Director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s 1988 adaptation of his own 1982 manga, Akira, is considered one of the greatest film ever made if only for its influence on all the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk stories to come. Both the manga and film pre-date Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (1989), Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm (a.k.a. Battle Angel Alita) (1990), and many others. You can see the influence in animation from specific things like the way Kaneda slides in his motorbike, to the use of a telekinetic child in Looper inspired by Tetsuo, the bullet-time affects within The Matrix, and countless other pop culture references. So engrained within our cultural lexicon is the visual iconography of Akira, that you’ve likely engaged within it somehow and possibly never known it. Thirty-two years after Akira’s initial release, Funimation released a limited edition 4K UHD edition of the seminal work that offers more than just a fresh coat of paint, but a whole new experience for a new generation to enjoy and explore.
2019 Neo-Tokyo is a mess, rife with corruption, anti-government protests, and gang violence. In a way, things haven’t been the same since a strange explosion occurred in 1988, decimating an enormous section of Tokyo, requiring whole sections of people to be displaced and resettled. At the same time that a supposed freedom fighter is trying to aid a child in escaping from government detention, teen gang leader Kaneda (voiced by Mitsuo Iwata) is joined in battle between his crew and the rival Clown gang. The two events collide when the mysterious child appears before Tetsuo (voiced by Nozomu Sasaki), forcing him to crash his motorbike traveling at a deadly speed. With the help of the government, Tetsuo survives, but the incident awakens within him an incredible power, one which, if left unchecked, could lead to the destruction of Neo-Tokyo and beyond.
In a 2020 episode of The Cine-Men, co-host Darryl Mansel challenged me to Akira, prompting my very first watch. For context, one of the staples of the program is when Darryl and I challenge the other to watch a film they haven’t yet seen. It’s a glorious way to fill gaps in film knowledge and opens the door to some really interesting discussion as we go back and forth. To be blunt: I was not impressed. Based on everything I’d heard about the film, I found it lackluster at best. The material had been so deeply mined by stories I’d seen a hundred times by now that any of the originality was lost, not to mention that aspects of the story didn’t make any kind of sense under scrutiny. In preparation for the show and through discussion with Darryl, I learned that the film is based on the then-unfinished manga, so some adaptation was necessary. With Ôtomo at the helm, the reason for the strange narrative hick-ups are unclear, but if one doesn’t think too hard about the parts that bother me (specifically who was trying to rescue the child and why he needed rescuing in the first place – aspects which get forgotten fairly quickly once Tetsuo begins to develop his powers) then that which Akira inspires within others can be understood plainly. The scale of everything is huge (from the minor conflicts on motorbike that start the film to the cataclysmic event which makes up the finale) and the world measures up to meet it. Why mention any of this in a review of the 4K UHD set? Because my first watch of Akira comes from a DVD I rented from Netflix. In comparison, it was like watching Avengers: Endgame on an original 1934 cathode ray tube television set.
So let’s talk about the 4K UHD set.
The video and audio components are enhanced to next-generation levels. (I know what you’re thinking, jumping from a DVD to 4K would make it feel this way. And you’re not wrong, intellectually or technologically). Watching Akira in 4K was like watching a completely different film. The original watch was done on a 63 inch television with 5.1 Dolby Surround, while the 4K UHD was done on a 43 inch 4K UHD HDR set with 5.1 Dolby Surround. Both versions used the Japanese audio with English subtitles, so you’d expect some aspects of the experience to be the same. They couldn’t be more different. In the 4K UHD edition, the colors are deep and rich and the textures are more visibly layered, so that the city appeared alive and moving as Kaneda’s crew zoomed around Neo-Tokyo. The scene where the ESPers try to frighten Tetsuo? Nightmarish as the giant composite creature they created melts into its individual pieces. The scene of Tetsuo turning into the metal man, his flesh bulbous, consuming machinery and people alike, growing larger as Tetsuo’s power grows further out of control? The drama inherent in Testsuo struggle to control the power becomes even more grotesque with the enhanced color. But it’s not just the visuals that look amazing. The newly mixed audio is simultaneously enveloping and expansive. The dialogue is clearer amid the chaos, making it easier to identify various individual sounds: organic from inanimate. The score by Japanese collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi is even more impressive than before, assisting to capture the full scale and scope that audiences experienced in the original 1988 release. Which, for those who are interested in using the new video with old audio, the 4K UHD disc offers audio options of the new mix in Japanese 5.1 Dolby, English 5.1 Dolby from 2001, and English 2.1 Dolby from 1988. There are some with their subtitle versus dub preferences, so the range of options makes it easier to decide whether the audio is a critical point for the pick-up.
