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Akira (1988): Blu-ray review

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It’s very hard to underestimate the global impact of Katsuhiro Otomo’s film adaptation of his own, epic manga Akira. It broke box office records when it opened in Japan, and along with Ghibli Oscar winner Spirited Away it is probably the anime film most western ‘non-fans’ have seen. For many of my generation it is a much treasured and personally important film and, without resorting to hyperbole, one that the first viewing of was a life-changing experience, akin to watching Star Wars, 2001 or Blade Runner for the first time.

It didn’t hit the UK until 1991, and I can still vividly remember trekking to a grimy arthouse cinema in East Oxford with a friend – both of us 17 years old at the time, not quite knowing what to expect, but spurred on by a clip we’d seen once on TV, that can have been barely two minutes long. Two minutes of motorbike chases, rioting and cyberpunk Japanese city-scapes. And equally I can remember us both stumbling out afterward into the cool night air, eyes-wide and speechless, Oxford’s crumbling, historic architecture fading into unimportance around us. Sure, we’d seen some snippets of anime before; British TV treating us to Battle of the Planets, Speed Racer and whatever Saturday morning shows it deemed suitable for children, but now our minds were open to the potential of animation to depict realistic worlds, mature narratives and action sequences that Hollywood could only dream of. Things would never be quite the same.

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A few months later, I was queuing in my local HMV to buy the limited edition VHS double tape pack – one tape with the subbed version, the other the exclusive Akira Production Report – a precursor of the now ubiquitous DVD extra. Now, 18 years later, I’ve just bought the film for a third time, retiring the DVD to the shelf alongside that original, still treasured VHS boxset. Due to stock problems the Blu-ray still hasn’t surfaced here in the UK, so the question is: was importing it worth the cost of importing it from the US?

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As soon as the film’s opening starts, one thing is clear – this is visually the best presentation of Akira you’ve ever seen. I’d go as far to say it even surpasses the cinema presentation that I originally saw in that seedy, run-down theater. Every subsequent viewing has always forced you to spot details you never saw before, but this is taken to a new level with the brilliant transfer to HD. Otomo’s emotive character designs shine, and the detailed background art looks even more exquisite than before. Much has been made of this release’s audio pushing the limits of the BR format, and even without the required cutting edge AV setup to playback the True-HD stream it sounds dazzling. Both Shoji Yamashiro‘s mesmerizing score and the audio effects demand you pump the volume as high as you dare. All said, this is a wonderful package, and a vital purchase not just for anime fans, but anyone wanting to show off the best of what the Blu-ray format can offer.

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If i have any reservations at all, it’s about the lack of extras on the disc. The collection of Otomo’s storyboards is a brilliant bonus, granted, but you can’t help but feel it would be better enjoyed in a similar format to his fascinating Steamboy Storyboard Book. And that’s all there is, apparently due to a lack of space due to the enhanced audio. Plus Bandai’s recession-era decision to produce just one disc for all regions has lead to a multitude of language and subtitle tracks being crammed in, undoubtedly not helping the problem. Still, it’s a shame not to see the production report again, plus some new, retrospective featurettes and interviews would have rounded out the package nicely. I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that another, inevitable two disc release will see the light of day before too long.

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In preparation for sitting and watching it again, I recently finished re-reading the original, 2000+ page manga again. It’s always a slight shock when you realise how much of his intricately woven, action filled plot Otomo had to loose to bring the film in at just over two hours; Watchmen fans moaning about the cuts from the recent film adaptation would have a stroke if they saw what was done here. There is enough material to fuel a full 26 episode anime series – something I believe we may see yet, especially as recession facing industry turns to reliable franchises once again. Major, plot shaping characters from the manga – like Lady Miyako and Kaisuke – are reduced to simple, flitting cameos, while others like Chiyoko are never seen at all. But it is Otomo’s story and his adaptation, and he alone understands it’s nuances, and the themes he was originally trying to convey. As a result the film stands alone as a perfect story, captivating the audience for every second of it’s 130 minutes. It is truly, still, a masterpiece, and this new Blu-ray release – while not perfect – is an essential purchase. Whether you’re a die hard fan or a newcomer to anime, pick this up as soon as you can.

16 thoughts on “Akira (1988): Blu-ray review”

  1. They’re there is you look for them…TBH, I didn’t notice them until I read about them – and if you find yourself staring at them for too long then something is very wrong – this is Akira! There is always something else more interesting on the screen! really, the quality of the transfer is so high that it’s really not important, its so enthralling.

