30 years ago this holiday season, the animated film feature “Akira” became the catalyst that sparked the modern American anime subculture
The ambitious anime film “Akira” first opened in Japan on July 16, 1988. At the time its 1.1 billon Yen ($8.5 million USD in 1988) budget was the largest for a Japanese animated feature but it grossed 6.3 billion Yen ($49 million USD in 1988) at the box office so it paid off quite handsomely in more ways than one.
“Akira” had amassed a devoted following in Japan since the manga was first printed on December 6th, 1982 in the now legendary Weekly Young Magazine. The series gained readership steadily as the themes of teenage angst, alienation & rebellion really resonated with a captivated audience of teens and young adults.
“Akira” was running for over 5 years before work began on adapting the manga series which spanned in excess of a thousand pages at the time with about a hundred characters to somehow edit it down to a two hour long (approximately 120 pages of script) feature film. Also keep in mind that the creator Katsuhiro Otomo had no idea how he’d even end the series at the time production began on the film adaptation.
What makes “Akira” all the more impressive as a manga series is it was all conceived and written by Katsuhiro Otomo himself. He was simultaneously working on an anime called “Harmageddon” (1983) doing character design for legendary animation studio Madhouse (footage from “Harmageddon” was used for the 1983 Data East LaserDisc arcade game “Bega’s Battle”) at the time he began producing the serialized version of his creation for Weekly Young Magazine.
During this job, Otomo steadily learned the ropes involving the production of an animated film. Odd as it may seem, many of the themes or effects derived from the use of telekenetic powers “Akira” gets credited for pioneering were actually first present in “Harmageddon” which Otomo didn’t either write or direct, legendary Madhouse co-founder Rintaro (“Galaxy Express 999”, ‘The Dagger Of Kamui”, “Doomed Megalopolis” & “Metropolis”) did, adapting the legendary Japanese Science Fiction manga series “Genma Taisen”.
Otomo worked some more in the realm of anime before ultimately deciding that he was going to adapt the unfinished work into an animated feature film that he was going to both write the screenplay for and direct. He’d never directed a full animated feature before and this particular one was going to be the biggest in the history of Japanese anime up until the time. From his work in the field of anime he began to compile a list in his head of the perfect people in that space who could help him execute a project on a scale that no one had ever even attempted before.
Right around the same time the “Akira” animated film adaptation premiered in theaters in Asia, the first edition of “Akira” appeared in graphic novel form stateside via Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint. “Akira” #1 was the August 1988 edition and the title gained a quick and fiercely loyal cult following shortly after it’s release for many of the same reasons it did in Japan. However, the fervor amongst American comic book readers who were used to reading comic books as opposed to manga spread like wildfire once the 1988–89 school year began and word of mouth really took off.
The popularity of Epic’s run of “Akira” graphic novels was in part aided by the recent runs of DC’s Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” which ran from 1986–1987 and was just released as a hardcover collection in early 1988 alongside the recent graphic novelization of Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Night Returns” in addition to Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke”. The arrival of “Akira” couldn’t have happened at a better time, the audience had been prepared to handle heavy themes presented in a graphic novel format and the fact it originated in Japan made it stand out all the more. “Akira”readers also dove into Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” which was reprinted into book form from it’s previous seralized incarnation as well.
The growing popularity of the “Akira” books changed the game. Viz Communications had been releasing translations of titles like “The Dagger Of Kamui”, “Area 88” and “Mai, The Psychic Girl” since Spring 1987 which garnered moderate to fair sales success (although “Mai, The Psychic Girl” was a critical hit and highly influential). Afterwards Eclipse began selling translated issues of Masamune Shirow’s “Appleseed” and First Comics sold “Lone Wolf & Cub” beginning in 1988. The success of “Akira” on Epic increased fan interest in later Viz releases like the translated versions of “Fist Of The North Star”, “Baoh”, “Grey”, “Golgo 13” & “Crying Freeman”.
The rabid cult fanbases of these manga series’ then relentlessly hunted down these books’ animated films and OVA’s (sometimes referred to as OAV’s) from Japan. They usually located the Japanese LaserDiscs first then recorded them to Super VHS cassette tapes which they then screened in underground anime clubs during the late 80’s.
