Sense of Wonder: Akira and the Art of Convolution

Akira (1988)

As you may know from this previous post, since recently purchasing a Blu-ray player I have been trying out my old DVDs to see how they look with their output signal upgraded for my 50-inch widescreen high-definition television. Needless to say, I have been trying to select films with spectacular visuals, and this led me, almost inevitably, to open Pioneer Entertainment’s Limited Edition Metal Collector’s Case of AKIRA and pop the Special Edition disc into the machine. I won’t trouble you with the details of how improved the DVD image was when played through the new unit. (AKIRA is available on Blu-ray disc, which is no doubt much better, so why worry how good the DVD looks?) But I did have an interesting thought while revisiting Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime masterpiece: the film seems to defy our usual desire for clean narrative simplicity, and it is far better for it.
Though I have never had anything profound to say about it, I have always felt that AKIRA is a profound film – even back when I first saw it on an imported Japanese laserdisc, without subtitles, and had no idea what the characters were saying. Subsequent viewings – on VHS and in theatres, with various subtitles and audio dubs – have only magnified this first impression. There is something about the dense, layered texture of the film that creeps into your head, filling you with the impression that you are witnessing something ground-breaking and unique.
What brought this forcibly home to me on this most recent viewing was this realization: AKIRA is so dense and convoluted, on both a visual and narrative level, that each time I watch the film, I forget exactly what – or who – “Akira” is. I know this sounds like early-onset Alzheimer’s, but trust me when I say that this is a case unique to this particular film.
Perhaps this is just a quirk of my memory, but I prefer to credit this phenomenon to AKIRA itself – and register it as a positive virtue. I find it personally remarkable that I can re-watch a film that I have closely scrutinized on numerous previous occasions and still react almost as if viewing it anew, at least in terms of the central mystery regarding the nature and/or identity of “Akira.” To me this is a testament to just how dense and complex AKIRA is.
I an dubbing this phenomenon the “Art of Convolution,” indicating “intricacy of form, design, or structure.”*By this, I do not mean that AKIRA is incomprehensible on a narrative level – it is actually easy to follow what is happening. It is the why rather than the what that is difficult to determine; the motivation behind and meaning of what we are seeing is left open to interpretation.
The narrative is split into  multiple viewpoints, presenting various characters with conflicting agendas, few if any of whom are clearly good or evil, leaving it up to the audience to sort out how they feel about the whole thing. The ostensible protagonists – Kaneda, the leader of a violent biker gang – is often on the periphery of the action, connected to the story only by the fact that his friend (more of a whipping boy, actually) Tetsuo has been altered by a power connected with Akira, turning Tetsuo into a super-psychic powered being who can now get even with the world that used to beat him down (rather like the title character in CARRIE). It’s not really Kaneda’s problem – the scientific and military types associated with the Akira project should be the ones to handle Tetsuo – but Kaneda seems to feel it is his personal duty to put down his former friend.
The result feels a big like an epic saga condensed down to feature length. (This is apparently more or less what happened: I have not read Otomo’s original manga, on which the screenplay is based, but I understand that is is much longer and less elliptical.) Harkening back to the editorial theories of Eisenstein, the separate plot threads interact in a dialectic way that invites – or perhaps forces – the viewer to synthesize them into some kind of meaning.
Normally, we enjoy works of art – including horror, fantasy, and science fiction films – that are structured in a way to makes easily understandable sense. If we regard these films as profound, it is because their themes touch us on a deeply emotional or intellectual level, not because the themes are buried too deep to be easily understood.
Then every once in a while comes along another kind of film, one that feels profound precisely because it refuses to yield all its secrets or surrender itself to easy analysis. I think AKIRA is one of these films, and that is why I feel comfortable using and re-using the world “profound” to describe it, even though I have no particularly insightful analysis to offer. All I can say is that it’s a rich movie that rewards multiple viewings, and even if, next time around, I remember who and what Akira is, I’m sure the film will nevertheless wrap me up in its intricate convolutions as deeply as ever.

  • “Convolution” is also a mathematical term referring to an operation in which two functions interact to produce a third function that is seen as a variation on one of the initial functions. In a figurative way, I suppose this definition can be applied to AKIRA as well, with the functions of the different characters interacting to produce a result that is a synthesis of the others.