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.


Steamboy (2004) – Retrospective Anime Film Review

Essential vewing, but not another masteripece, from from AKIRA-creator Katsuhiro Otomo

Katsuhiro Otomo’s STEAMBOY, his first feature-length anime since 1988’s AKIRA, is another excellent piece of cinematic science fiction, filled with the dazzling animation, beautiful backgrounds, and absolutely awe-inspiring action scenes. It is also a lesson in how the march of time can affect viewer reaction to an artist. When AKIRA came out, it was a groundbreaking piece of work that outdistanced both Japanese and American animation in terms of ambition and style. STEAMBOY, on the other hand, is a remarkable achievement, but it does not outclass contemporary efforts like GHOST IN THE SHELL: INNOCENCE.
Set in the Victorian era (1866, to be precise), the mildly convoluted story begins with an industrial accident in Alaska, presided over by the father-son team of Lloyd and Edward Steam, with the elder Lloyd insisting on going full bore while the younger Edward is injured trying to prevent disaster. The action shifts to Manchester, where grandson Ray Steam receives a package from Lloyd containing a “steamball.” Ray is instructed to keep the device out of the hands of the O’Hara Foundation, an American entrepreneurial company that employed both Lloyd and Edward, but both he and his grandfather are kidnapped by the company. Ray is surprised to find his father, now disfigured into a combination of the Phantom of the Opera and the Frankenstein Monster, still working for O’Hara, which is presided over by the founder’s obnoxious granddaughter, Scarlett. The steamball, it turns out, is a powerful energy source, filled with a mysterious liquid of great “purity” that has been highly condensed and pressurized. Edward wants to harness this new energy source to push humanity into the next century. Unfortunately, the O’Hara foundation earns its money by war profiteering, and Lloyd fears the consequences of leaving the steamball in their hands. In the final act, the O’Hara demonstrates their newest weaponry (in an amusingly absurd plot development) by launching a small-scale war at an Exhibition in London, destroying large parts of the city in the process. Ray, who has been pulled back and forth in the conflict between his father and grandfather, manages to improvise a flying device and help prevent an even greater disaster, rescuing Scarlett in the process.
STEAMBOY has rightfully been reviewed as a film filled with visual grandeur that falters in the area of narrative development. The story begins with not one but two machinery-gone-haywire scenes, first with Lloyd and Edward, then with Ray. Then the story shifts into a nice Alfred Hitchcock pastiche, with Ray as the naive innocent thrust into the middle of a pursuit for a valuable object sought by rival factions. There is some interesting dramatic conflict, with Ray torn between his father and his grandfather’s views of the progress of science, but the effect is somewhat undermined by Lloyd’s unacknowledged change of heart: when we first see him, he is the one willing to risk everything for progress; apparently, the accident changed his mind, but he never says so. The story slows down in the middle section, with the debates about the virtues and perils of science sounding like old-hat lectures (somewhat reminiscent of, though not nearly so bizarre as, the “amoeba” speech from AKIRA). Thankfully, the film delivers a spectacular climax that features Edward’s crowning glory, “Steam Tower,” a battleship size structure resembling a small city, literally taking flight over London.
STEAMBOY’s success is based mostly on its visual achievement, with numerous Jules Verne-inspired gadgets (flying machines, submarines, etc) showcased in breathtaking fashion. Early on there is a wonderful chase scene involving Ray’s steam-powered unicycle, a steam-powered tractor, and a train, which ends with a dirigible grapping one of the train cars and nearly crashing into Victoria Station. The battle scenes are exciting, without being as graphically violent as anything in AKIRA.
The film’s message may be heavy-handed, but it is delivered with a sort of over-the-top sincerity: Lloyd thinks his son Edward has turned evil because he has sold his soul to “capitalists” who make money from weapons; Edward’s English counterpart, Robert Stephenson, also wants to get his hands on the steamball, but for the sake of protecting the nation, not for making money. As is often the case in Japanese films, the conflict seems muddled to Western viewers because neither side is presented as wholly good or evil; rather they are competing philosophies, and the protagonist (in this case Ray) sides with one or the other depending on how it advances his personal agenda, in some cases flipping back and for the between the two (see PRINCESS MONONOKE for comparison).
The one element that prevents STEAMBOY from achieving critical mass is the characterizations. Otomo’s futuristic punks in AKIRA may not have been ideal role models, but they were interesting, in a cyberpunk kind of way. The two young leads in STEAMBOY come from a separate tradition of adorable, youthful protagonists, such as those seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s LAPUTA, CASTLE IN THE SKY. The difference is that Miyazaki actually manages to charm us with his cute couple; Otomo does not. Much of the problem rests with Scarlett – little more than a spoiled brat (basically, a caricature of the ugly American) who periodically beats her pet dog for no particular reason. Her obnoxious quality at times approaches camp levels, leading viewers to expect a comeuppance worthy of her behavior – which, sadly, never really arrives. (The closest we get is her rude awakening when she gets a first-hand glimpse at the carnage wrought by the weapons her foundation manufactures.)
Nevertheless, STEAMBOY remains a must-see for anime fans and for those interested in seeing a wonderfully exciting artistic vision put up on the screen with grandeur and beauty in abundance. Rather like LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, Otomo’s new film aims to create a futuristic alternate reality out of the past. Unlike those previous films, STEAMBOY hits the target with a bulls-eye, filling the screen with eye-popping entertainment that is carefully calibrated to astound without collapsing under the weight of its own excess. It may not be another AKIRA; it may not even be another masterpiece; but it is essential viewing.