The earliest of these anime societies in the Greater Boston Area were located on the campuses of UMass/Boston in Boston plus MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA. It was here that I was able to get a steady supply of anime films or OVA’s before a significant amount of titles recieved North American distribution. Please keep in mind that these videos were in Japanese and there were no English language subtitles available yet. If there was no translated manga being sold stateside, you’d have no idea what was going on in the plot and you’d pretty much have to guess.
In the back pages of “Akira”, they announced the limited English language release of the animated adaptation would occur sometime in late 1989. The film’s initial run of screenings was in arthouse theaters stateside over the Christmas holiday season into February 1990.
“Akira” was first screened in various cities like Washington, DC, Portland, OR, San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz & Los Angeles, CA, Yellow Springs, OH, Seattle, WA and Boston, MA. It would screen in random cities sporadically for a limited time in each theater well into early 1991 until it was finally released for purchase by Streamline Pictures. If you wanted a list of confirmed screening locations and dates you had to either write in to Streamline Pictures’ PO Box or read the next issue of “Akira”.
In a short run on less than 50 screens it grossed less than half a million dollars ($439, 162 to be exact). This number would not be a fair indicator of the influence it was soon to have or the rapidly spreading subculture it was about to ignite in North America. If you held onto your ticket stub after a screening, and bought an issue of “Akira”, in certain comic book stores you could get a special coupon which would allow you a free limited edition poster. In order to get the official lobby poster or the “Making Of Akira” VHS tape (formal title “Akira: Production Report” (1988)) you needed to request a mailorder catalog from Streamline Pictures. I wonder how many collectors held onto theirs from almost 30 years ago?
The first time I ever saw “Akira” was May 1990. My big brother presented my younger brother & I with a blank cassette tape which we put into the VCR immediately as we didn’t have cable. We adjusted the tracking & it was a bootleg copy of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” which was still in theaters and we’d already seen. However, immediately after it ended, the screen went dark and we saw white words imposed over a city reading “1988. 7. 16 TOKYO”. A white flash that quickly morphed into an explosion happened onscreen next and my younger brother and I looked at each other with mouths agape. About 5 seconds later we both lost our fucking minds when a familiar logo in block letters appeared on our television.
It was the “Akira” animated film! I’m not sure if I even blinked once while watching it but we rewound it so much it took 3 hours to complete the first time. Our bootleg/dubbed VHS version of “Akira” was soon watched by all of our friends and even some of their friends so they’d understand why we kept saying “TETSUO!’ & “KANEDA!” all day long as inside jokes whenever something happened at school.
Beginning in 1988, a company noticed that there was a devoted and rapidly growing fanbase of anime and manga fans who were jumping through flaming hoops just to acquire anime films in Japanese. If these titles could be distributed stateside for a reasonable price dubbed not only would they sell but they’d become popular rentals for years. That company was called AnimEigo. They’d soon be joined by similar distributors like Streamline Pictures (who were responsible for “Akira”) and in 1990 Central Park Media entered the fold.
Those that read “Akira” wanted to see the movie version. Once they did, they had to show it to anyone willing to watch. In some cases, they may have forced people to see it. These people would spread the word and they’d buy a copy or a dub and watch it then rave about it. This happened a lot in high schools and colleges as the 1990–91 school year can be attributed to when the anime fan subculture began to grow by leaps and bounds stateside.
What people have completely forgotten is when Streamline Pictures first sold “Akira” on February 12, 1991 it wasn’t available in video stores. You could only purchase it through comic book stores that either carried it in-store or special ordered it for customer pick up or you could contact Streamline Pictures directly for a catalog where you could purchase the film on VHS plus animation cels. I’d imagine the retail price hovered somewhere between $74.99 and $89.99, the standard cost of video store rental copies in the early 90's.
