This rotting metropolis

In this 1988 adaptation of Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s own influential cyber-punk manga classic, the likes of Mad Max, A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner quickly come to mind. But most striking of all is how the themes of this futuristic nightmare resonate with our urban present. I suppose that’s always the point with films like this but the temporal collapse is more apparent than ever for this reviewer at least.

It takes a while to get my bearings. But it’s pretty clear from the off that things are deteriorating pretty badly in this towering but decaying dystopian cityscape. The authorities are cracking down on juvenile delinquents engaged in petty crime amidst the barricades. It’s all quite exhilarating in fact. There are high speed chases, a newscaster announces that ‘terrorists have bombed the commercial district’; a bar tender tells anybody who’ll listen ‘with demonstrations and terrorists nowadays prices have gone up’ but ‘business is business’. There is even an Olympic stadium under construction and quarrels on the Executive Committee (aka the Greater London Authority) about its funding. ‘Instead of rebuilding the city’, complains one member, we ‘spend our whole surplus on that Olympic monstrosity’. 

It is AD 2019, 31 years after World War III, when Tokyo met its mushroom-shaped end (in the year the film was released). In its place (or somewhere near it) is Neo Tokyo, a city of random explosions and nihilistic violence. The story centres on the revengeful young Tetsuo – once ‘bullied by everyone’ but now with a maniacal glint in his eye. Like the little terror I saw arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act last week at Wood Green tube station, he finds himself detained under the convenient pretext of being engaged in something more sinister. To cut a long story short (without spoiling it) Tetsuo becomes a ‘test subject’ for the authorities in their quest to capture the ‘pure energy’ of the elusive Akira. Like the religious fanatics and the demonstrators in the street, the mad scientist wants to harness Akira’s ‘limitless power’.

But this is a film shot through with a knowing cynicism about the pursuit of knowledge and power and, of course, politics. ‘You’re forgetting who the real enemy is: it’s the politicians who got us into this mess in the first place’, says the colonel, as his troops train their guns on him. It is a world like our own where the catastrophic consequences of the human folly of the past stand as a warning to young idealists. As far as the colonel is concerned, ‘We’ve progressed quite a way since that Holocaust’. When he complains that ‘The people lost their pride in our great achievement a long time ago. Now all these fools care about is indulging themselves’, he sounds like a former lefty turned New Labourite berating the stupid consumerist masses for their failing loyalty. Though not seduced by Akira he shares with the scientist a visceral disgust for the city and its inhabitants. ‘I’m surprised you feel anything for this rotting metropolis,’ says the latter. 

To some extent, once you’ve seen one sci-fi downer on our collective urban future you’ve seen them all. And yet there is enough going on with Akira, visually and intellectually (if you ignore the clichés and the sci-fi mysticism), to keep it engaging. Perhaps its unique selling point is that it depicts a city that is both pre-and post-apocalyptic, cut off from its destructive past but consequently in fear of its future. Neo Tokyo is all too familiar.

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