Essentially a form of cyberpunk in the vein of William Gibson and Blade Runner (1982), but imbalanced toward the punk. It’s like Sougo Ishii’s Burst City (1982) with a budget.
The script is a bit rough, with too many minor scenes occurring out of context and ending abruptly, but it’s hard to say the comic is better. Both end in vague abstraction, a cop-out in line with the contemporary chōnōryokusha craze. The journey there is mature cyberpunk well suited to Western sensibilities despite its apocalyptic white heat emanating from the Japanese economic miracle.
A simple interpretation based on Japanese history and pop psychology is readily available, perhaps because some of the theoretical framework grew up around this film. The planned 2022 Summer Olympics correspond to the 1964 Summer Olympics in booming postwar Tokyo, where Anpo protests were brewing. Tetsuo is Murakami Takashi’s disgruntled “Little Boy” (hence the toys, the milk) and Kaneda his oppressive American big brother, though Kaneda’s concern for Tetsuo is genuine.
More generally Tetsuo is a boy growing up too fast, like the nation experiencing, within a single human lifetime, the multiple transformations from the turn of the century to the asset price bubble that burst in 1992: The automation, the Westernization, the political violence of the 20s and 30s, the fascist empire, nuclear fire, occupation and accelerating capitalist technocracy. Tetsuo’s power, in its gruesomely detailed implementation, is anxiety. His extended nervous system creeping through the Olympic seat of honour in hubristic Neo-Tokyo is unforgettable. It all curves inward: the cult’s desire for Akira is the desire for continued victimhood, thence irresponsibility.
The original music by Yamashiro Shouji frames the amazing artwork: Atypical character designs on the realistic side, jawdropping backgrounds, technical design and special-effects animation, everything works. There are even reasonably sized phones. The occasional flaw just makes it look more impressively hand-crafted. Live action from the period never got anywhere close to this level of obsession with credibility in any comparable high-concept scenario.
It is easy to dream about an alternate reality where Japan understood that more films like this could have earned back their enormous budget overseas, and to dream this were true.