Important heads up about two aspects of the 4K UHD Limited Edition set:
First, if you purchased the Akira 4K UHD Limited Edition set and the 4K disc is missing the HDR, head to this Funimation page for information on acquiring a replacement disc.
Second, there is a misprint on the box indicating that the set includes a digital copy. I confirmed with a representative of Funimation that they do not have the digital rights, so there is no digital copy. Discouraging as this may feel, at least you can take heart in knowing it’s merely a misprint versus the package just missing something that should be there.
Instead of talking about what should be or what may be missing, let’s turn back to what *is* included with this set. You’ve got two brand new featurettes, the original 1988 end credits, a collection of six Akira trailers from the 4K UHD release all the way to the original, and the ability to look at the original storyboards for the film.
With the end credits and trailer collection fairly straightforward, let’s begin with the storyboards. When selecting this option, you’ll get a split screen with two versions of the same message: one in Japanese (left) and one in English (right). This message explains the origin of the storyboards and what to expect. At that point, you’re able to maneuver forward and backward through the storyboards individually using your remote or you can go to the index to go to one of 36 different sections. For avid fans of Akira, this may feel like having access to a piece of history as the storyboards you’re looking at aren’t recreations, but digitized versions of Ôtomo’s originals. If this isn’t your bag, then you’ll want to jump over to the 40-minute “Akira Sound Making” featurette, which is actually four pieces in one, all examining different aspects of the sound design of the film. Sound, as fans know, is an important part of Akira, so this new featurette explores this from four distinct angles. After an overview of the process transforming the original into the 4K UHD remaster, music critic Reiji Asakura explores the technical aspects of the sound differences from the original release to now. After, Asakura conducts an interview with original music director Shoji Yamashrio and Yasushi Nagura, who oversaw the new audio mix. This section is highly technical, but there’s enough context for novices to follow the conversation. Finally, the portion that will really tickle OG Akira fans, a roundtable discussion with four principle cast members hosted by sound director Susumu Aketagawa. From some of the conversation, it seems that they haven’t been in the same room for nearly 30 years, so it leads to quite a few fun tidbits. As you can likely tell, the bulkiest special features focus on the technical improvements of the remaster with emphasis on the sound. It’s for this reason that the last special feature is both fascinating and frustrating. “Akira Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashirogumi” is about 19 minutes in length and offers home release buyers an opportunity to see how the musical collective recorded the music for the film. “Akira Sound Clip” does this by showing off portions of the film and then providing footage of the recording session for that portion. This is the fascinating part, especially considering the elaborate methods the collective used to create the moving score. What frustrates is the lack of translation for non-Japanese speakers, so that all the rest of us have is context to go on. It made observing the opening of the featurette confusing until I could pick up the structure and the intention of switching between the recording session and the final animated footage.
Along with the 4K UHD disc, a Blu-ray disc, and a Blu-ray special features disc, the 4K UHD Limited Edition set also comes with a booklet filled with insights and explorations of Akira. Interestingly, of the three individual pieces within the booklet, only one isn’t repeated in some form within the special features: an essay from Professor Ryusuke Hikawa titled “The Energy of Akira Stimulates the Human Mind.” It’s not particularly long, but it does explore the production process, the 4K UHD remaster, and a bit about the film’s significance, something to which Hikawa can speak with authority on as a former programming advisor for the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival (2019). While average animation fans may not run toward an essay of this manner, those who have been longtime fans of Akira will find much to appreciate and consider.
Look, if you’re like Darryl, purchasing Akira in 4K UHD was a foregone conclusion the moment that the set was announced by Funimation. Heck, the moment it was rumored to be released by anyone. But it’s still a good idea to have a sense of what you’re in for before stepping back into the world of Neo-Tokyo. The bonus materials may not be a lot, but what they include is robust and fascinating. Though I may stand by my issues with the film, there’s no denying the film’s significance to cinema or popular culture. There’s also no denying that the 4K UHD HDR version of Akira is more than a mere glow-up. With more and more remasters and restorations being released for the latest format every month, few are likely to stand out among the crowd. This version is one of the few and is well worth the investment.
Akira Special Features
- Akira Sound Making 2019 (39:57)
- Akira Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashirogumi (19:07)
- End Credits (From The Original 1988 Theatrical Release) (4:03)
- Theatrical Preview —Trailer Collection (with English Subtitles) (5:07)
- Storyboard Collection
Available from Funimation beginning December 20th, 2020.
Reminder: If you purchased the Akira 4K UHD Limited Edition set and the 4K disc is missing the HDR, head to this Funimation page for information on acquiring a replacement disc.