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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/4/01

Special Edition - 1987 (2001) - Akira Committee/Kodansha (Pioneer)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsTHX-certified

Akira: Special Edition Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
125 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, THX-certified, tin keep case-style packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:09:13 in chapter 22), THX Optimizer, "information capsules", animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and Japanese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
Akira Production Report (48 mins, 10 chapters, languages: Japanese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English), Akira Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi (20 mins, 7 chapters, languages: Japanese DD 2.0, optional English narration), interview with director Katsuhiro Otomo (with optional English subtitles), Production Materials (including storyboards, character model sheets, color models and cel inserts for each of the 36 chapters on Disc One), unused storyboards, unused background art, initial character designs, 3 restoration featurettes (Picture, English Voice Over and English 5.1 Audio Mix), comic and magazine covers, movie poster and promotional art, previous VHS, laserdisc and music packaging art, 4 theatrical trailers, TV spot (with optional English subtitles), glossary of people, places and things from the film, animated film-themed menus with sound


Very rarely in cinema history does a film truly define its genre. It takes a lot for a film to singularly become the title people think of when trying to get their friends turned on to a particular style of movie. When anime fans in America are discussing the subject of anime, one film (and one film only) comes up more than any other. That film is, of course, Akira.

When it first roared its way onto American shores, animation fans knew instantly that it was special. Loyal followers of the film claimed that it blew anything by Disney out of the water (and at the time it did). It was cartoony, but ultra-violent. Drug-peddling biker gangs were the heroes of the film, government forces were the villain and everyone in the middle was guided by both good and evil at the same time. Everyone and everything seemed to be morally neutral. Throw in the fact that each and every cel was hand-drawn, painted and photographed (using minimal computer assistance) and when you look at the end product, you see a film that changed the way we as Americans looked at animation.

At the time it was released, Akira took place in the near future. It seems that during World War III (in 1988 to be exact), an explosion wiped out Tokyo. The film starts years later, after the city has been rebuilt. We meet Kaneda, the young, rough-and-tumble leader of a gang of kids who wage war on the city while riding electro-powered motorcycles. During one of their nightly wars with a gang called The Clowns, they bump into a young boy in the middle of a closed off portion of highway. That is to say, young gang member Tetsuo literally bumps into the boy. But as it turns out, the boy is super-powerful as a result of a top secret government experiment, so Tetsuo bounces off a force field projected by the kid and is thrown off his bike and onto the road. When the rest of Kaneda's gang find Tetsuo, he's unconscious and surrounded by an elite government team led by the mysterious Colonel, who whisks Tetsuo and the young boy away and has the local authorities arrest the rest of the gang. As a side note (and an important plot point), while being released from custody, Kaneda meets a pretty young revolutionary girl and helps free her when he tells the cops that she's with his crew. And that's the introduction of all the players in the story. We have our government force, our secret project super kids, our biker gang and the revolutionaries. As the story of Akira develops, all four parties face off against each other, while Tetsuo struggles to deal with the fact that the blow to his head has awakened a mysterious power in him, even greater than that of the other super kids in the experiment. And when Tetsuo goes mad from this strange power, his friends confront him, the government attacks him and the secret of "Akira" is finally revealed in the film's mind-bending climax.

There's so much going on in Akira that you really have to experience the film multiple times before you'll truly understand it all. Even then, you'll have to probably go out and hunt down the phonebook-sized Japanese comics (manga) the film was based on. Created by Katsuhiro Otomo, who conceptualized and directed the film, the comic-based Akira defined the word epic. This film only boils down the key aspects of the original story, but it still manages to boggle the mind. It's part Sci-Fi, part social commentary... and all of it kicks major ass.

Akira has it's problems, but it always entertains. Should this film have been expanded and broken into several films? Probably, but then it wouldn't be Akira. I like it for what it is and appreciate its scope. It's aged well for an animated film, and even repeated viewings don't hurt it at all because it sucks you in every time. Although it's not my be-all, end-all favorite anime, it remains locked in my heart forever for turning me on to well-crafted animation.

And as a DVD, Akira is even more impressive. It's available in a deluxe, special edition, two-disc set. A bare bones, movie-only edition is also available, but I say just forget it exists and pick up this one. Whichever version you choose, the picture quality is very fine indeed. Color representation is outstanding in this anamorphic widescreen transfer. There's a little bit of edge enhancement here and there, but overall this is a really nice video presentation. The blacks are solid and the print itself has been digitally cleaned up to get rid of blemishes and dirt specks. I seriously doubt anyone has seen Akira looking any better than this.

