‘Akira’: how the ’80s anime classic changed pop culture forever

Katsuhiro Otomo's seminal sci-fi is back in cinemas this week

Every few years, Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic 1988 anime – based upon his 1982 manga of the same name – is released into cinemas for a limited run. We’re not complaining. It’s one of the greatest, flawless, most innovative movies of all time.

It’s also one of the most influential. And so, with a 4K remaster of the movie making its way into cinemas this week (and in IMAX too!), here’s just how Akira changed pop culture forever.

It opened up Japan to the West

It’s hard to imagine a world where there wasn’t a Wagamama always within walking distance – quite how we existed without their sublime Yasai Katsu Curry is beyond me – but this wasn’t always so. In 1987, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were offered the chance to bring Akira to Western audiences. They turned it down, saying it wouldn’t appeal.

And yet it wasn’t Hello Kitty that turned us all on to the Japanese culture now ubiquitous within the West. It wasn’t Gundam. Or Tamagotchi. Or Dragon Ball Z. Or Pokémon. Or even the colossal Godzilla. It was Akira. Without it, anime or manga might never have made its way to the UK.

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‘Akira’ first hit cinemas in 1988. Credit: Alamy

Your favourite sci-fi film owes a debt to ‘Akira’

Midnight Special, Looper, Chronicle, Inception, Cloud Atlas, Lucy, few sci-films to arrive after 1988 haven’t taken something from Akira. With apologies to Carrie, the film essentially invented the ‘child with telekinetic powers is a dangerous weapon’ trope, meaning you can add telly favourites Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy to the beloved cultural works which take their cues from Otomo’s film.

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A secret military project turns biker Tetsuo into a rampaging psychic psychopath in ‘Akira’. Credit: Alamy

Don’t forget the comics and the video games

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s 2015 sci-fi comic series Descender – the best sci-fi to find itself drawn out with pencil and ink within the modern age – might revolve around robots and not telekinetic delinquents, but it owes much of its soul to Akira. Then there’s the futuristic motorbike racing in Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s Motor Crush, an obvious nod to protagonist Kaneda’s superbike (which exists, by the way. Kind of. It’s called the Honda NM4. It’s not an exact replica, but Honda even admitted they’d used Akira’s sweetest ride as inspiration).

Then there’s the unofficial The Simpsons/Akira hybrid, Bartkira, helmed by cartoonist James Harvey. If you’re wondering, Bart is Kaneda, Milhouse is Tetsuo, and – brilliantly – Ralph Wiggum is Akira himself.

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Kaneda is charged with restoring order when Tetsuo lashes out. Credit: Alamy

Its influence extends to pop music too…

The video for Michael Jackson’s 1995 hit ‘Scream’? You can see the film playing on the screen of the spaceship Jackson and sister, Janet, grunt and thrust upon. Lupe Fiasco’s 2015 album ‘Tetsuo & Youth’? That takes its title from poor old Tetsuo Shima. Then there’s Kanye West.

“He was always inspired by Akira,” says Hype Williams, director of Yeezy’s 2005 track ‘Stronger. “There was a point where we really dove in and wound up filming parts of that movie for the video, but we decided to back off it and do something a little more abstract for the final version. So originally it went from inspired by – to us really diving into that world and giving him a piece of the story and that kind of transmutated into the video that’s out now.”

Make no mistake, Kanye really loves the film. “No way Spirited Away is better than Akira… NOOO WAAAY… sorry was just looking at a YouTube of top 10 anime films,” he tweeted in 2005.

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Kanye West has said he’s a huge fan of ‘Akira’. Credit: Alamy

Did ‘Akira’ predict coronavirus too?

There’s an argument that ‘Akira’ might have been the catalyst for the postponement of the 2020 Olympic games – scheduled to be held in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, this summer gone – to 2021.

Early in the film, which is set in 2019, there’s a billboard in Neo Tokyo counting down the days until the 2020 Olympics. ‘147 Days Until The Games’ it reads, with ledger written below, requesting citizens lend their support to the event in order to make it a success. ‘Just cancel it!’ reads the graffiti daubed below.

On Friday, February 27, exactly 147 days prior to the scheduled kick-off of the 2020 Olympic Games, ‘Just Cancel It’ was the top trend for Japan on Twitter.

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