  2. cant wait to pick this up! but then again i might wait for that supposed 2-disc version… ahhh i cant decide!

    i havent seen this film for quite a while and it’l be like watching it for the first time again. I’ve got the manga (truly one of the best books/comics/mangas/whatever-you-want-to-call-it EVER!) 2000+ pages of pure excellence but yeah they miss absolutely loads in the film (it was being made at the same time as the manga and acts more as a quick summary of the book).

    i’ve heard for some time now that 2 live-action films are in the works for 2011/13 (based on volumes 1-3 and 4-6) but i just dont see how hollywood wont fuck it up. they’ll cast all americans, set it in new york (the only place where disasters happen) and dumb it down for a ‘broader audience’. probably make it pg-13 as well. pah!

    i’ve always thought that the best way to ‘reboot/reinvent’ Akira was to do like you said: a full 26 episode series (or 2, or 3 – seriously the book is LOTR’s big/detailed) but that’l only happen in my dreams 🙁

  3. Hi Philipo, welcome to the site 🙂

    The 26 eps remake of Akira….well, if it’s ever going to happen, it’ll happen in the next few years. The anime industry is facing some really hard times, and is getting desperate. What better time to re-visit an established, popular franchise? Imagine how easy it would be to drum up interest, merchandising etc…not just in JP but around the world…

    And yes, as for the Hollywood version….have you seen this?:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jafd97yJFOI

  4. Hiya Tim – cheers for the welcome 🙂

    Yeah, I saw that a while ago and its painfully true lol

    I still believe that a good live-action version of Akira is possible, but I foresee another Dragonball Evolution-esque (or any mumber of manga live-action films for that matter) ‘re-imagining’ missing the whole point of both the original anime and book. Like: I can’t for the life of me think why they are resetting it all in Manhattan (well, Neo-Manhattan – funded by the Japanese) and casting American actors. Why call it Akira if your going to do that? ‘Project Akira’ would make more sense I guess but even from that you can tell that they’ve swayed far from the original anime/book.

    Still here’s hoping for the anime series! So long as Otomo’s on board though – Do not want another Dragonball GT thank-you-very-much!

  5. i’ll start off by saying sorry. lol
    i’ve been watching Akira since it’s first release and i used to watch it everyday when i was a kid. so i’d like to think i know a lot about it, however i don’t. i’m currently watching it now again for the first time. it’s an old copy my friend gave me in public school.
    i have 2 of the old comics (number’s 36 and 37) looking for the rest. could you point me in the right direction?
    and what’s this 2000 page book you guys talk about?
    thanks
    ian

  6. The old comics were brought together into 6 (massive) volumes (don’t worry – they’re in english).

    Heres a link to Vol 1 of the Akira manga: http://www.amazon.com/Akira-Vol-1-Katsuhiro-Otomo/dp/1569714983 – this is the American amazon though; it’s available at the UK one too.

    You can probably find them for cheaper than that so all I can say is shop around lol – They’re well worth getting. Truly an outstanding piece of work.

  7. Thanks Philipo – you beat me to it!

    Hi Ian – thanks for dropping by – and please NEVER apologise for asking questions round here. I set this site up partly for people who have an interest in anime but are new to the scene – I know how confusing a lot of anime fansites can be. If you have any more questions just fire away – someone should be able to answer them!

  8. Great review. Personally, I’m really let down by the production report not being included, I can’t get rid of my special edition DVD now. I’m actually more bothered by the black bars though…. If I’m watching a 1080p Blu Ray disc on a 1080p display I don’t understand why it isn’t in fullscreen. I’m no AV expert, but I don’t understand why this isn’t possible….

  9. yo i have a question, although my post is probably too late to get a response.

    why the hell wasn’t the audio track mentioned? does it have the original english dub or the new one, with the floating chair kid missing his smoker voice. i can’t find the old dubbed version anywhere, and i heard the only place to find it on dvd is in Australia. So does the blu-ray have both? or just the new one…

  10. yeah thats a good question… bla bla on picture quality etc. but whats with the audio? the pioneer version sounds so stupid and boring, i also liked the original english dub, wich sounded more darker.

  11. the floating chair kid missing his smoker voice: “you know you cant mentally exist in the outside world. i came to get you. come on lets go home”.

    and how good this audio was: many techno-hits were made, containing these samples. ;-P

    far better than the pioneer crap.

  12. I’ll be honest – the reason I did not mention the dub is because I’ve not watched it. I’m not anti dubs, but somehow watching Akira with American accents just seems wrong. So yeah, blah blah on the picture quality… sorry.

    As far as I know there’s only one English dub on the BR, not sure which one it is. When I’ve got time I’ll stick it on again and let you know.

  13. Fair enough. The main reason i mention it being i first saw the movie in the original dub. that was when i was younger, and allergic to subs.I don’t think i’ve even watched it subbed. I’ll check it out.

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