In this edition of 30 Things, I discuss an aspect of my 26th favorite anime, Akira. This film has been well known to Western fandom for over a quarter century now. I even remember seeing the ads that were something to the effect of “Violent Animation from Japan that is Definitely Not for Kids” with some other late 80s anime that was likely trash. Then seeing it at Blockbuster in VHS form along with the other kids cartoons. That last part might not have happened.
Akira was the theatrical adaptation of director Otomo Katsuhiro’s manga of the same name. Originally released in July 1988, the film has gone through several releases and re-releases over nearly 28 years. The film is set in the year 2019 in Neo-Tokyo, which was created after a psychic explosion caused World War III in 1988. Normalcy has returned to the point where Neo-Tokyo is preparing to host the 2020 Olympics (just like real life), except that underneath all of the promise of a rebuilt Tokyo remains a deeply broken society. Two friends, Kaneda and Tetsuo get involved in a government project related to the incident 31 years earlier, and it has tragic consequences for everyone in Neo-Tokyo.
The Most Unique Soundtrack in Anime
Akira had a massive budget for its day of about 1.1 billion yen, (which would be about $12 million at the time) which was at least enough to afford to have the characters’ mouths drawn to match pre-recorded dialogue. The music was performed by the music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi, which was a different sort of music group than one really sees.
The short way of describing the collective is as a bunch of individuals who were interested in performing music, but whose lines of work had nothing to do with music. They performed different styles of folk music from around the world from areas such as Africa and Central Asia. The group took a different direction in 1986 by incorporating computer generated sound into their music, which got the attention of director Otomo.
What resulted is a soundtrack that is multilayered and incorporated elements of Indonesian jegog, prog rock, traditional Japanese music and synthesizers, which formed the distinctive sound of Akira.
Unfortunately as of the writing of this post, Victor Entertainment has this music caught in licensing hell, so this clip above is really all I could find. It’s fairly representative of the music in the film.
I also have another story related to this soundtrack. I was listening to a really old episode of the Radiolab podcast called “Earworms,” and in it one of the songs from the soundtrack got a mention as something that can get rid of any song stuck in your head.
“Tetsuo” definitely has that sort of thing going for it. There are just too many rhythms attached to this piece to focus on, and it makes it hard for the mind to keep a pattern in my opinion.
As for the rest of the film, I still think it looks amazing 28 years after release. A lot of that is actually a result of budget saving measures like the panning shots being of larger backgrounds instead of individual backgrounds. It’s also well worth watching as a study on a broken society. However, it’s always the music that manages to draw me back in.