Friday, September 7, 2007

Movie Review: Akira

Sooner or later we have to mention this one.

Akira, directed by Katsushiro Atomo. Screenplay by Katsushiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto. Starring Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, and Mami Koyama. Executive Producer Sawako Noma. Produced by Ryohei Suzuki and Shunzo Kato. Akira Committee, 1987. Runtime 124 minutes. Rated R.

I have at last figured out D. G. D.'s winning streak in the weekly movie-deciding wrestling contest. I was focusing too much on style and was forgetting that my opponent is a science fiction geek: he's 5'11" and only weighs about 160. I gave up my specialty moves and went for old-fashioned throwing-him-over, so while he was reciting badly translated lines from kung fu films like "I'm going to torture you slowly until I want you to go to Hell," I was bending him in half.

The choice this week is the brilliant classic Akira, which D. G. D. describes as "124 minutes of clunky pacing, incompetent sci-fi storytelling, and intentionally jarring violence almost painful to watch." I called him a Philistine, and then he said, "Although they've garnered a reputation to the contrary, archaeological evidence shows the Philistines were more sophisticated in art and technology than were their neighbors ." After Phenny and Frederick assisted me in stuffing an entire couch pillow in the Human Encyclopedia's mouth, we could enjoy the movie.

But okay, let's be perfectly honest. Akira is stylish, and it is jarring, but it is also hiding a lack of originality under a veneer of incomprehensibility. If we push our way through this cloak, we'll find the film's premise, plot, and play-out are quite familiar.

Akira has at its heart a plot the average sci-fi junky will have an easy time understanding. It takes all-too-common (because it's intriguing) path of ignoring real evolutionary theory or the Law of Conservation of Energy and posits that human evolution is a continuous upward progression leading from single-cell organisms to some sort of god-like state. So in spite of the strangeness, you're really in the same territory as Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" or Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. Come to think of it, the film's final imagery may be dependent on Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the world of Akira, this upward evolution can go in fits and starts, a sort of fantasy version of the Punctuated Equilibrium concept. According to Akira's underlying ideas, a potential energy for god-likeness is locked inside organisms or perhaps inside matter itself. Something (it's unclear what) can release that energy ahead of schedule, giving certain humans powerful psychic abilities they are not intellectually and morally advanced enough to control or properly use. One such human, a boy named Akira, apparently blows up most of Tokyo in 1988 and starts World War III. After the war is over and Neo-Tokyo has been built on the ruins, a secret government project is studying children with psychic abilities. One of them escapes and comes in contact with Tetsuo, a member of a biker gang, and somehow releases Tetsuo's own potential. Tetsuo goes on a violent rampage with his psychic powers while the military, an anti-government terrorist group, the psychic kids, and Kaneda--the leader of the biker gang--all do various things to try to stop him. In the background, a fringe religion that worships Akira as a god believes Tetsuo is their messiah.

I confess I have a little trouble taking seriously any work of science fiction that depicts the following: vehicles that explode on impact, computer screens that explode when something short-circuits, and people who go through windows without getting shredded. Akira pulls all three of these no-nos, but it's visually impressive enough and thematically interesting enough I'm willing to forgive it.

I'll have to give a spoiler alert so I can discuss the ending. The movie's climax is a prolonged orgy of city-wide destruction and a psychic battle of the sort that has appeared in other movies (Dark City is a more recent example). It finally ends Clarke-style with the metamorphosis of Tetsuo and his rebirth as a powerful god with his own universe. Though causing a lot of mayhem on the way, that rebirth conveniently removes him from our own universe. The movie's final image is of the Big Bang, with galaxies spreading out from a central point while a voice-over announces, "I am Tetsuo." It may be fair to say that by the standards of Western sf, Akira is thematically traditional, perhaps even behind the times, though it does give visual nods to Blade Runner and Mad Max, which were still moderately fresh in 1987.

I won't bother discussing the film's philosophical underpinnings at any length, as they are common in science fiction. It should be evident anyway that evolution by its very nature is no path to godhood, as any serious evolutionary scientist will stress that evolution does not imply upward progression. The notion of forthcoming godhood is a religious and spiritual notion. Tacking that notion onto the concept of biological evolution, common though it may be in science fiction, is ludicrous precisely because biological evolution is biological and must bend to the limits of physical matter. The philosophical or religious errors of a movie like Akira should therefore pose no problem for viewers simply because they cannot be taken seriously. The movie does have a number of surprises, however, for anyone who expect it to be low-key because it is a cartoon. The violence is genuinely gruesome, there is some brief nudity, and there is some strong language. It earns its R-rating.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Akira:

Myth Level: Medium-High (D. G. D. invented this scale and I hate it because it's completely subjective, not to mention stupid)

Quality: High (this movie is an animation landmark and set a few records)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-Low (a modestly redemptive ending, an almost voyeuristic preoccupation with blood and guts, strong language, kind of dumb premise)
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