That Akira is still, to this day, respected this much and seen as one of the great anime classics is no accident. Watching it as a kid, I had no idea what the hell was going on but the film stayed with me, it had an impact. After a re-watch, I can finally say without hesitation that Akira is, indeed, one of the most important anime features every made.
First off, it looks amazing. The film's futuristic setting, a neon-lit, 80's-style Neo Tokyo worthy of Blade Runner is not only believably depicted but is detailed, colourful and has depth. It's a violent, dangerous new world but a beautiful one nonetheless. Katsuhiro Otomo's film is visually extremely creative and delivers some of the most unforgettable, craziest anime action sequences you'll ever see. I mean, there's a scene in this where a giant teddy bear, a giant rabbit and a giant toy car go ape shit and start wrecking havoc thanks to a bunch of weird blue old people children. Akira deals with big themes through an epic sci-fi plot that's far too dense for kids to understand and even a bit abstract for older viewers, especially near the end. It follows a biker gang in Neo Tokyo, many years after World War III, as one of them, Tetsuo, is kidnapped by a government agency following an accident and is experimented on. Meanwhile, you've got these weird-looking kids with super powers being kept secret by the agency, a group trying to take it down among whom is a girl called Kei which Tetsuo's old friend Kaneda (the dude with the cool bike) soon becomes interested in and the latter getting entangled in the mess created by the government agency and Tetsuo himself. Oh, and there's talk all around the city about some crazy powerful being called Akira which might be being kept locked-up somewhere and might return somehow. As you can see, there's a lot happening and there are a lot of things at play here which makes for an almost overwhelming watch. Reading the manga/comics is pretty essential after seeing the movie if you really want to delve deeper into the themes it explores and if you want to find out more about some of those fascinating characters.
From the very first image, Akira feels big and important. It has a unique, grand quality to it which is rarely this convincing in anime and its depiction of a world gone mad that's about to get even madder is so compelling it's hypnotic. The rhythmic, booming, chorus-heavy score helping to create a tense, creepy atmosphere. The scene most people remember is, of course, the Tetsuo transformation near the end of the film where the kid turns into a giant blob of flesh, veins and machinery. If you saw Akira as a kid, like I did, there's a good chance that you were pretty disturbed by it and never forgot it. The build-up to it is so good that you don't even really expect it the first time watching, even if up until that point you've seen some messed-up stuff. Akira is a bloody, gory, unforgiving film that's most definitely for adults, mostly because younger viewers won't really understand most of it but also because seeing Tetsuo's innocent girlfriend get squashed to death and explode in blood under the pressure of a mass of muscles and flesh is pretty scary. The refreshing thing about Akira, also, is that it doesn't succumb to the usual cliches: there's a love interest, Kei, but what's happening is too crazy to even think about focusing on a romance between her and Kaneda, Tetsuo's the villain but he's also a victim and ultimately a tragic figure, and the other characters we spend the most time with aren't really good people at all. The ending I wouldn't exactly call a happy one either.
It feels almost redundant to review this one seeing as it's just really, really good and everyone knows it. If you're a fan of the manga, you'll probably find key things missing from the film but it's hard to deny how masterful it is regardless. Its more abstract moments end up making it feel even more mysterious and interesting, I feel.
It's, in a word, a classic and not only one of the best anime features around (if not the best) but one of the best sci-fi films ever made.
A masterpiece that's not to be missed.