Sound: B Extras: D Film: A-
NOTE: This DTS DVD edition is now out of print and
remains the best playback version on DVD, but a new upgraded High Definition
Blu-ray Disc has been issued and without a DVD version. That Blu-ray also makes the playback of all
DVD versions obsolete. You can read more
about it at this link:
How many classics exist in the world of
feature-length animation? Not in
animated short, for which there are hundreds, not in the brave new world of
computer animation, if we restrict it to a total cyber world (Shrek, Toy
Story). The animated feature began
with Disney’s 1938 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (reviewed on Blu-ray
elsewhere on this site), and has not let up, even in the worst of times.
That classic made such features seem much more
viable for a children’s audience, and animation would be geared towards young
people worldwide, even if it was originally made for adults in its early
years. Even outside of such animation
that is surprisingly racy, another level in between the childlike &
burlesque kept trying to form, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1987 feature film version
of his own classic graphic novel comic book Akira is one of the
masterpieces that resulted.
Like all Japanese Anime, the origins can be traced
back to the Disney style to some extent, but even more so to the Fleischer
Studio’s Superman animated shorts series (now out in a much-improved DVD
set from Warner Bros., reviewed elsewhere on this site). This brought action/adventure into the art
form like nothing else, and though it would not make that type of storytelling
dominant, it set the standards back in the late 1930s, early 1940s. The
commercial and critical success of Snow White was certainly a catalyst
for Paramount Pictures to spend $100,000 per short in the dollars of the day,
making them some of the most expensive short films ever made.
By the 1950s, TV arrived. Prodded on by the stunning work of John Halas
and Joy Batchelor’s theatrical film adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal
Farm in 1954, kids animation would adapt the innovations of the UPA
Studios, and a wave of animated TV series from Japan like Astro Boy and Gigantor
would quickly follow. By the 1960s,
Japan would give us the legendary Speed Racer, while US kids TV studio
Hanna-Barbera would give us the original (and only true) Jonny Quest. The spy genre of the 1960s quickly followed
by that era’s civil rights movement, would assure more of a permanency for that
kind of animation. Reinforcing this was
the arrival of comic book superhero animation series from Hanna Barbera and Filmation.
Back in Japan, as the TV series kept getting
produced, imported to the US or not, the theatrical features we now know as the
massive Anime market kicked into high gear.
They also became even more violent and sexually oriented. Japan easily took the worldwide lead in the
art form. This brings us to Akira,
nearly half a century after the first Fleischer Superman short
debuted. By this time, many innovations
and classics, commercial and artistic, had occurred in live-action feature
films from the United States and Britain, in genres like action/adventure,
thrillers, and science fiction. Akira
set a new high watermark for its kind of animation by totally answering
those great films in the visual language of animation, even beyond what was
For one thing, the detail of the animation and
visuals remains some of the greatest in both animation and cinema history. Otomo’s use of detail and color schemes is
nothing short of truly brilliant and presents animation as if it were as
live-action feature film. Uses of depth,
movements made to look like a film camera’s eye, and the addition of feigning
going in and out of focus by director of photography (we are still talking an
animated feature here) Katsuji Misawa is incredible. Also, with the intensity of detail, this
remains animation that is meant to be seen on the largest film screen
possible. That makes it the most
important such feature film since Disney made Lady and the Tramp (1955)
in CinemaScope, and Sleeping Beauty (1959, reviewed on Blu-ray elsewhere
on this site) in Technirama.
This film was not necessarily made widescreen, but
was absolutely made big screen. Shot in
flat 35mm, original distributors Streamline did something in their 1988 US
release that only Disney had only done previously with Sleeping Beauty
(see our Blu-ray review elsewhere on this site) it became the first Anime
issued in 70mm prints. So good did it
look, that many thought the film was actually produced that way!
The anamorphically enhanced picture on this DVD is
testament to that, offering an exceptionally colorful rendering of the
animation with decent picture definition.
Though the 70mm prints were 2.20 X 1, this DVD frames the picture at a
large-looking 16 X 9 widescreen HDTV ratio.
The 1.78 X 1 frame feels almost closer to 1.66 X 1, but despite an early
all-white screen looking a bit yellow, looks incredible. The print rarely shows its age otherwise,
while definition does not suffer much at all.
