Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Akira" still rocks, 20 years later

There's an article over at io9 about animation cells for "Akira" and it got me thinking about my experience with that anime.

When I was a freshman in high-school, there was a guy two grades above me I was kinda sweet on. He was also kinda sweet on me; and, as a result of my almost-womanly-wiles, he lent me copies of his "Akira" comic.

We didn't call it manga then, but a comic book. That may sound dreadfully uneducated now, but there was no perceptible difference then between a comic and a manga except "Akira" was the coolest comic ever. I was lapping them up as quickly as I got my hands on them. The insane detail! The implied action! Sure, it was all in black-and-white, but you could tell there was a lot going on and it was a great story.

Then, on a tour of homes, the guys who had bought the electric house (that had been built for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas) were playing "Akira" on a TV in the corner. My interest in early art-decco architecture was immediately replaced with a need to get a copy for myself.

"Is that 'Akira'?" I asked one of the owners.

"You know it?" he asked me.

"Where can I get it?"

"You have to know people," he told me.

And I did get a very fuzzy VHS copy, no subtitles, no dub, and I watched it and my mom came in and asked me about my "cartoon". Even she was mesmerized by the action. I sat on the couch trying to explain what I thought was going on, based on the "comics" I had read.

"I like the music," she said.

Looking back on it, I think part of why I love it so much is what I had to go through to get it. There are two spices in life that make everything taste better: free and forbidden. The unavailability of "Akira" made it rare and wonderful.

So let's fast-forward to the present day and forget about my sentimentality.

I'm not going to bother talking about the plot. If you don't know it, you go look it up right now. It's great and covers the Holy Trinity of a good anime story arc: kids with cool technology, political intrigue, and quasi-mystical Things Beyond Ourselves.

The animation itself is precise and fluid. This is one of the first and few anime where the mouths were drawn after the vocal track was recorded, and you'll really see that if you watch it subbed. People move naturally and the action never lets up. The ending is all the more impressive when you consider it was drawn by hand. I shudder to think what a cock-up a CGI version will be.

The soundtrack is iconic. If you can't be bothered to watch the flick itself, at least listen to that soundtrack and the layering involved. If you're lucky enough (or a completist like me), you'll watch the extra disc that explains how Geinoh Yamashirogumi (a musical collective) did something that hasn't been done since. You'll also get to see how their work on that soundtrack basically invented Cakewalk and made electronic music what it is today. For reals. Find a copy of the second disc and watch that documentary.

It's a stunning piece of animation, and one that's been mostly forgotten due to its age. If you want to introduce someone to anime, I'll recommend time and time again.

And, if nothing else, it gives you something to shout across a crowd.