Sunday, May 29, 2005

Akira: The Shadow of Godzilla

It's maybe not surprising that images of urban catastrophe have become so emblematic to Japanese pop cinema. World War II was long ago, but I even know people who walked the ruins of Tokyo after the firebombings, and such images become part and parcel of the way a culture views itself.

Tokyo's sure taken a beating over the years, but not often is its destruction used to provide such a hopeful message as Akira puts forward.

Interesting that the movie actually STARTS with the destruction of Tokyo, as though that beleaguered city's annihilation were to be taken for granted in a science-fiction story. Of course Tokyo's been destroyed. Let's get that out of the way and on with the story.

Going to make no effort to summarize the plot here, other than to say it took me repeated viewings to understand all the connections in the story. At first it seems like a tremendous coincidence that Kanedo, Tetsuo, Kei and the children all cross paths, but now that I've really paid attention, I see that it's no coincidence at all. And that's one of the great strengths of Akira -- it assumes an intelligent, patient and attentive audience, and rewards you for being so. A rare thing in genre cinema, but then much about this film is rare.

For example, how many times have we seen a story that revolves around some absent element -- a character, or a place or a secret device -- that we don't see and don't see and don't see until finally it's revealed and it's not as cool or as amazing as you thought it would be and you're disappointed and it's lame and the movie sucks and why did we even bother watching this piece of crap?

Akira does one of the finest "extended reveals" of all time. By the time the title character is shown, you've been hearing about this Akira person for nearly the whole film, but there is absolutely no sense of disappointment or let-down at this moment. Akira exceeds our expectations in every way. For a character who has no lines and is only on-screen for a few minutes at most, this is no small achievement.

What's Akira about? There's been an interesting and lively discussion on the nature of fantasy versus science fiction over on EN World, and obviously I'm pleased that Akira fits so tidily into the definition of SF that I've been putting forward. Akira takes two very ordinary kids, a little on the rough side but not psychopaths, and puts them into a situation completely unlike anything any of us have ever faced. It uses their reactions to that situation (and the reactions of others around them) to offer thoughts on the nature of humanity, society and the universe.

Friendship can be temporarily forgotten, especially when we are provided with what feels like all-new capacity to control our own fates, but when we are frightened and overcome, we seek out those bonds that sustained us in our hard times. Indeed, those bonds that we seek out literally define us as people, as the final sequence of the film suggests. Tetsuo's fundamental nature is his dependence on Kaneda, his faith in his friend to always come through for him.

One way of reading the film, I think, is as a story of a dependent person becoming truly independent for the first time. This is a painful and destructive process, but because the people he depends on are so willing to give themselves for him, he is able finally to make the transition into a world of his own. Quite literally, in this picture. Tetsuo begins this journey when his bravado leads him into an explosive encounter with something utterly outside his experience (Takashi the fleeing psychic child), and it is his working-out of that moment of wonder and terror that takes him on his journey.

Akira offers an optimistic view of things. Yes, growth is painful and often violent and savage, and things we love will be sacrificed in the process. But there is peace to be found, if we have the courage to seek it -- and possibly one or two devoted friends who will stand by us throughout the journey.