There are few times where my jaw literally dropped open while watching a film. One that I remember particularly well was while watching Akira, but more on that later. This is one of the most revered anime film made, but that should not be a negative to how one should approach it. The visual elements never drown out an incredible story, one that shows that when it comes to animation, the only limits are those the artists place on themselves.
We begin in 1988 with an extraordinary sight: Tokyo is obliterated in one massive explosion with no sound to add to the sight. It is entirely dependent on the animation, and Akira trusts the audience to use only the visuals to magnify the horror of the sight, beginning the film quite figuratively by blowing up in our faces. Out of the remnants of this unexplained destruction in Neo-Tokyo thirty-one years later is a biker gang led by Kaneda with his second-in-command Tetsuo. Neo-Tokyo is a mix of a successful metropolis and a world on the verge of total collapse. There are elegant dining clubs mixed with mass street protests and riots on the streets...and motorcycle gangs. While out battling their rivals, Kaneda and Tetsuo narrowly avoid running over the strangest being: a person that looks like a child but has an old person's face. The child, along with Tetsuo, is picked up by the military, having been led there by another old-looking child.
We discover the children (there are a total of three) are part of a nefarious series of experiments to tap into psychic powers to conquer. Tetsuo, we discover, has great powers and the military/scientific complex attempts to take advantage, but Tetsuo is becoming more unstable, allowing his rage and confusion to overwhelm his powers to destructive ends. As Kaneda joins forces with an underground movement to end these plans and rescue his friend, Tetsuo is terrified by manifestations of the three children in the forms of a teddy bear, a toy car and plush bunny. It now becomes a race to stop Tetsuo from becoming so out-of-control that Neo-Tokyo and the world itself be destroyed by tapping into the power of Akira--and by that recreate the beginning of creation itself.
Akira has something up on most animated films that Western audiences aren't used to: an unflinching view of violence. While people think of animation as a children's genre, or the Japanese-style of animation (known as anime) as Pokémon or Hello Kitty, Akira is sometimes more graphic than a live-action film. It is virtually impossible to imagine that a film-maker would show a dog being shot point blank or have a character be crushed and let the blood go all over. It may be possible to show a woman being attacked but in animation form it seems more shocking.
You also have a great ability to create worlds and images that perhaps could be accomplished with modern CGI, but that wouldn't have as strong an impact as an animated version has. The scene where Tetsuo has visions of attacking toys might not work in live-action, but in animation, accented with Shoji Yamashiro's score it is quite terrifying. When Akira finally makes his appearance, the accompanying images are so astounding that I did something I rarely if ever have done: my jaw dropped open and I was stunned at the brilliance and impact the images before me were having. It to me is still one of the most shocking moments in animation, as if all reality within and without the film is melting into itself.
Looking back on Akira, it seems to be a precursor to other films. It may have influenced such films as The Matrix and Children of Men, and appears to draw from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It presents a world that only appears real and one that is disintegrating beyond repair. It may not be possible to call Akira the Citizen Kane of anime, but it certainly is one of the seminal films of the genre, engrossing the viewer with a fantastical story that holds no limits.