There are slight points where the definition hits a wall, points not as
slight as I though until I saw the Blu-ray.
Pioneer did issue the film in an early, lame
version of High Definition DLP (Digital Light Projection) theatrical release in
2001 to go with their DVD issue of the film, but that had serious limits versus
the extreme detail and color of the original film, while an update for theaters
in this way would likely have the same issues since there is so much detail
here. That is why the next digital
internegative is going to have to be handled very carefully to work and the new
Blu-ray delivers this to a fine extent.
This disc offers two 5.1 sound options for the
first time. There is the controversial
new English dub version. Some fans like
it, other feel it is inferior to the older English dub the film came with in
1987. The best version of that older dub
was on the Criterion Collection LaserDisc of Akira that fans STILL are
paying top dollar for long after Blu-ray has arrived to replace and succeed
standard DVD as the best format around.
The sound quality is a big disappointment, sadly being the only track
(Japanese or English) on Pioneer’s other editions of the film, especially the
special edition releases.
This Japanese DTS DVD version is a basic-only
version of the film, but the sacrifice of extras pays off in stunning sound
quality that finally brings back the glory and performance power of the
original 70mm blow-up sound. In 1988,
that blow-up featured a Dolby Stereo magnetic 6-track, 4.1 sound mix. Though it had no split surrounds at the time,
it was an exceptional use of multi-channel sound on a film of that time. The new DTS 5.1 mix adds split surrounds,
reintroduces the music in a higher fidelity off of what sounds like the
original music soundtrack masters, and cleans up the original sound-effects and
dialogue tracks. You can hear the
difference in the age of the movie sound, and how much better the music has
held up, which is typical of such upgrades.
However, the margin between the two is far narrower than a film where
the original release was monophonic, so this is never a major problem in the
least. The result is one of the great
sound performers on DVD that is a must-have standard for every DVD-only home
To give you better perspective on the sound, note
the credits of “Musical Director” Shoji Yamashiro and “Sound Recording
Director” Susumu Aketagawa. The reason
sound effects and music composer are not sufficient is the line that gets
crossed between those two worlds. The
music itself has abstract sounds meant to further the narrative that are not
necessarily musical, while the sound effects go beyond either just what the
characters hear or what a standard world would experience. The sound and music meld together in rich,
thick layers that are both surrealistic and ultra-realistic. All the better, since there is such a story
After a third World War, Japan is reborn with the
world of Neo Tokyo. Motorcycle gangs
have assembled, but when a gang that includes best friends Kaneda and Tetsuo
find themselves suddenly involved with a strange government operation, the guys
realize something far more suspicious than the authorities giving bike gangs
trouble is on the agenda. If the world
of a mega city with hundreds of skyscrapers and already-blighted urban areas is
not enough, add scientific labs, war battles and telekinesis in the mix, and
you have a classic film with a landmark sound design.
The story manages to address many social issues,
like poverty, authoritarianism, civil rights, the double-edged sword of
technology, Japan’s cultural & Militarist past, yet still maintains its
very convincing personal story of the characters. That is no easy feat, but the Otomo, Izo
Hashimoto screenplay is first-rate and set new standards for animated
features. Where Anime of the past pushed
extremely well drawn, dynamic stills without movement as the basis of its
animated style, Akira has the budget to bring life to those shots. Chief Animator Takashi Nakamura deserves note
here for that as well, that owes as much to Blade Runner as it does to
the ever-underrated Tron.
Disney and later DreamWorks have been trying to
catch up ever since, succeeding to some extent in the digital computer animated
world at least. Warner Bros.’ animated Batman
– The Animated Series (reviewed elsewhere on this site) launched an entire
new cycle of superhero genre animation at the studio that owes something to Akira. Disney even turned to 70mm blow-ups starting
with Lion King in 1994 to have spectacular presentation over the next
few years of their animated features, then tied in with Pixar before finally
buying them outright to stay on top of animation in general.
More advanced sound design spread throughout
animated features too, while it is fair to say Akira influenced some
live-action feature sound design as much as the original Star Wars, The
Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and Terminator
2: Judgment Day have.
Akira is an all-time classic that
has yet to hit its stride.