It’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass.
Akira, perhaps the first anime to really hit home stateside, was for a long time, and still may be, perhaps the paradigmatic “animation for adults” film in the US, a designation that reveals as much about the film’s failings as its obvious worth. The film evokes the social anxieties of ‘50s American youth pictures as readily as Kurosawa, himself in the ‘50s, was mobilizing his awareness of American Westerns to theorize relationships between self and other, individual and community, and narrow and generous notions of family in Japanese culture. But although director and co-writer Katsuhiro Otomo and co-writer Izo Hashimoto (adapting from Otomo’s manga of the same name) have studied American genre pictures well, it can be seen as a kind of template for so many later American blockbuster failings, in particular its attempts to launder its sci-fi-inflected action with a phalanx of speciously expressed social and existential themes that vacuously and inevitably diffuse into the margins of the film en route to a hectic, hyperbolic action movie conclusion more invested in grandiosity and magnitude than theoretical acumen.
That narrative, such as it is, focuses on two lifelong friends, Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo) and Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu), who are members of the motorcycle gang the Capsules in Neo-Tokyo, a city initially destroyed in 1988 via a singularity, and which has somehow rebuilt itself into a quasi-indecipherable mélange of highly sleek neo-futurist architecture and technology and still-dilapidated architecture, a mixture of utopia and dystopia that the film (perhaps necessarily) sketches in vaguely. Partially, this sketchiness – this inability to actually explain its world –signals a misty, poetic sort of abstraction that sometimes stutters into a genuinely avant-garde disposition, as though the film is encroaching on the boundaries of what the narrative can actually depict, what the film can actually wrap its head around, and still trying to roam outwards to outer reaches of its mental capacity.
I’m all for that, in any film, on any occasion. At the same time, I’m not actually sure the film earns such a recognition. The film’s failure to think through the implications of its world also indicate the film’s narrative failures, in particular its need to annotate and summarize all of its themes in dialogue rather than inductively evoking them in the film’s background. Partially, this is a symptom of a wider issue, the true culprit being the fact that the film’s narrative is thoroughly unanchored, straining to mix and match so many haphazardly sketched themes that fugitively run around competing for attention, at times marooned amidst all the chaos without any genuine avenue for exploration. The early moments – so scintillatingly ambiguous, leaving the contours of this inexplicable world dangling in the marginal spaces of the imagination – start to feel more vague, as though the film is either conspicuously leaving out information or, conversely, too engrossed by its own energy or otherwise too occupied trying to untangle its various narrative webs to notice what it is, or isn’t, doing.
Which, ultimately, is the film’s real point of collapse. Once Tetsuo and Kaneda run afoul of an escaped government test subject, Takashi (Nakamura Tatsuhiko), and Tetsuo is himself taken in for testing, the film’s narrative slowly but unambiguously buckles under the weight of its headstrong rush, the film a little too confident of its thematic worth to actually explore adolescent loneliness or social paranoia or governmental persecution. With Tetsuo now imprisoned and experimented on as new psychic powers arise within him, and then metastasize into something truly world-threatening, we’re introduced to experiment head Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho), a quintessential mad scientist, his obviously skeptical military escort/overseer Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro), rebels Ryu and Kei (Genda Tesho and Koyama Mami) who Kaneda falls in with en route to helping Tetsuo escape, and then stopping him as his malformation festers, and Kiyoko and Masaru (Ito Fukue and Kamifuji Kazuihro), two other previous experimental subjects whose skin has turned blueish white and who spout cryptic signifiers of increasingly cosmic doom. (Incidentally, the entire film obviously has bodily malformation – especially by technology – on the mind, and it absolutely does not know what to do with this theme beyond its desire to show off the capacities of anime for body horror).
The ideal here would be something like a platonic ideal of abstract chaos, the tumult of the mind (both Tetsuo’s and the film’s) unraveling into a vertiginous swirl of imagery hopelessly unable to recompose itself after tumbling off the abyss into disarray. I’m not quite sure the film actually gets us there. Rather, perhaps aware that its sense of agility and speed have distracted from the more intellectual proclivities of the story, it seems as though the movie doubles-down on its coolness, afraid of pumping on the breaks for fear of the audience realizing its failings, turns the dial up to 11, moving so quickly, and with such dense visual idiosyncrasy, just to distract from how badly off the rails its story is falling.
Which is a shame, because so many of the themes touched on by Akira gesture toward many of the paradigmatic concerns of Japanese animation in the coming years. In the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, when American news media was frequently commenting on Japan’s supposedly hyper-capitalist perfection of the American Dream, Japanese media itself was often attuning to and experimenting with the existential loneliness at the heart of capitalism, the dark underbelly of ambling, directionless anomie beneath the supposed “freedom” and “opportunity” of capitalist fluidity. Instead of becoming upwardly mobile, bodies became pliable, manipulable fodder for new modes of restricting and governing human activity, less because capitalism upended old fixities than because its version of fluidity is immanently contradictory and imposes new forms of structure and order masquerading as mutability and instability.
Many of the great anime films which follow in Akira’s wake query these very concerns – the ambiguities of capitalism, the perspectival anxieties of city life, the increasing instability of conceptions of the body – with many of the same tools as Akira, and undeniably traveling in its wake. (The “anime” qualifier need not even be here, for that matter – just one year later, the live-action Tetsuo: The Iron Man was clearly influenced by Akira’s success, and its Lynchian treatment of modernity malforming the body to the point where sovereignty of flesh and mind becomes a hopeless illusion more than an aspirational dream is vastly more thoughtful than Akira’s rather circumstantial consideration of the same themes).
By the conclusion, I dare say, I’m not sure that Akira amounts to much more than a sense of pandemonium, the phenomenal brutality and kinetic motion of the introductory gang fight having been tweaked right over the precipice into something approaching sheer inscrutability. Yamashiro Shoji’s score, a futuristic alteration of traditional Japanese and Indonesian musical forms, is never less than spellbinding. The animation itself is astonishingly fluid and textured. The amazing uncanny of certain scenes (such as Tetsuo’s absolutely intoxicating Lynchian nightmare where discarded playthings of childhood seek revenge on the adolescent mind unchained) are inarguable, permanently seared into my brain. But the only thing these various features prompt more than appreciation is the apprehension that they just don’t hang together.