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AKIRA Again

As I previously posted about, I recently had the opportunity to watch AKIRA—subtitled, no less—on the big screen at my local theater-bar.

AKIRA was the first anime I watched knowing that it was something other than just a cartoon (unlike childhood favorites Robotech and Voltron), and since I’ve seen it several times already, I took this opportunity to, for the first time, really take in the experience of watching it.  To look closely instead of reading the subtitles, try to pay attention and absorb the experience instead of just that auto-pilot feeling you get when you’re re-watching something familiar.

Having done so, I took away a few things:

One, AKIRA is every bit the narrative mess I remember it being. Honestly, if you didn’t know that there was a bunch of manga that wasn’t making it to the screen it has about as vague, unsatisfying, and pseudo-philosophical ’80s-anime-ish of an ending as anything other than Birth (aka Planet Busters—remember that one?). I didn’t think all that much of the plot twenty years ago when I first saw it, and I still don’t.

Two, man is that a disturbing film—the visceral, nightmarish imagery is really something, and at least for me seems to tap into some vague memory of childhood fever dreams that is unsettling on a deep level. Even early on, some of the stuff is impressive, and of course the Tetsuo-blob finale with fingers-of-fingers grabbing at people is more horrific in its own way than just about any horror movie. (Aside: ran across a hilarious reference to that in a webcomic archive recently.)

Three, they sure don’t make them like that anymore. Even with big-budget spectacles like Ghibli’s works, I’m not sure any anime I can think of has quite the level of massive, fully-animated, no-computer-assist crowd scenes and fluid, always-moving character animation. It does with crowds of artists what more modern movies use extensive computer-assisted or -generated art to do, and the level of detail and depth of animation really does feel somehow different from almost anything else out of Japan. Reminds me far more of classic Disney spectacles than anything, or in some parts Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped animation style. I actually don’t much like the character animation style (a little too… soft for my taste—I prefer precision and sharp movements), and of course being from Otomo everybody shares about three faces, but the more closely you look at it, the more impressive and visually unique you realize it is.

Four, Otomo certainly has a feel for angry, disillusioned youth and that rowdy punk energy with nowhere to go but pointless malice. Sure, Japan has bousouzoku biker gangs, but for a guy from one of the most peaceful and conformist countries on earth, he’s remarkably good at tapping into youthful rage and hatred of authority; he does the same thing with a healthy outlet in Freedom Project, but AKIRA goes all-in and really sells it. On both a large scale—the main character and antagonist—and in the broader scenes of social unrest. He also of course works in the military guy doing the coup as something of a counterpoint, which makes the whole thing less bluntly anti-authoritarian and more grey.

And, finally: Mitsuo Iwata?! It had been long enough since I’d seen AKIRA in Japanese that my ear for the language has improved substantially, so this was the first time I was really listening to the actors. And about a quarter of the way in, I found myself thinking that Kaneda sounded an awful lot like a young Mitsuo Iwata… but that couldn’t possibly be the lovable goofy-guy specialist playing the quintessential angry, angsty street punk. But my ears did not deceive me, and I don’t think I’ll be able to watch Adventures of the Mini Goddess with quite the same viewpoint again.

Anyway, it’s almost always fun and sometimes enlightening to go back and watch something familiar with a really open mind, and try to absorb it more fully than you would during a normal re-watch. I did that back when the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in theaters, and I wasn’t disappointed when I applied the same mindset to AKIRA.

(Unrelated aside: I’ve vacillated back and forth between writing it “Akira” and “AKIRA,” both of which I’ve seen used. Given that the title is a very common given name, but is written in phonetic Katakana as if it were a foreign word, I’ve gone with it being intended to appear like an acronym, hence my use of all-caps.)

Seeing It On The Big Screen

I recently had the opportunity to (re-)watch AKIRA on the big screen at my local theater-bar.  It’s a big, old-school theater revived into a venue that shows cult movies and live acts with table seating and booze in the back. While I don’t think that their source material was of particularly high quality (I didn’t ask if it was a 35mm print or just a DVD, and the sound definitely had nothing on my home rig playing the blu-ray release), it is certainly a different experience to watch a movie intended for the big screen the way it was originally intended.

