It's a common opinion among animation fans that Akira, the 1988 adaptation of Katsuhiro Ôtomo's graphic novel of the same name, is a landmark achievement in hand-drawn animation. In fact, Akira is regarded with such esteem that it's easy to simply assume its brilliance, without taking the time to look at the animation itself. With an on-and-off live-action adaptation of the graphic novel in the works, there's never been a more appropriate time to take a closer look at how Akira blew (and continues to blow) the minds of its audience.
Pre-2012, Akira fan Joe Peacock was one of many enthusiasts lucky enough to attend ToonSeum's 'The Art of Akira' exhibit that, to my knowledge, has been unavailable since 2012. Not only this, but he was fortunate enough to obtain a vast amount of high resolution images from the exhibit, with which we can now use to analyse Akira from behind the scenes.
Suspending Audience's Disbelief
It's important to praise Akira for its ability to immerse audiences into a complex and hyper-realized setting. Viewers are able to feel the depth of the world's surroundings through an unrivalled attention to detail. From the unfathomably large metropolis in constant motion to the intricacies of Tetsuo Shima's unfortunate (but visually astonishing) illness, we see a level of detail that suspends our disbelief and fully allows us to enter Katsuhiro Ôtomo's vision of a 2019 Neo-Tokyo. This, as you would assume, has been made possible by masterful animation.
When discussing Akira animators' attention to detail, it would be unjust to look at one of the anime's most pivotal scenes. This may seem like a strange approach, but in reality, many films (animation and otherwise) have beautiful imagery in their most pivotal scenes, but only the greatest filmmakers pay the same attention to every single frame throughout their project. With that in mind, let's take a look at a 6-second dialogue between Ryu and Nezu as they discuss the city's social issues. In terms of plot, this scene does add depth to the world in which Akira is set, but could still theoretically be cut from the film without major consequence. However, due to the wonderful work of the animators, it is the greatest example of why Akira is still the pinnacle of hand-drawn animation.
Firstly, take a look at the foreground and central characters (Ryu and Nezu).
And a variety of buildings that will later become a large section of Ryu and Nezu's backdrop....
Put these together, and you still have an impressive animation piece with a beautiful color palette. However, this still doesn't separate Akira from other good animation movies created in 1988. Even the image below is still far from the finished piece we experience when watching Akira.
In Joe Peacock's analytical video, he expresses that this next segment (which is barely visible in the movie) is high among his favorites from the exhibition and from the entire film.
Ultimately, this image works as a visual aid in showing us the difference between animation movies post and pre-Akira.
It has a level of detail that would suggest that it was somewhere near to the foreground of the frame. You can see intricate lighting and shading on the many windows and street lamps, with animated leaves. The image even shows cars speeding through the highways. Surprisingly, it actually contributes to the final framing like so:
In case you can't see it, I'm talking about the thriving metropolis that beams from a distance. It may feel strange to know that behind these buildings is a large, beautifully constructed image of a city, featuring many small objects that will never even be visible in the final cut. However, this proves the point precisely. The reason we are able to immerse ourselves fully into the world of Akira is because animators visually created an in-depth landscape which, before Akira, we would have only expected to see in live-action films.
Combine this with the fact that Akira plays 24 frames per second, the same rate as almost all movies shot using film, and it reveals why Akira feels so unbelievably real, despite being a hyper-stylized animation.
“The cinema is truth 24 frames-per-second” - Jean-luc Godard
When you consider this level of realism within a surrealist setting (where objects and subjects alike are distorted, and time and place can be rearranged) then it's unsurprising that this hand-drawn animation is still frequently talked about and has maintained its relevance in the animation world since its release in 1988.
Another technique that can be analyzed further thanks to The Art of Akira exhibition is the anime's use of negative space. Sitepoint.com's useful definition of the technique can be summarized with the following statement:
Negative space is the empty or open space around an object that defines it. In layman's terms, it is the breathing room around the subject that determines how appealing it looks.
The decision to have a predominately blackened palette for Akira was both bold and necessary. Check out this Imgur gallery for a great overview of this palette, as well as these images from The Art of Akira:
The darkness of night, along with the contrast of the futuristic Tokyo's neon lighting, acts as Kaneda and the capsules' stomping ground. The gang appear entirely in their social element when surrounded by this color palette, which is used to create dramatic impact during two major events. The first time we see this dramatic shift in shade into an almost all-white frame is during Kaneda's introduction of Takashi as he is chased by Colonel Shikishima. The effect is similar to when somebody turns on a light in a dark room, as your eyes quickly adapt to the change in environment.
1. Colonel Shikishima turns the lights on
As soon as the canvas turns predominantly white, both Kaneda and Takesha are thrown into disarray, along with the audience. The use of negative space is reversed, causing audiences to react with discomfort and shock, making us empathetic towards the film's central characters.
This scene's technique is later mirrored by the film's final scene, with Akira's famed explosion scene.
2. Tetsuo Shima's Explosion
Here we can see how the darkness has represented the city, and how it is obliterated by light. Just as Kaneda and the capsules' streets were lit-up by the military (and therefore taken from them), the city's destruction can be seen using the same visual technique.
Interestingly enough, it is common for the horror genre to use darkness within a frame to tease audiences with terror. Akira turns this on its head, using a light palette to throw audiences and characters into discomfort and input a feeling of obscurity and disarray.
Having taken a closer look at the behind-the-scenes art of Akira, what do you think of the famed anime's visual technique? If the live-action movie becomes a reality, which techniques would you like to see translate into that adaptation? I would love to hear your thoughts on the movie and the images I've shared, so please let me know in the comments below!
A Few more From 'The Art of Akira' Behind the Scenes:
Kai Chasing Kaneda
Debris Sketch & Annotations of Movement
Man-made Repetition in Akira