It’s almost the end of the film and I’m still very, very lost. So you’re not alone.
— Mia (Minh-Anh) Do (@thespecsofMia) August 9, 2018
The 1988 anime Akira has officially topped my list of hardest-to-watch films, packing millions of details in both the graphics and the content of each sequence, in the span of more than two hours. Admittedly, I yawned rather widely during the middle part, since it started to drag on and became too slippery (plus excessively violent) for my attention to grab on.
Yet when the credits rolled, the familiar empty feeling after finishing a series or flipping the last page of a fiction book crept on me. The world in Akira—that of Neo-Tokyo in 2019—came alive immediately thanks to the elaborate illustrations of the background in every scene, glowing in its cyberpunk vibes and so reminiscent of San Fransokyo in Disney’s Big Hero 6.
As I reflect on the experience, I realised that I struggled to place the story in the film at a point in time and space for it to be more grounded in relation to my frameworks, i.e. my knowledge of Japanese history and culture and the country’s depiction in media. This might have been the key to my unease; the setting was Neo-Tokyo yet seemed Western, and it lacked the usual cultural flairs of Japan. To this there is a fitting explanation: the hyper-advanced, both Western-Eastern futuristic portrait implies the resulting disorientation of Japan’s speedy technological encounter with the West and its rapid Industrial Revolution in the past (Roh et al. 2015, p. 8). Initially though, it hit me as same old Techno-Orientalism—the timeless hypermodern display of Asian countries (usually Japan) that places them permanently at one point in time (Roh et al. 2015, p. 1) (see Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner).
I suppose in a society that is so orderly on the surface, with suffocating social pressure, rebellion must be bubbling up underneath. #BCM320
— Mia (Minh-Anh) Do (@thespecsofMia) August 8, 2018
My newfound awareness of the essentials of autoethnography encouraged me to consciously watch out for any biased patterns in my opinions, stemming from my personal background (Ellis et al. 2011). Examining a text through pre-existing frameworks is crucial to autoethnography, but it must be accompanied by analytical reflexivity (Anderson 2006, p. 378). Therefore, me being baffled by the film could be considered fortunate, as I had very little knowledge of the “rebellious” side of the Japanese culture (e.g. yakuza or biker culture)—the underside of the peaceful, orderly surface of Japanese society. It allowed me to look at things from quite a fresh perspective and gave me valuable insights into the Japanese culture, e.g. the rebel biking culture which was used to fight against the police force (Cherrybomb 2015).
This rebel biker culture became apparent as soon as the film began, with the street chase sequence which soon turned in to brutal fights between the cops and the bikers. This violence escalating as the story unfolded and the surrealism in this film unsettled me to my core; scenes like the hallucinations of Tetsuo will likely haunt me for a long while. My eighteen-year consumption of heavily censored and mild Vietnamese (and even American or English) media content had failed to prepare me for such horror. The suffocating sense, created partly by the overwhelming amount of content and graphic details, magnified the terror; such a sense of dread and haunting spirituality turned out to be a signature of Japanese cinema (Garciá 2015) and Japanese media in general (from what I noticed in anime e.g. Grave of the Fireflies and books like Norwegian Woods and Socrates in Love).
This dread and uneasiness seem to be the product of surrealism as a tool to create terror. Together with extreme violence and gorgeous animation, they encapsulate the spirit of Japanese cinema perfectly. #BCM320 https://t.co/jAd4NSGYVm
— Mia (Minh-Anh) Do (@thespecsofMia) August 9, 2018
Should I watch this film again, I would opt for a subtitled version instead of a dubbed one; the dubbing deprived the film of its powerful link between culture and language which could have evoked a more powerful emotional response. For now, there are still layers upon which I could reflect endlessly.
- Anderson, L 2006, ‘Analytic autoethnography’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 373-395.
- Cherrybomb 2015, ‘The Wild Wild World of Japanese Rebel Biker Culture’, Dangerous Minds, 28 May, viewed 9 August 2018, <https://dangerousminds.net/comments/japanese_rebel_biker_culture>.
- Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1.
- Garciá, CG 2015, ‘A Brief But Essential Introduction to Japanese Cinema’, Faena Aleph, 25 May, viewed 9 August 2018, <http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/a-brief-but-essential-introduction-to-japanese-cinema/>.
- Roh, DS, Huang, B & Niu, GA 2015, ‘Technologizing Orientalism’, in DS Roh, B Huang & GA Niu (eds), Techno-Orientalism : Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, pp. 1-22.
- Sotinel, T 2011, ‘Japan’s fantasy films act as a buffer against the reality of the natural world’, Guardian, 29 March, viewed 9 August 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/mar/29/japan-animation-natural-disaster-sotinel>.
- San Fransokyo Concept Art 01 n.d., fandom, viewed 9 August 2018, <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/File:San_Fransokyo_Concept_Art_01.png >.
- Akira – Neo-Tokyo 2017, Nefarious Reviews, viewed 9 August 2018, <https://nefariousreviews.com/2017/06/15/akira-anime-review/akira-neo-tokyo/>.
- Tetsuo’s Transformation n.d., Keegan Does Movies, viewed 9 August 2018, <http://keegandoesmovies.blogspot.com/2015/07/tetsuo-manhood-what-akira-has-to-say.html >.
- Akira Violence n.d., HD-Sensei, viewed 9 August 2018, <http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews44/akira_blu-ray.htm >.