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Release Date(s)1988 (February 24, 2009)
Studio(s)Bandai Visual U.S.
Twenty years ago, Japanese animation occupied a very small part of the American consciousness, isolated as it was to Saturday morning and after-school “cartoon block” hours. While a few very small direct-to-video companies like Best Video had put out anime titles, they mostly languished in toy store discount bins, making more money on volume than on sales.
All of this changed when Carl Macek’s Streamline pictures acquired the distribution rights to Akira. All of a sudden Japanese animation was hot news, with stories appearing in publications like The New York Times and Time Magazine. And while the ups and downs of the anime industry since then have been well documented, one title has remained a constant: Akira.
Compared even to the 2000 Pioneer remaster, Bandai U.S.’s new Blu-ray version of Akira is a revelation to behold. The colors are stunning, and so much detail is visible that even the raw texture of the paper the backgrounds were painted on is visible. The trend today is always to make traditional hand-crafted animation on Blu-ray look as clean as modern-day CG movies, but while a film like Sleeping Beauty is certainly gorgeous in 1080p, I really miss the little things that give hand-painted animation its character. With Akira’s transfer, slight imperfections in the ink lines and paint work have been left in and bring a wonderful analog warmth to the film. Some reviewers have claimed that there’s excessive noise reduction and artificial sharpening halos in the image, but on closer inspection, what they’re actually seeing is variations in focus and light refractions from the cels onto the background. (Often times anime production is done on such a tight schedule, that “good enough” has to be the standard.)
For home theatre enthusiasts, Akira on Blu-ray brings another true revelation to the table in the form of its soundtrack. For the first time ever, a digital movie soundtrack can be said to equal the very best the original master tapes have to offer. Recorded at an astounding 192khz/24-bit audio resolution – which is 4 times the sampling rate of a typical Blu-ray Disc – Akira’s new Japanese TrueHD 5.1 audio takes up an astounding 12 mbps of the BD’s data rate all by itself! (For the record, that’s almost as much as the video on Warner’s Batman Begins Blu-ray). Without a doubt, this is THE audio Blu-ray demo disc for the foreseeable future. So for all those of you that received new speakers for Christmas... your holy grail BD has arrived. The English dubbed track was only created at 48Khz/16-bit, and retains that resolution in its own lossless TrueHD 5.1 presentation. Finally, the original Japanese theatrical mix is presented in LPCM, encoded as Dolby Surround. For longtime fans of the film, note that the Streamline dub is NOT included, quite possibly due to licensing issues, as MGM currently owns the Streamline assets through their acquisition of Orion. If getting the dub were even possible, it would likely be far more expensive than it’s worth.
Supplementally, the Akira Blu-ray both shines and falters. The slipcase and 32-page booklet that accompany the first pressing of the disc is superb, detailing every aspect of the approach and procedure of the restoration, as well as the creation of its groundbreaking audio track. Thousands of stills contain the complete (unfortunately untranslated) storyboards, notes, promotional art, and other paper goods left from the production. Unfortunately, due to space constraints, Bandai was not able to include the excellent Akira Production Report from the 2-disc DVD, or any of the documentaries on the 2001 restoration and re-dubbing. Also missing is the excellent Capsule Mode, which translates many of the text-heavy signs into English in a Follow the White Rabbit-style presentation. As a result, the philosophy behind this Blu-ray is obvious: All the money and effort was applied to the single goal of creating the very best possible A/V presentation of the movie... and everything else was secondary.
Akira is a weird movie, and it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. Once you get past that, however, you’ll find a groundbreaking piece of animation that’s now a new reference disc for high definition and home theatre aficionados. I personally hope that the new soundtrack will prompt more people to experience the film in Japanese, as it was originally intended. We spend so much time arguing about anime/Blu-ray sound mixes, framing, DNR and such, that virtually no attention is paid to retaining the original actors’ performances. Be it live action or animated, taking away a creator-directed performance (by listening to the dubbed English track) is just as bad or worse than losing 40% of the picture to Pan and Scan. Give the Japanese track a try: you might like it.
- Jeff Kleist