Release Date(s)1988 (December 22, 2020)
Studio(s)Tokyo Movie Shinsha/Toho (Funimation)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s note: The Japanese Ultra HD release of Akira from Bandai included an HDR grade, which Funimation initially omitted from their release. This review covers the corrected disc, but Funimation’s replacement program is still available. For more information, visit their blog post here.]
For some people, Akira was their first exposure to the world of Japanese animation—or at least consciously so, since they may have watched TV shows like Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, or Star Blazers without realizing that all of them were adaptations of Japanese originals. After its release in 1988, Akira quickly became a mandatory rite of passage for those who wished to learn about anime. Japanese animation has now entered the mainstream thanks to the internet and modern streaming services, but it would be the mistake of dismissing one of the godfathers of the genre, and what was once the first step into that larger world. More importantly, Akira has lost none of its power in the last three decades, and in many ways it remains as relevant as ever.
Director Katsuhiro Otomo was also the creator of the long-running manga series on which the film is based. Akira tells the story of two childhood friends, Kaneda and Tetsuo, as they encounter a sinister government conspiracy in post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo. Tetsuo has an accidental encounter with a genetically engineered child and develops supernatural powers, while Kaneda forms a new relationship with a resistance figure named Kei and joins her in trying to expose the conspiracy. Inevitably, Tetsuo and Kane will end up clashing, with catastrophic results. Otomo’s manga ran from 1982 until 1990 and was unfinished by the time the film went into production. Otomo and his co-writer Izo Hashimoto had to find a way to wrap things up while still leaving it open-ended for fans of the manga.
One of the big advantages of adapting his pre-existing work was that Otomo had already created a fully developed world in which to drop his revised characters for the film, with little need to set the scene for new viewers. Because of this, the film can initially be confusing for those who have never read the manga. The advantage is that Neo Tokyo feels like a real, breathing world which exists outside of the bounds of the narrative. No matter how many times you watch the film, it always feels like there’s more to discover just beyond the edges of the frame. While it may seem like a shame that Otomo never made a sequel to explore more of that world, its open-endedness granted it longevity. As 2001 proved, sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers, but the manga is still available for those who wish to know more.
Akira was photographed on 35 mm film with spherical lenses and projected at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 for its wide theatrical release (though the original animation artwork was specifically formatted to allow for 70 mm blow-up). For this Ultra HD version, a 35 mm interpositive was scanned at 4K resolution and graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 is available on the disc). Fine detail is improved over the previous Blu-ray release, although some DNR has been applied to smooth out uneven grain and minimize cell dirt. Fortunately, the image hasn’t been scrubbed completely so the grain is still there, though much less visible now. Foreground animation sometimes seems a bit smoother than before, but the textures on background artwork are still present. The non-HDR disc also looked better than the previous Blu-ray, but the wider HDR color gamut really adds icing to the cake. The contrast is expanded, with deeper blacks and sparkling highlights, such as the motorcycle headlights or the energy beams from the SOL weapon later in the film. There are many more nuanced shades to the colors, with the red of Kaneda’s bike being particularly dazzling. Even his jacket now stands out more than ever. This transfer is a good example of how to use HDR to enhance a film without losing its original character.
Audio is available in the most recent Japanese mix in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, an English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track with the Pioneer dub and sound mix from 2001, and an English 2.0 Dolby TrueHD track with the 1988 Streamline dub and the original theatrical sound mix. Optional English subtitles are included. The Bandai release features a Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital track and an LPCM 2.0 version of the original Japanese theatrical mix, neither of which are included here. The Bandai disc also contains the Japanese TrueHD track at 24 bit/192khz resolution, which has been downsampled to 48khz for this release (the Blu-ray in this set is still at 24/192). Regardless of the sampling rate, this latest mix is an aggressive one, with the soundstage pulled farther forward into the surrounds than ever before. It’s reminiscent of a classic quadrophonic mix in the way that the music completely surrounds the listener. The sound effects fill the soundstage as well, but this is a film that’s always been more driven by music than effects. The dynamics are good and the dialogue is always clear, though it sometimes gets buried a bit. While the higher resolution version would have been preferable, this is still a first-rate mix.