The sound is also excellent. You'll appreciate the audio right from the disc's menu screens. They'll blow you away. You'll hear motorcycle revs and then thumping, organic Japanese music will push you to make your selection. When you jump into the film, your ears (as well as your eyes) are in for a treat. Given to us in a brand new English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, all of the dialogue has been more accurately translated and re-recorded to give it a nice punch. But fans shouldn't worry about the redub. All of Kaneda's "Tetsuooooooo!" are accounted for. There's good low frequency in the mix and there's plenty of activity in the rear channels. This track is very, very good. The Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 is also good, but is obviously not as explosive. I do, however, wish that companies would give more attention to the original Japanese audio on anime in the future. I really would love to hear this film in the original Japanese, but with a new 5.1 mix. The fact that there isn't a Japanese 5.1 track here is a bit of a missed opportunity.

This special edition doesn't just give us one of our favorite anime with beautiful sound and video. We're also treated to great special edition material - some old and some new. Let's start with Disc One, which is where you'll find the newer features. When you watch the film, you have the option of doing so in a special "capsule mode". This is a sort of "Follow the White Rabbit" feature, that allows you to access special material whenever a small drug capsule icon appears in the lower corner of your screen. The information tends to be English translations of written Japanese on books, banners and graffiti that appear in the film. It's a neat feature, but it's nothing Earth shattering. There's also a THX optimizer on Disc One that will allow you to quickly pseudo-calibrate your home theater system for proper enjoyment of the film.

Disc Two has the bigger extras, but they're also the older features for the most part. First up is the Akira Production Report. Running 48 minutes in Japanese (with English subtitles), this is the "making of" documentary that was originally released on Japanese laserdisc. It follows the conception, making of and release of Akira from start to finish. It's interesting, but these Japanese documentaries tend to be hard to digest because of the need for translation. Everything is pretty rapid fire, and it's hard to look at the images of pre-production material and read the translation at the same time. It's all very good, but it's hard to focus on. We also get the Akira Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi, which has a running time of 20 minutes. This was also released on Japanese laserdisc a while back. Sound Clip is a fascinating documentary focusing on Gumi, the composer, and his ideas for the organic sound of the film. The soundtrack for this feature is Japanese and quite minimal, but the Japanese text that litters the screen has been translated into English by an optional English narrator, which works out great for American audiences. Next up is an interview with director Katsuhiro Otomo (with optional English subtitles). It seems to be an archived interview with Otomo, conducted during an earlier time than the release of this DVD. As with most Japanese creators, Otomo is very humble. He discusses his inspirations, his art and the production in detail. The last of our video-based extras are three featurettes newly created for this new DVD. The first, entitled Picture, is about the new transfer and digital video restoration. English Voice Over is all about - you guessed it - the English voice over cast. And English 5.1 Audio Mix is about the creation of the new soundtrack. None of these is very long or incredibly fascinating, but they do show the hard work and passion that went to fixing this film for DVD release.

The rest of the supplements (aside from four theatrical trailers and a TV spot, each with optional English subs) are still image galleries, which are throwbacks to the age of laserdisc. It's a very meaty set of images, however, worth every moment you spend perusing them. Called the Production Materials section, galleries are broken up into 36 chapters, which correspond to the 36 chapters on the film disc. Here you can see storyboards, character model sheets, color models and cel inserts for each and every scene in the film. There's days worth of stuff here and it's all pretty incredible to see. You'll also find some unused storyboards and background art, as well as the initial character designs. Rounding out the extras is more artwork - comic and magazine cover art from the various translations of the Akira manga around the globe, movie poster and promotional art (including previous VHS, laserdisc and music packaging) and a text based glossary of people, places and things from the film.

I was a bit disappointed that the special edition material was soft on the original manga work Otomo did. The original, must-own Criterion laserdisc had reams of the original manga material collected together. Sadly, all we get here are covers. It's a sore thumb on an otherwise great batch of extras. I also would have liked a commentary of some sort. Considering the age and importance of the film, it would have been great to hear a scholarly discussion of the film and its impact. I would have thrown together a panel led by comic writer/artist Frank Miller, to address the affect of the film on animation and comics today, and maybe to shed light on aspects of the story not clearly spelled out in the film (but detailed in the magna). Something like that would have made for a greater special edition to be sure.

Akira was one of the first Japanese cartoons to turn American audiences on their heads. We've seen plenty before and plenty since, but for some reason Akira charmed more of us than any other anime of its day. Because of this film, thousands of Americans discovered and came to love anime. But for most fans, Akira will stand for all time as the film that defines the anime genre. Those are pretty big shoes to fill... but Akira's a pretty big flick.

Todd Doogan
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