? Tetsuo seeks answers below Tokyo as he evolves increasingly god-like powers that eventually spiral out of control.
The production techniques in Akira were ground-breaking for Japanese animation at the time, making full use of the mammoth $11mill budget and staff of 70 animators. Character's expressions and mouth movements were drawn to pre-scored dialogue, advanced multi-layered perspective was used for depth and sense of scale, and an expanded use of dark colours created authentic night scenes. Standard outlandish anime style was out, as was traditional heroic storytelling, in favour of darker and more realistic art, narrative and characterisation.
Akira exploits Japan's specific societal concerns with overcrowding, youth alienation and generational disconnection from the wartime past, but also universal themes of technophobia, adolescence and the cyclical nature of war. Power is the core of the film; who has it and who wants to take it. Japan knows better than any country about the perils of technology and messiah complexes, and fear of power and its seduction pervades the film. Within the tangled web of themes and symbols in Akira is a confrontational allegory of generations, split by World War 2 and the nuclear bomb, that don't understand one another. However, all this grand subject matter in the film is in service to what is, essentially, a fast-paced action blockbuster with a moving story of rivalry and maturation.
Alongside the animation, Akira's soundtrack is another remarkable component. The hundredfold membership musical collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi were commissioned by Ohtomo following the success of their album Ecophony Rinne, which displayed a unique mix of traditional Japanese music and enterprising electronics. Led by artist/scientist Tsutomu Ōhashi, the collective recorded modular pieces based on various themes over six months, without the benefit of scoring to finished scenes. The influences were wide: Nogaku theatre, Buddhist chants, Christian choral, Balinese gamelan, progressive rock. The effect is a startlingly turbulent mix of ancient spiritualism battling modernity, which corresponds perfectly with the themes of the film. The freedom from the limitations of budget, time and scene-matching served the compositions, allowing focus on development of mood over pacing for the film's sequences.
Akira is a frequently baffling, convoluted film that suffers from the same frayed chaos as its setting. Despite this, the film holds together and the rambling strangeness and density are part of its enduring charm.
I think a great double-bill partner for Akira would be Shane Carruth's Upstream Color. Biological manipulation, bewildering puzzle narratives and great soundtracks. Watch them early and you can spend the rest of the night trying to work out what the hell both of them are really about.
Guise magazine published a piece by Sarah Jennifer Heeley about Blade Runner's noir-influenced costume design. Blade Runner is still the pinnacle of sci-fi art and design for me, and marks the high point of a great year of sci-fi cinema. If you doubt, consider this list: E.T., Tron, Videodrome, Mad Max 2, Star Trek II and The Thing; every film excelled at some aspect of cinematic design.
Each unit in Blade Runner was clearly working in some kind of perfected tandem. I can't even consider a costume, prop or set from the film without imagining it as part of the whole scene. More impressive is how the design hasn't suffered much parody after all these years, unlike Return of the Jedi from the following year, even with the joke-baiting noir genre as its baseline. Still all of a piece within its own universe when watched today, the pathetic fallacy, existential angst, lighting and characterisation are all referential but never stand in front of the film itself. Other films have followed, such as Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor and Gattaca, but those films suffered from what Blade Runner did not, self-conscious reverence.
For other great films with noir-influenced design in a sci-fi universe check out the godfather of the genre, Godard's Alphaville from 1965, or Lars Von Trier's 1984 film The Element of Crime.
Scotland's Africa in Motion film festival has just finished so I thought I'd write about the African sci-fi and fantasy cinema that is of particular interest to me.
Afrofuturism is an aesthetic born of the African diaspora and found in afro-centric visual art, music and literature. The aesthetic unites science fiction, historical and alternate-history fiction, magic realism, fantasy, and African myths in the context of 20th-century technoculture. Originating in the music and persona of Sun Ra, but defined by Mark Dery in his 1995 essay Black to the Future, the Afrofuturist aesthetic foregrounds Black agency and creativity. Sandra Jackson and Julie Moody-Freeman, in The Black Imagination and the Genres, define the core principle of Afrofuturist fiction as:
“Imagined futures in which African descendant people as well as other people of color are neither conspicuously absent nor marginalized as background or expendable characters, but…instead not only present but rather active agents—protagonists and heroes—in events which take place here on the planet Earth or elsewhere in the universe, set in the past, alternative pasts, distant and near future times”.
Although conceived outside of Africa by Afro-Americans, Afrofuturism has a proven reflexive relationship with the old continent. The separation between the speculative fictions of the diaspora and native Africans is less distinct that in the 1950's, when Afrofuturism was born. Looking at African speculative fiction and fantasy cinema through the scope of Afrofuturism connects the geographical separation from heritage felt by the Afro-American artists to the dehistoricisation and cultural alienation inflicted on native Africans by colonial oppressors.
The artist and writer Tegan Bristow, in her article We want the funk: What is Afrofuturism to the situation of digital arts in Africa?, published in the journal Technoetic Arts, considered how the ideas developed through Afrofuturism are being explored in contemporary African arts. Often this development is discussed alongside the unique use of communications technology by Africans, such as the Kenyan phone banking system or BRCK. Although often dismissed as technologically backwards, and therefore unable to express the same speculative fascination with technology as the West, Africa defies simple stereotypes and is producing great science fiction and fantasy art, from an African perspective. Afrofuturism is now more than just an American aesthetic, being taken up by Africans and becoming a more global celebration of Black culture.
Art & Design
All contributions by Kieran Gosney unless otherwise stated.
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