There are many movies that people will never shut up about how good they are, but Akira is one of the few films that is actually worthy of all of its praise. Originally released in 1980 as a graphic novel and later adapted to a film in 1989, Akira was a massive success, grossing $45 million locally and an additional $49 million internationally. Since 1989 it has had limited runs in theatres across the world (the United Kingdom is in the middle of its third release) and has helped to introduce generations of western audiences to anime.
Before 1989 successful animes in the west were shows for children like Astroboy and Speed Racer—shows one would normally find among Saturday morning cartoons. But Akira was different. Filled with as much blood, violence, and nudity as any R-rated action movie, Akira showed that the anime can be used be used to tell a serious story.
Set in a dystopian Tokyo years after a nuke is dropped on the city, Akira follows the story of a biker gang as they accidentally discover secret military experiments being conducted on humans. Together they wander the bright lights and grungy streets of NeoTokyo looking for answers.
I won’t go any further into the plot to avoid spoilers for those who haven't watched but the movie, but the overall mood of the story is dark and serious—something almost unheard of in the west for an animated movie.
Akira’s success and cult fanbase opened the doors for adult, action-filled animes to be translated for western audiences. Series that have become pop culture phenomena like Dragon Ball, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop all slowly made their way to America to change the way audiences looked at anime.
But Akira’s reach goes beyond animation. Since it’s release, countless artists have cited Akira as one of their biggest influences. In music, Akira has influenced artists like Michael Jackson, who showed clips of the film in his 1995 music video for “Scream.” Kanye West is a huge fan of Akira, stating in some of his twitter ramblings that it’s one of his favorite films of all time.
Kanye loves the film so much that he made the music video for his 2007 hit single “Stronger” a direct homage to Akira, with some scenes in the music video choreographed to match scenes from the anime.
One can also see the influence the film has had even on the fashion world. The outfits of the biker gangs in the cyberpunk and war-torn world of Akira are worn and tattered. Torn, sleeveless sweatshirts, ripped T-shirts, bomber jackets, and other scummy biker clothes are on each of the characters. Outfits that would not look out of place today on the street or fashion runways.
Almost 30 years later, Akira continues to inspire people from a variety of communities and has opened the doors for some of the most iconic animes to make the transition to western audiences. Films, fashion, and music have all taken elements of Akira and brought them to their own worlds. So if you haven’t seen Akira yet, watch it to see if it’s really as good as everyone says it is.
Text by Daniel Kam
Photography by Vishwang Gowariker