Essential World Cinema: 5 Best Japanese Films



Now, see, here’s the thing. I said from the outset that these were going to be films more deserving of exposure. With that in mind you might argue that Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 sci-fi anime Akira has plenty and you’d be right, it does, but I would argue that it’s not enough. It’s widely regarded as one of the most popular anime films of all time, sure. It threw the entire anime subculture into a worldwide context that it’s built on ever since, fine. I think a wider majority of people only know it by reputation and have never actually bothered to watch it. I also think that it has a legacy that extends beyond those parameters. If you asked me to select 10 films to preserve in a time capsule, the ones that really need to survive through the ages, I would punch you many times in the eyes and crotch for asking me to make such a hard decision, but once I was done with you I’d be sure to put Akira on that list.

Based on the manga of same name, Akira introduces us to a dystopic Neo-Tokyo that has been rebuilt in the wake of a massive calamity that kicked off a third world war. This new city is a hotbed of crime and rebellion as biker gangs run riot, zealous cults pray for Armageddon and the government conducts nefarious experiments, imbuing children with psychic powers. A terrorist group springs one of these ‘gifted’ children but the escape is botched and the child ends up caught in an impact with a local biker named Tetsuo, who is left severely injured. Operatives whisk Tetsuo away to examine him and the gang’s leader, Kaneda sets off in hot pursuit. As it turns out Tetsuo gets powers of his own and things quickly take a turn for the apocalyptic. The film is a dark, foreboding tale very clearly influenced by facets of Japanese history such the terrorist attacks committed by the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front in the seventies and of course the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thematically the idea of teenage repression and rebellion looms large, with one of the framing questions being: what happens if an angry, angst-ridden teenage boy gets superpowers? Answer: sheer, unchecked fucking carnage.

Akira is one of the most challenging, deep explorations of Japanese cultural paradigms ever committed to screen, bringing ideas about fatalism, conformity and mistreatment of youth to bear in striking, complex ways. It’s also a stunning piece of artistry. The animation is incredible, the light bending and blurring behind the bikes, the heft and weight of things as they’re destroyed in Tetsuo’s wake, even the way people’s faces move. The music is also utterly unique. It was produced and recorded by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, a musical collective of hundreds of normal people from all walks of life. They specialised in vocally recreating traditional folk music from around the world. Their work for Akira is a blend of dark, electronic sounds, traditional Gamelan chanting and various other vocal techniques extending to things like hyperventilation. It helps give the film a visceral, palpable atmosphere that sets it apart from anything that’s been made before or since. I could probably write another 10,000 words about Akira but I think I’ve made my point. Everybody needs to see Akira, it’s a masterpiece, an invaluable cultural artifact and I hope to high heaven that the live-action remake they’ve been trying to shit out for the past decade gets no further. Last time I checked they’d signed one of the guys from Az Yet to write it and Kristen Stewart was in the rumored cast. STOP RUINING THINGS I LOVE.

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