Akira: What Makes Animation So Special

As as subgenre of animation, anime tends to be somewhat overlooked and underappreciated in Western nations. It has garnered notable cult followings in recent years and is becoming more popular, but there is still a certain stigma associated with anime. It’s a shame, because the subgenre has some of the best animated shows and films ever made, including Spirited Away, Full Metal Alchemist, Death Note (the first 25 episodes at least), Grave of the Fireflies (my personal favorite), and the subgenre’s arguably most influential film, Akira, which I got to see again at Row House Cinema as part of their anime week celebration.

Set in a dystopian 2019, Kaneda, the leader of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo, gets caught in the middle of a government conspiracy after his friend, Tetsuo, gets psychic powers following a motorcycle accident. Essentially, it’s as if Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, and an old Disney animation film had a child that was high on acid. There is a lot that can be said about the film’s presentation of topics like corruption, capitalism, or its metaphors for the Japanese paranoia about nuclear weapons and post-WWII anxiety. But perhaps nothing is more impressive about Akira than the animation and its importance for the film’s storytelling.

Akira uses cel animation, which means every frame was hand-drawn. With cel animation, animators use layers of celluloids, which are plastic transparent sheets that they can draw on to create a single frame. Usually there are four to five layers for each frame: a background layer, two or three separate layers for characters, and another one or two separate layers for more specific animations, like mouth or hand movements. Although computers are often used in modern anime to speed up the production process, there were no computers in 1988 to help animators. Therefore, everything had to be done by hand. While many anime studios would cut corners with the animation if possible, the creators of Akira broke new ground by animating every single frame. Keep in mind that for one second of motion in the film, there are 24 frames, and each frame has to be animated individually. The film is about two hours long, which means the animators had to create over 172,000 frames by hand. Akira also broke ground by having several frames that used nine celluloid layers, compared to the standard four or five. Since the animation was done frame by frame, all the dialogue had to be pre-recorded, and the movement for mouth and facial expressions had to be accurately animated around the voice acting.

This creates a really smooth animation style where every single detail of the world beautifully comes to life. There are several sequences with complex camera moves, and even simple moments like red neon lights glowing off a character’s face are guaranteed to make your jaw drop. In fact, the lighting is the most impressive part about the animation. With cel animation, the light is created completely from scratch, using external light sources, camera placement, and the animation of different shadows and lights on the celluloids themselves. Akira also faced another challenge of having to use the lighting to create a cyberpunk world, characterized by futuristic neon lights mixed with the visuals and themes of classic noir. Despite having to animate all elements of the lighting for each frame and maintain their continuity, there are practically no faults. It’s a testament to an incredibly ambitious team who were clearly invested in every aspect of their craft.

Having control over every minute detail in a movie provides opportunities for incredible storytelling. Especially with animation, the presentation should give storytellers several opportunities to infuse subtle meaning in the story. For example, consider the setting itself. The film juxtaposes the flashy, futuristic cityscape that supposedly represents progress against the corrupt authority figures and seedy, violent youth who control the streets of Neo-Tokyo. Going back to the precisely constructed lighting, it’s more than just a tool to build the world, but also a recurring motif throughout the story, with different types of lights signifying different things. The neon lights signify the distraction and emptiness of modern consumerism, a signature feature of the cyberpunk genre’s cynical view of a technological dystopia. The streaks of light coming off the backs of the youth gang’s motorcycles are visual markers of their carefree and often violent escapades. Even the title of the film, Akira, translates to the word “bright.” These are just a few of the many examples of how great animation elevates the visual storytelling of the film.

Now this review focused solely on Akira and its significance in the anime subgenre in general. But really, Akira is just an example of animation at its best. An audience member doesn’t need to be literate in the techniques of animation or understand every little detail behind it to appreciate what makes it so great. As viewers, we can tell when something is truly special, even if we can’t put our fingers on what makes it that way. That’s the wonder of great animation. It sucks us into a different world, and we can believe that it’s real. Too often now, mainstream viewers are left with predictable, low-effort, and bland animated films that don’t take advantage of their medium, but instead present packages of sound and color that only entertain younger audiences (The Boss Baby, Minions). But films like Akira represent everything animation should be: a source of endless creativity and wonder that treats its audience with respect, and a film they deserve to see.