“Akira” became a gateway drug of sorts. Whether we’re talking about reading the graphic novel/manga or watching the animated film. Seeing one made you want to see/read the other. Afterwards, you would explore either the worlds of anime OVAs, manga or both. Among the titles American anime fans began to seek out following seeing or reading “Akira” include “Space Pirate Captain Harlock”, “Arcadia Of My Youth”, “Golgo 13: The Professional”, “Space Adventure Cobra”, “Fist Of The North Star”, “Macross: Do You Remember Love?”, “Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind”, “The Dagger Of Kamui”, “Area 88”,“Dirty Pair”, “Appleseed”, “Megazone 23”, “Bubblegum Crisis”, “Demon Beast City” and “Crying Freeman”.
Throughout 1990 & 1991 more Japanese anime OVAs, series’ and films made their way stateside through the ingenuity of rabid anime fans like “M.D. Geist”, “Galactic Patrol Lensman”, “Prefectural Earth Defense Force”, “Black Magic M-66”, “Zillion”, “Baoh”, “The Guyver: Bio Boosted Armor”, “Grave Of The Fireflies”, “Goku: Midnight Eye”, “Demon City Shinjuku”, “Madox-01: Metal Skin Panic”, “Riding Bean”, “Urotsukidōji: Legend Of The Overfiend”, “City Hunter”, “The Venus Wars”, “Gall Force”, “Doomed Megalopolis” and “Cyber City Oedo 808” all ended up on college campuses through anime societies or sold/traded by individual members. During this time, attendance at regional Comic Cons began to sharply increase due to the involvement of manga/anime fans.
At these early 90’s Comic Cons and conventions anime OVAs, series’ and films began to be sold and traded more and more thus expanding the fanbase. Especially after Streamline screened “Akira” at the 1990 San Diego Comic Con between August 2nd and 5th, 1990. As the demand grew, more and more anime titles were being produced, dubbed and sold.
The explosion of interest in anime sparked by “Akira” was also bolstered by a North American comic book boom. Again, “Akira” was in the middle of a perfect storm as the anime was watched by more and more people and it’s Epic Comics run was gaining more and more readers. When Katsuhiro Otomo arrived in New York to screen “Akira” at the New York Film Festival in the then brand new Film Forum between October 19th and October 25th, 1990 it was a major event. He even did an in-store signing at the storied Manhattan comic book store Forbidden Planet on October 20th, 1990.
No doubt that you could buy either a copy of “Akira” or a dub of it at these conventions beginning in February 1991. The same kids who adored Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen would also watch a secondhand VHS dubbed from LaserDisc copy of “Mobile Suit Gundam F91” in Japanese with little clue as to what the hell was going on…
Throughout the mid to late 90’s anime became more and more accepted as more distribution companies popped up and the Anime section became a major draw at the video store. This was bolstered by the releases of titles like “Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie”, “Vampire Hunter D”, “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure”, “Ghost In The Shell”, “Gunsmith Cats”, “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, “Ninja Scroll”, “Key The Metal Idol”,“Princess Mononoke” and “Serial Experiments: Lain”. Another wrinkle that would make anime even more palatable to new fans in the late 90’s entering the 00’s was the introduction of the Cartoon Network’s Toonami block beginning in Fall 1998 plus a brand new video distribution format, the DVD.
Between 1989 and 1999 there were quite a few young creatives who saw “Akira” in addition to several other manga/anime titles which, in turn, inspired or influenced their work. The 1999 film “The Matrix” was clearly inspired by anime like “Akira” and “Ghost In The Shell” amongst others. “Akira” changed the way animated films were made as it had become the gold standard by which all subsequent anime features were judged. Regardless of its widespread popularity and influence, just 10 years after it first premiered stateside it was out of print.
If you wanted a copy of “Akira” during that stretch, you had the following options: Record it when it aired on cable, buy a used copy on VHS, outright buy a rental copy from a videostore or you could buy it on LaserDisc. Since VHS tapes were being phased out in favor of DVD’s between 1999 and 2000 there was only one other option available with the emergence of the Internet; buying it on Video CD directly from Asia.
In 1999, I bought a double disc VCD version of the original 1989 English dub of “Akira” from Malaysia for only $7. I still have it to this day as “Akira” wouldn’t receive a proper DVD release until July 2001 following its rights being acquired by Pioneer who immediately commisioned a new dub and a remastering. It would receive another remastering when the BluRay edition was released in February 2009 by Bandai. Funimation produced the 25th anniversary BluRay edition in November 2013.