Even big-budget theatrical movies like Ponyo often don’t seem to really expect the big-screen treatment; sure, they look better larger-than-life, but the framing and scale are such that you lose little if anything when scaled down to a decent-sized home theater screen. The same is true of a lot of Hollywood fare, as well.

Project A-ko is a particularly good example; I’ve never seen it on the big screen, but I doubt anything other than a few of the shots of the alien ship and battles in the city do much with a large canvas. One of the indicators of this is that they actually painted the cels in old-fashioned-TV 4:3 ratio; if you compare USM’s newer DVD release (which is based off the Japanese home-video release) to their older DVD (which comes from theatrical masters), you’ll see that the TV-format version isn’t cropped from the widescreen one, it’s the other way around. (As for which is the “better” one, looking at the storyboard book I have, it appears that Nishijima did the rough framing intending widescreen, and the initial visual joke with Mari works much better in the wider format since you can’t see her head because she’s so tall.)

AKIRA, on the other hand, has lots of expansive city shots that take advantage of the action being blown up to a scale where you can really see what’s going on in the fully-animated crowds, and you get more of a sense of being in the action than watching it from a distance. I suppose you could get a similar effect by sitting really close to a smaller screen, but it’s just not quite the same thing as craning your neck from the front rows of a theater.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is another one that takes advantage of a theatrical screen for some of the crowd shots and landscapes. But the only anime film I can think of that really owns the big screen is Metropolis. I saw that one in both the theater and on home video, and the experience is completely different in a way few things since the old Cinemascope era have been.

There is, for example, a shot where the characters are walking on a crowded city street with skyscrapers looming above in which the people only take up a small fraction of the screen at the very bottom, and the rest is all buildings. On a TV, even a big one, this does a nice job of making the people look very small in comparison to the scale of the city itself. But from the front row of a theater, the people onscreen are roughly actual size, and are down near your eye level, while the buildings loom far over your head. It isn’t just more dramatic, it changes the shot from being clever to forcefully immersing you in the scene, and that was clearly no accident.

Elsewhere there’s a wide-angle shot with a couple of the characters picking their way through the rubble in the underbelly of the city that for all practical purposes will look like a static shot of the background on all but the largest TVs—the characters are so small they’re barely visible. On the big screen, however, the added size and resolution (blu-ray might remedy that second issue at home, but it’s DVD-only thus far) mean that you can really see the characters and what they’re doing against the expansive landscape around them. Again, the shot feels completely different, and was clearly intended explicitly with the theater experience in mind.

And that’s the thing about going to movie theaters. I, personally, almost never do. It’s expensive, inconvenient, most Hollywood fare is garbage, the MPAA enrages me, the sound is usually too loud and rarely sounds much better than my home system playing a blu-ray disc, and I could care less about 3D. Yet in a way it’s nice to see an artist who isn’t designing for the lowest common denominator, but instead decides to go big, even if most people aren’t going to truly appreciate it.

Which is why, whenever I have the chance, I go to see anime on the big screen—it’s not always a different experience, but the new perspective on things I’ve already seen is sometimes well worth it. And, at worst, I vote with my money to let the theater operator know that it’s worth bringing anime to town.

In other news, I just got back from a business trip to the exotic, but surprisingly less exotic than you’d think, land of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where I got to see the tallest building in the world and the experimental uber-tech city of Masdar, which included a system of electric, self-driving robo-taxis. Why, hello, Cyberpunk 2020, I didn’t realize you lived so close to 2011 already.

I also saw, at the Dubai Mall, one of those cinema replica places that included, alongside Marvel heroes and Star Wars favorites, a human-sized statue of none other than Grandizer (who Wikipedia tells me is quite popular in the Middle East):

An image of a cinema replica store at the Dubai Mall

Yep, that's good old Grandizer there behind Iron Man. (The sign says no photographs, but they can't really complain if you're standing on the other side of the hall.)