The Philosopher Rene Descartes loves his … Akira (1988)
Akira is an influential Japanese anime I’ve been meaning to watch for a while to see just what was going on with it, its director, and the overall themes that make it one of the most renown pieces of Japanese anime ever made. EmpireOnline has stated that director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s favorite film is War of the Worlds, a story about alien invasion. It can be judged as such, or as an allegory for racial discrimination and racial superiority where intelligence is represented by the level of technology. Akira has similar elements and uses themes from the philosophy of Rene Descartes, if you can believe that. I didn’t, but I changed my mind.
Also, I was curious if this movie was Yojimbo with motorcycles, or bloody revenge a la Kill Bill, but it isn’t. It is a comment on the ghost in the machine, a complicated Descartes concept about the duel nature of the mind and the body. Dualism suggests the concept of the soul, but the movie takes this a bit farther and suggests that the mind has a far greater, literal power than the body. I’m talking literal like…psychic powers and explosions.
The story is set years after World War III and the destruction of Tokyo. This destruction is a direct allusion to War of the Worlds, however the idea of racial superiority is replaced by class superiority. It is clear that Tetsuo is a crazy youngster with an inferiority complex.
Basically, the whole chaotic beginning illustrates the inept nature of the city. There is no order. The city is beginning to become a cesspool. It is really bad. The bikers can do whatever they want and this mirrors Tetsuo’s attitude, destructive thinking that gets him in trouble. Destruction is a main theme, not only as an allusion to War of the Worlds, but also as a suggestion of the cyclical nature of the film world, which is needed for change to happen. Change seems impossible in the city, which is apparent at the political ineptitude of the city leaders. The movie uses destruction as a way to wipe the slate clean and to begin something new. This could be a reference to the real life World War II and how Japan developed into a strong country after the war.
There are a lot of comparisons between what is old and new in the city. However, the young gangsters are still more into girls than anything else. The conflict between older and younger people is stressed at every opportunity. The adults struggle to understand the true power of humanity and the youngsters struggle with a simple school education.
Later, Kiyoko says that “the thing about Akira’s power is everyone has it at the start.” This implies duality. How Akira and the test subjects become all-powerful is never explained, but the government seeks control over the power of the mind. This complicated exploration of philosophy is presented a little more simply in the film, but it is no less compelling.
The movie shows Tetuso evolving beyond his own physical existence in what can only be inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. And that’s a black mark, because I don’t feel that 2001 accomplishes much. However, Akira goes beyond a simple discussion of the mind-body philosophy and it becomes a battle over human abilities, but it is so existential that I can’t explain it. Clearly, human experimentation had some influence on Tetsuo and Akira’s development, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, humans have discovered something they don’t really understand. They have created technologies and highly advanced tools, but that is nothing compared to the evolution of the mind.
All in all, this movie is not a superficial action anime. It is a study of the human element and our evolution as a society and as a race. The animation is top notch and the dialogue is pretty good by Japanese anime standards. The performances of the voice actors in the version I saw were decent, although I’ve only seen Robotech and some other assorted anime. I’m not an expert on anime by any means and I only watched this movie for its themes, but it is definitely one of the best looking animated films I’ve seen. It is a great contribution to Japanese anime.