Funimation’s release of Akira is a 3-Disc set with one 4K Ultra HD disc and two Blu-rays. There are no extras on the UHD. The first Blu-ray contains the film and extras, while the second disc is all extras. There’s also a 40-page booklet included in the case featuring an essay from Ryusuke Hikawa, another from Reiji Asakura, and a transcript of interviews with the cast and sound director from one of the extras on Disc Two. The back of the packaging advertises a Digital Copy, but no codes are included.
DISC TWO (BD):
- Akira Sound Clip (SD – 7 in all – 19:22)
- Director Interview (SD – 29:11)
- Storyboard Collection (HD – 30:58)
- The Writing on the Wall (HD – 8 in all)
- Original Trailers (HD – 3:11)
- Original Commercials (HD – 1:22)
- Restoring Akira (SD – 3 in all – 11:01)
- Glossary (HD – 27 in all)
- US Trailer (2013) (HD – 0:55)
- Aquarion Evol Trailer (HD – 1:27)
- Eureka Seven AO Trailer (HD – 0:43)
- Michiko & Hatchin Trailer (HD – 2.05)
- Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine Trailer (HD – 1:25)
- The Future Diary Trailer (SD – 0:35)
- Appleseed XIII Trailer (HD – 2:02)
- Wolf Children Trailer (HD – 2:27)
- Funimation.com Promo (HD – 0:32)
DISC THREE (BD):
- Akira: Sound Making 2019 (HD – 39:57)
- Akira: Sound Clip by Geinoh Yamashirogumi (Upsampled SD –19:07)
- Original 1988 Theatrical Release End Credits (HD – 4:03)
- Storyboard Collection (HD – 372 in all)
- Theatrical Preview – Trailer Collection (HD – 5:10)
With the exception of the new 2019 featurette on the sound, the collected extras are carried over from various previous Blu-ray, DVD, and Laserdisc releases. While not comprehensive, the selection offers a decent overview of the film and how it’s been updated over the years. The biggest omission is the Akira Production Report, and considering that two features are repeated in slightly different forms on both discs, there would have been plenty of room for it without the repetition. The Akira Sound Clip on Disc One is seven different musical cues accompanied by film clips and background information. They can be played together or individually, with optional English narration to translate the Japanese titles. The entire collection is repeated on Disc Two minus the individual play and narration options. The Storyboard Collection on Disc One has all of the film’s storyboards which play automatically with musical accompaniment. Those are also repeated on Disc Two in a still frame gallery with 372 pages. The Director Interview is a vintage question and answer session with Otomo where he traces the development of his original manga and his work on adapting it for the film. It’s presented in Japanese with English subtitles. The Writing on the Wall is a still frame gallery featuring English translations of various background pieces of graffiti visible throughout the film. Restoring Akira was produced for the 2001 DVD release of the film and has three sections dealing with the restoration at that time, the new English dub, and the English 5.1 mix (none of it applies to the 4K restoration or the new Japanese sound mix for this release). The Glossary is a still frame gallery with 27 pages explaining various terms and concepts used in the film. This is actually one of the most useful features for those who are unfamiliar with the manga. Akira: Sound Making 2019 is a new documentary exploring the 4K restoration and its latest Japanese sound mix. It has interviews with sound designers both old and new, as well as members of the original cast. This is also in Japanese with English subtitles. The End Credits are the original theatrical end credits with Japanese text instead of English.
Akira is a rare example of an older cyberpunk film which does not feel dated in any way. Part of that is due to the timeless design of Otomo and his crew, but it’s also due to the themes which remain relevant today. As the narrator of the Akira: Sound Making featurette states: “There are few works which can evolve with the times without fading, and while the times may have caught up with Akira, we still haven't found the answers to the questions it raises. As long as the film remains in people's hearts, and they continue searching for those answers, Akira will never stop evolving.” This 4K presentation of the film is a worthy step in its evolution.
- Stephen Bjork
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