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.
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?
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.
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.
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.