“Akira” was introduced to another generation of anime fans whose introductions to anime came via “Dragon Ball Z”, “Lupin The 3rd”, “Outlaw Star”, “Cowboy Bebop”, “The Big O” and “FLCL” on cable. From there, they had the Anime Network and the Internet to aid them in their quests to find the same anime that just a decade ago required serious legwork. Now all you had to do was visit Amazon or a host of other sites that specialized in anime films. Once again, interest was renewed in film that proved to be highly influential in the 21st Century.
The influence of “Akira” has become increasingly prominent in recent years and can be seen in Hollywood films like “Jumper” (2008), “Push” (2009), “Inception” (2010), “I Am Number Four” (2011), “Looper” (2012), “Chronicle” (2012), “Midnight Special” (2016) and “Stephanie” (2017) amongst others. Homages and other references to “Akira” were also visible in recent television series’ like “Stranger Things” (2016), “Legion” (2017) and “Raising Dion” (2019).
While we grew up seeing telekinesis employed in numerous ways in anime it wasn’t until recently that those same effects could be replicated in film. Once the floodgates opened, more and more movies were released where characters did things reminiscent of what Tetsuo Shima did with his powers in both the manga and the anime versions of “Akira” or when you go back and watch, what Jo Azuma could do with his psychic powers in “Harmageddon”.
The flawless execution of the adaptation from serialized manga to full length “Akira” animated feature broke the mold and accomplished the seemingly improbable between 1987 and 1988. Epic Comics’ “Akira” graphic novelization process pushed the boundaries of comic book art and established a brand new means of production between 1988 and 1989 that is now standard practice (it was the first ever digitally colored comic book in history).
“Akira” was the shared entry point that both captured the imaginations of Gen X’ers and opened them up to new things. For us early adopters, it made converting neophytes to full blown anime & manga heads possible. That alone forever changed popular culture.
The VHS tape from 1990 that I first saw “Akira” on has since been lost to the ravages of time. The 2 VCD version that I copped from Malaysia in 1999 with the original 1989 English dub on it can only be watched on my MacBook Pro using VLC. I’ve personally introduced at least 100 people throughout my lifetime to “Akira” directly whether we’re talking the manga/graphic novels or the animated film. At the time I saw it I had NO clue I’d be recounting the experience almost 30 years later but this is merely a testament to it’s timelessness and it’s ability to resonate with both Generation X’ers and Millennials alike.
The Epic Comics run of “Akira” lasted from August 1988 until February 1996. There were several breaks in production throughout its life. The first 30 issues went like clockwork but there was a break between July 1991 and January 1992 for Akira #31. Issues #32 & #33 were released in April & May 1992 but issue #34 didn’t hit store shelves until October 1995. The entire 38 issue complete run of “Akira” ran from someone’s freshman year of high school to their senior year of college. Owning all 38 issues was a badge of honor and the sign of a true fan.
Nowadays, “Akira” is widely available to stream or purchase in multiple physical and digital formats. For younger kids, it’s often a title they have to work their way up to due to adult themes and graphic violence but it remains a rite of passage for anime fans. “Akira” has become a part of pop culture to the point you can find homages and references to it in all kinds of mediums far removed from anime.
If you look at the growth of Comic Cons nationwide between 1989 and 1991 it was widely attributed to the new anime fans who attended them who were fans of “Akira”. They led to the creation of the first ever Anime Con in 1991 which became Anime Expo the next year. The first Anime Con drew 2,000 people while the most recent Anime Expo had over 350,000 attendees.
25,000 people flooded my neighborhood for Anime Boston this past Spring at the Hynes Convention Center. Considering the fact that at the most 75 people would be in the theater at a time for a screening of “Akira” at either the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Coolidge Corner Moviehouse in Brookline or the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, MA almost 30 years ago that’s incredible. “Akira” changed the way an entire generation viewed the medium of animation beyond Disney, Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, Hanna Barbera, Rankin/Bass and Filmation.