The obnoxious female lead is named Scarlett, and she just happens to be the “granddaughter of the founder of the O’Hara Foundation.” Although no character addresses her by her full name, this would seem to make her “Scarlett O’Hara.”
A montage of still images over the closing credits provides glimpses of the future adventures of Steamboy (i.e., Ray, looking a lot like Rocket Boy, with a flying jetpack on his back), implying that the film is intended to launch a franchise. On the director’s cut DVD, this montage can be viewed without the credits, providing a better view of the images.


In the United States, STEAMBOY was released in two versions: a subtitled directors cut and a re-edited cut (approximately fifteen minutes shorter) that was dubbed into English (featuring the voices of Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Moline, etc.). The Director’s Cut DVD presents both the English- and Japanese-language versions in unedited form.
The re-voiced dialogue effectively captures dialects appropriate for the Victorian England setting (with the lead characters coming from Manchester, the soundtrack inevitably suggests — to American ears, at least — the Beatles in A HARD DAY�S NIGHT). This may be one of the few times that dubbing actually improved a film, because the new soundtrack is better suited to the story being told, in terms of accents and phrasing.
In fact, the high-toned anti-war, pro-science rhetoric actually sounds better in the English version. The dubbing improves over the subtitles by fashioning dialogue that is more dense and flowery avoiding the too-blunt, telegraphic approach of the written words. For example, upon seeing a vast room of new inventions, the lead character’s “Golly!” has been expanded to “This is incredible!” Somewhat less effectively, “Steam Tower” is changed to “Steam Castle,” even though the structure barely resembles a castle.


The Director’s Cut DVD is a bit of a disappointment. Although the film itself is worth seeing, its presentation on disc does not do it justice. Still, the chance to see the uncut version with the English-language dialogue makes it worthwhile, in spite of the shortcomings.
The first problem is the image quality: the film looks slightly washed out, with low-contrast and dull colors. Curiously, the disc provides a gauge by which to judge the picture quality: the clips from the film shown in the bonus features are all bright and sharp and vibrant.
The Bonus Features consists of a handful of Featurettes; Animation Onionskins; and Production Drawings. (There are also trailers for unrelated films, like FINAL FANTASY VII and THE CAVE.)
The first featurette “Re-Voicing Steamboy” includes an assembly of interviews, mostly with the three lead voice actors: Anna Paquin (Ray “Steamboy”), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Lloyd Steam), and Alfred Molina (Dr. Edward Steam). Mostly they talk about the familiarity (or lack thereof) with Japanese animation and about their technical difficulties of creating a vocal performance to a film that has already been created. Lacking specifics, the featurette tend to bog down in dull generalities; about the most interesting tidbit is learning that that the sound director for the original Japanese-language version was involved with the dubbing process.
The interview with writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo tells us that he spent ten years on the film: three years planning and seven years of production work, but that is about all you learn of significance. Unfortunately, the auteur’s Japanese comments are translated into a voice-over audio instead of rendered in subtitles – a bad, distracting idea.
The longest featurette is a “three-screen” presentation created to promote the film before its release: the top half of the frame is divided into two small sections, while the bottom half provides a “widescreen” image. Beginning with comparisons of live-action reference footage, temporary renderings, and final animation, the featurette soon moves into a series of subtitled interviews with Otomo and the animators (who are not identified by name). A few interesting details are parceled out very slowly, and for some reason almost everyone involved seems to be having nasal problems – count how many times they scratch and wipe their noses on screen!
The “Animation Onionskins” are basically glimpses of unfinished animation, showing how scenes were originally rendered on the computer, with details gradually being added.
The Production Drawings segment features a nice montage of artwork set to music from the film. To some extent, the title hardly does justice to the images: much of what is seen is far more than a mere drawing, looking more like fully rendered paintings worthy of hanging in a museum.
The DVD Gift Set includes all those features, plus these bonus materials: 10 Steamboy Collectible Postcards; a 22-page manga (i.e., comic book); a 166-page booklet containing character designs, mecha designs, and selected storyboard sequences.
STEAMBOY (2004). Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Written by Katsuhiro Otomo & Sadayuki Morai. Voices (Japanese): Amne Suzuki, Masane Tsukayama, Katsuo Nakamura. Voices (English): Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Akira (1989) – Blu-ray Review

Japanese Anime was the one video store section that never failed to leave us dizzy. It’s a world that we’re totally unfamiliar with and the hundreds upon hundreds of titles make us sympathize with the people that never leave the safety of the ‘New Release’ wall. Anime always looked cheap and unattractive to us and even the occasional show that did grab our attention – such as the horror-infused Vampire Hunter D – had to be dripping with familiar genre elements to get us past the unappealing visuals. But one picture that did managed to break through our wall of indifference to Anime was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on the director’s own series of comics (or Manga, if you’re nasty).
The story is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019, roughly 3 decades after it was destroyed by a nuclear blast at the beginning of World War III. The city that rose in its place is a neon nightmare, resembling a more rabid, dangerous version of the Los Angeles seen in Blade Runner (a film which takes place, not coincidentally, in the very same year). We encourage readers to seek out more information on the plot and the background of the production on their own, as even the film itself has difficulties jamming Otomo’s massive 2,000+ page Manga into a film running just over two hours.
Newcomers to the film (or to Anime itself) will find that Akira pleasingly breaks from the typical cost-cutting practices, with incredibly detailed animation (even going so far as to sync lip-movements to dialog, a rare practice in Japan at the time).
If, like me, you owned Criterion’s towering (and pricey) laserdisc of the film and yearned to see its myriad extras duplicated on Bandai’s new Blu-Ray, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from a collection of trailers there’s little else in the way of extras – a real shame given the rich production history of the film and a real lost opportunity to introduce new viewers (for whom Akira may well be the only Anime title in their collection) to the genre with supplemental materials. But the important thing is the presentation, and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, bringing unprecedented detail to the title (enough even to expose the limits of the source materials, an increasingly common problem).