I have a special interest in animation, but I am not an anime nerd. I do not like a show just because it has girls with impossibly large eyes, impossibly blue hair, and impossibly large breasts. Akira, though it fits in the broadest definition of the word "anime", that being "animation produced in Japan by Japanese creators", it is a movie that shares very few of the genre's conventions.
The first and most important departure from the world of typical anime is the fact that the characters actually look Japanese. That, in the opening scenes, signifies to the watcher that he isn't watching typical anime junk.
It does share some elements with typical anime, such as the palpable element of fantasy in the plot. And oh, what a plot it is. It is denser, more complex, with more character twists and turns than a James Ellroy novel. The movie starts with a man running through Tokyo with a strange looking kid. The police/army are chasing him. They catch up to the man and they kill him. The kid survives and then literally disappears. Then we are introduced to our main characters.
Kanada and Tetsuo are teenagers, orphans raising themselves on the streets and in reform school. They are two members of a biker gang. Kanada is the big wheel, the brash, confident, bold, athletic, good-looking, smooth-talking one with a great bike. Tetsuo is the tag-along, smaller, meeker, less intelligent, less confident than Kanada, but they are, in their way, best friends.
Kanada and his gang gets into a street brawl on wheels with another biker gang called The Clowns. In the aftermath, Tetsuo encounters the strange kid by almost running over him with his motorcycle. Then the Army shows up and takes the kid and Tetsuo away. That's where the ride really starts.
Kanada and Tetsuo encounter many different characters, and my single favorite thing about this movie is that despite its incredible violence and its dark themes, you can't point to a single character as a villain. Everyone is acting in the way they think is best. Everyone from the government agents, to the Army colonel who leads a coup, to the revolutionaries who want to overthrow the government and the Army, to the strange collection of kids, all of whom are acting against each other in their own ways, are acting in the way they think is best for all.
Ultimately, the movie is not about politics, political intrigue, or fantasy. It's about friendship, most particularly the friendship between Kanada and Tetsuo. Kanada is higher up on the pecking order than Tetsuo, and never hesitates to let Tetsuo know it, but he also sees himself as Tetsuo's protector. Tetsuo knows that Kanada is his only real friend, without whom he would be a social pariah, but resents the way Kanada often talks down to him.
As Tetsuo's encounter with the strange kid unleashes powerful forces within Tetsuo, those powerful forces also drive him mad, but the seeds of Tetsuo's rage were already present. When Tetsuo first escapes from the Army and returns to the gang, he is a changed person, stealing Kanada's bike and nearly killing a Clown. His friends notice Tetsuo's growing madness, and then the Army comes to get him again.
When Kanada breaks into the Army compound to rescue Tetsuo, he finds that Tetsuo no longer needs anyone to help him, and that he may need to protect others from Tetsuo, and Tetsuo may need to save Kanada from the Army. The newly powerful and utterly deranged Tetsuo relishes the role reversal.
Tetsuo escapes, and his power has grown so much that it is consuming him and all around him. Kanada decides that even though the Army is powerless to stop Tetsuo, he, a mere teenager with a really cool bike, is the one to take Tetsuo down. Unspoken is the thought that the Army, because they don't love Tetsuo like he does, does not deserve to be the one to release him from his madness.
In the final showdown, the old friendship between Kanada and Tetsuo once again is brought to the front, when Tetsuo is in the final stages of his self-destruction and Kanada has a clear opportunity to finish a now-vulnerable Tetsuo. Kanada pulls back, and declines to fire his weapon.
In the ending scenes, the abstract power known as Akira comes to life to protect the world from Tetsuo. There is a definite element of deus ex machina in the ending, but I think it's forgivable because the movie never was about stopping Tetsuo. It was always about getting to know the characters and how they relate to one another. Finally, we have a flashback scene where Kanada and Tetsuo met as small children in an orphans home, and we see the seeds of how their relationship grew, with Tetsuo bullied and Kanada befriending and protecting him.
It's an affecting movie, one of the more violent you will see in any genre, but it also has a really big heart. It's definitely not for the kids, as so many of the characters come to gruesome ends, as do many "extras". I highly recommend it for adults, though, even if you are not a fan of animation in general or of anime in particular.
I recently saw a newly dubbed version of Akira on Encore. They changed the way some of the names were pronounced (Kuh-NAY-duh became KIE-nay-duh and uh-KEY-ruh became AH-key-rah, for example) and gave some characters radically different voice-styles. I'm sure the names were made more authentically Japanese, but it was sort of like watching Star Wars with people pronouncing Luke's name as "Skee-walker" and with Darth Vader voiced by Tony Danza. It's just not the same and I don't exactly know why they went through the trouble of changing it.