Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Akira Blu-Ray

Let it be said that I am not really a fan of anime. I don't gobble up every OVA that finds its way here from Japan, nor do I generally appreciate the melodrama and long-winded plots most anime producers infuse in their series. In my honest opinion, anime has forsaken the art it once was in favor of commercialism, becoming a mass produced chore in tedium rather than epic works of drawn fiction. Of course there are exceptions for excellence in modern anime; Afro Samurai, Stand Alone Complex (Ghost in the Shell), Appleseed, Ergo Proxy... with past examples being nearly as few and far between. Really the only thing that can be blamed was the ravenous appetites of the consumers after the golden age of anime really hit the US. Titles like Ninja Scrolls, Ghost in the Shell, Wicked City, Patlabor, Fist of the North Star were all outstanding for their time, but all also fell under the shadow of the ultimate in cinematic animation, dystopian storytelling par excellence...
No other animate movie has ever set the bar so high as Akira, while at the same time dividing critics and audiences down the middle whilst arguing either its merits or its unfortunate downfalls. Adapted from a 6 part manga, Akira was 2 hours worth of about 20 hours worth of ideas. With that said, it is not without it's flaws, but that should honestly not detract from one of the most significant films of the last 50 years. I spent many years watching this movie incessantly, and did eventually become tired of the terrible dubbed voicetrack which made the already somewhat convoluted plot nearly impossible to follow. I put it on a shelf in my brain, intending to come back when repairs could be made... new subs, better dubbing, remastered sound and picture. Having recently acquired the newly released Blu-Ray version of the movie, I popped it into my PS3, set my audio options (Japanese with English subs), and sat down for 2 hours down memory lane.
To say that the subtitling made all the difference would be selling Funimation and Bandai short with this release. As everything about it oozes class from the cardboard slipcase to the 30 some odd paged booklet that accompanies the disc. Unfortunately aside from the excellent physical presentation of the disc, the only true special features present are a handful of trailers. Those of you with the 2002 double disc special edition will likely want to hang onto it. However, not being much for a ton of extras, I'm okay with it, especially considering that the video codec present on this film is virtually uncompressed, which means that every gigabyte available on this disc is in precious use.

The video here is nothing short of breathtaking. Especially given the fact that last I saw this was via an original dubbed release on VHS. A clean picture that resembles as closely to the theatrical experience as I suspect we'll get with this 20 year old movie. It's really amazing how well they've been able to restore this movie to a pristine state, making it a great showcase for 1080p high def wherever available. Not that the level of detail in the film itself has changed any... all of the lines and colors were always there, but studios lacked the technology to bridge that over to the home viewer. With the Blu-Ray treatment given this disc you can literally see every line and detail no matter how subtle or how brash it may be, and the color definition plainly pops out at the viewer, sucking them into the experience. Minimal grain, though enough still present so that we don't feel like we're watching something entirely digitized.
The sound is also excellent, and there is a lot of information about the technology used to achieve the standards this edition of the film sets in the accompanying booklet. I won't go into any of that detail here, though, as deciphering audio speak is lot like me trying to read Finnish. But I have never heard this film sound better, even theatrically, than it does here. The engineers have perfectly balanced the details so that nothing is too loud nor is it too quiet, instead it's a literal feast for the ears. You will hear bits of dialog that you missed on previous versions, and sound effects and background noise that failed to come through in previous mixes. A very big deal, and a great achievement to boot.
And the movie itself you ask? A lot of films do not age well, especially animated features. I dare you to rewatch any old Ralph Bakshi film from Fire & Ice to Wizards to Heavy Traffic and tell me they don't look a little lackluster in the long run in both visual graces as well as voice acting and the story told. However, Akira has held up just as impressively as it's anime counterpart Ghost in the Shell, if not better with this new high definition treatment. It looks like it could have been drawn yesterday to be honest, and that carries the film a long way.

More importantly is the story of the film. While to some it may seem convoluted, trite, or too much shown with not enough time allowed it, the point of this film is simple. It's a story about youth and immortality and what effect the influence of corruption and loss of naivete has on the young, especially once exposed to the curious destructive nature of true humanity. And even deeper than that it's about loyalty and friendship and what cost true friendship brings along with it. The above synopsis is what I ultimately take away from this film every time I view it, even after having taken a 10 year break since the last time I watched. I think what astounds and confounds the critics and naysayers about this movie is that the plot really is that simple. There is no deeper meaning to it really, though it does toy with many themes, they are simply present as part of the background.
Watching Akira is actually an extremely emotional experience, and it's generally a movie I prefer to watch alone. Seeing the progressively callous discourse between Kaneda and Tetsuo go from pensive to absolutely futile is heartbreaking, even for characters that are barely fleshed out while we watch the occurrences. It becomes especially hard to bear at the key moment when Tetsuo realizes what he's become but is no longer capable of stopping his progression. Part of what always kind of rubbed me the wrong way with earlier viewings, is that the original American dubbed version puts so little emotion into the voices of the characters, developing any feelings for them was nearly impossible, but with the exceptional skills of the original Japanese voice actors, even with so little character development we still empathize with the characters on screen because they simply sound sincere. American actors would do well to take a lesson.

There are so many ideas on screen at any given time that for the unprepared viewer it can be somewhat overwhelming. And if you can't take anything away from the dialog or story itself then there are plenty of "Holy Shit" moments where the animation on screen should make your jaw drop. From the insane scene with the giant stuffed animals bleeding milk to Tetsuo's final metamorphosis and plenty in between. The action is unrelenting and the drama is top notch. I don't think a better portrait of the post apocalyptic world has been painted since, and it's at the same time terrifying because the apocalypse it depicts was self-inflicted by our own nature to need to manipulate and control. I think a lot of the people that criticize this film do so merely because of the hype around it. While I typically resist hype in any fashion, here is a movie I literally found by accident in 1992, prior to hearing or knowing anything about it. And regardless, I can honestly say that I believe any hype surrounding this film is well deserved.Ultimately what we have here is a fantastic representation for a movie people either love or hate. Too many viewings of a bad version made me a bit jaded, but as of rewatching last night have no idea how I could have ever questioned my love for this movie. It is a true cinematic gem, a classic that will never be duplicated. It set standards for films of it's type as well as a precedence for the years to come (20 years later and half of the anime out there is still derivative of this movie), and has still not been surpassed by another film of this style. With a compelling story that is complicated and hard to follow on the surface, but harboring some of the simplest themes and ideas conceivable, it is a thought provoking and mind expanding experience to indulge in. The Blu-Ray treatment has been more than kind, giving us high definition clarity and the best version of this movie we are ever likely to see. Amazing visuals and video, as well as outstanding audio make this movie an easy must buy for any fan of science fiction or animation. Period. If you haven't seen it yet, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.


crime.wav said...

I'm too sleepy to leave the kind of detailed remark i'd like to, but fuckin' a, dude! my feelings exactly about the importance of this film. i wanna see this BR version...

Anonymous said...

There are good reviews, and then there are great reviews...this is a great one. From being able to highlight the parts of the movie that are important to YOU, but being able to break the movie down to give the reader complete understanding of why this classic is so vital. Cheers!