Film review: Akira

Published: Tuesday, April 3 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Akira" is an animated feature, but don't let visions of talking ducks and dancing hippos fill your mind. This is adult fare, aimed at hard-core science-fiction fans.

Further, it's so violent and bloody that if the film was live-action it would easily get an R rating. Come to think of it, maybe it would get an R rating anyway. (There are also a few profanities and a scene with nudity.)

The ads hype "Akira" as a cross between "Heavy Metal," the animated sci-fi anthology, and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." The comparison is apt, since the concept owes something to "Heavy Metal's" rude, gritty animation style and the scenes of "Neo-Tokyo," some 30 years into the future, starkly resemble Scott's vision of 21st-century Los Angeles. (And like "Blade Runner," "Akira" gives much more emphasis to the visual style than the story.)

After that there are a lot of other movies that come to mind while watching "Akira," from "Star Wars" to "Superman," but chiefly Brian DePalma's "The Fury" and David Cronenberg's "Scanners" — right down to the one-on-one duel-of-the-telekinetics.

But being animated, "Akira" has a lot more freedom than those films, in terms of its visual imagery, and stylistically it's all over the map.

The film's "look" is significant, since "Akira" is aimed at animation, sci-fi and comic book buffs — it is based on the comic book . . . er, "graphic novel" by Katsuhiro Otomo, published here by Epic Comics. (Budgeted at $7 million, this is also Japan's most expensive animated feature.)

But the plot is less successful.

A convoluted, muddled mixture of decades' worth of science fiction and fantasy themes, the story begins with a couple of biker gangs battling it out in the streets of Neo-Tokyo, built on the remains of Tokyo Bay, in the year 2019, 31 years after World War III.

During one confrontation on their hyper-speed motorcycles, a junior member of one of the gangs is injured and spirited off by evil government officials to a hospital. There a doctor discovers he has telepathic and telekinetic powers.

Before the boy's powers can be harnessed, however, he escapes and wreaks havoc on the city, with his friends and other government experimental telekinetics trying to help him. Eventually, however, they realize all they can do is try to stop him.

Anyone who's read or watched much science fiction will recognize the themes here, right down to the most basic — the "1984"-style government structure. And the battles, whether involving mobs of people or one-on-one confrontations, become rather redundant after awhile. (Some of the English dubbing is a bit strange, as when a couple of Japanese natives seem to have affected Brooklyn accents. And why do so many characters grimace and growl?)

Worst of all, the film is more than two hours long, which is much too lengthy to sustain interest in an animated feature, even if the story were more compelling.

But it is the animation that is the draw here, so to speak. And some of the imagery is nothing short of stunning. (The hallucinations of experimental victims are especially effective.) And the musical score is also very good.

So keep in mind that the three-star rating is strictly for avid fans of the genres. Anyone else should beware.

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