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Akira Blu-ray Anime Review

12 min read

Dusting off our old edition to take it in with new viewers, it’s always a thrill to rewatch Akira.

What They Say
Kaneda spent his nights tearing through the urban wastes, racing his motorbike against rival groups. One night, while riding with his gang, his friend Tetsuo suddenly encounters a strange boy – the product of human experimentation – and is injured in the ensuing crash. Shortly thereafter, a military squadron appears on the scene to take the boy and Tetsuo away to an army research lab. Determined to free Tetsuo from captivity, Kaneda sneaks into the lab. However, a regimen of extreme experimental procedures has awakened a new power in his friend, and he is now consumed by madness…

The Review:
In the booklet that’s included, there’s lots of talk about how this release is unlike anything else out there in the Blu-ray market for audio. Having listened to lossless audio tracks on Blu-ray for a couple of years now, I have to say that this is without a doubt the most immersive and impressive audio mix I’ve heard – period. When you read what is said in the booklet and then into the technical side of it, you sort of just chuckle and believe that it’s more of the usual marketing hype. Yet when you queue up the film and take in the two hour experience, the 192khz 2mbit 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is beyond spectacular. It changes how you listen and experience the film. When PCM tracks were the norm, it was always a big moment when you saw one encoded at the max of 6.9mbps, though most were down in the 4.6mbps mark. Dolby TrueHD allows for the variable rates which helps maximize its effectiveness and you’d rarely see it above the 4mbps mark for the most part. So when you see this Japanese TrueHD track hit 18mbps and you really hear all of that around you, it’s powerful. It alters your perception of the film, even if you’ve seen it dozens of times like I have. This is the kind of audio that really changes how you view high definition audio.

Of course, that means the other tracks here really do pale in comparison if you have a setup capable of producing what’s in the Japanese Dolby TrueHD track. The English Dolby TrueHD track is quite good as it fits the standard mold for high definition lossless audio and it’s expressive and filled with lots of placement and impact. The inclusion of the other mixes is also really good to hear since it provides you with a view of how you’ve heard it before, whether it’s the uncompressed 2.0 PCM track at 1.5 mbps or the Dolby Digital Japanese 5.1 track at 640kbps which represents what most DVD releases were like. These are all certainly serviceable tracks – and I was pleased to see the English one get a TrueHD mix as well, but they’re a shadow of what the main Japanese track is.

Originally in theaters in 1988, the transfer for this feature is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p and is encoded using AVC. The video side of this feature isn’t going to make out as good as the audio side for a couple of reasons. The older materials here looks very good overall, though with some soft areas here and there. The feature has a good look to it as it feels like it should, which means it feels like a film with its natural grain but not too much grain. Colors are properly muted in places where they should be and there are areas where it’s wonderfully vibrant. Because of the special audio mix included, that has to dip into the video bandwidth that’s available. Most Bandai Visual Japan Blu-ray releases feature a high bitrate, often in the high thirties or low thirties. This one is centered around the low twenties because of the massive audio mix included. That said, Hollywood producers are regularly saying there’s a diminishing amount of return when you go past 20mbps, so I’m hard-pressed to really complain too much considering the overall presentation. While I’m sure this could look a little better with more bandwidth available, I’m not sure it would be noticeably so during regular playback. There will be screen grabs to complain about here and there, but if you’re sitting back to watch this in a darkened room and take it in, you’re going to come away very happy.

Akira’s Blu-ray release is done in a standard Blu-ray case with the classic artwork of Kaneda walking up towards his bike, his back to the viewer. With the blue case, it actually adds a bit more impact to it as it’s a very light and inviting cover yet one with an attitude to it. The back cover is really nicely laid out as well though some of the red text on black isn’t all that easy to read. The summary covers the film as best as it can and below that we get a small strip of shots from the film. The logo makes up the center strip but they do it really neat in that each letter has a character piece to it. The remainder is given over to a listing of the discs extras, production credits and a somewhat chaotic breakdown of the technical features along with some logos. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reverse side cover.

The first pressing run for this release does have a little more to it, however, but it is going to be limited. You can tell the first pressing because it’s a jet black slipcover with the Akira logo in English done in red with the white Japanese logo over it. The back of the slipcover has the bright artwork from the Blu-ray cover itself which again looks good. The slipcover also has an obi wraparound on it with some promotional words and the summary on the front while the back has a breakdown of the discs features in a very clean format. What makes this first pressing special, however, is the extensive full-color booklet that’s included. Much of the first half is given over to talking about the audio presentation of the film and it’s a fascinating piece to read, even if it does come across as hype until you experience it. The remainder of the booklet explores the films origins, has an interview with Otomo from its DVD release back in 2001 and looks at the animation and what it pioneered back during its release in 1998. This is a very worthwhile book to get as it has lots of new material and exploration of the film that we haven’t had before.

Honneamise continues to do their releases without any main menus, though we do get a language choice at start-up since this is being released in the US and Japan at the same time. The pop-up menu is the main menu here and it’s cutely done as the handlebars for Kaneda’s bike using a black background and red line work. The navigation for it is straightforward and easy to use though if you go to the extras submenu it brings you to a different menu and out of the film itself which isn’t good menu design. Everything otherwise loads quickly and easily but the disc doesn’t read our player’s language presets, likely because it forces language selection based on the opening location menu option.

If there’s an area I’m disappointed with in this release, it’s the extras. Almost nothing from the Geneon edition makes it here which is unfortunate as that means some of the old pieces like the Akira Committee Report isn’t here either. What we do get is a small selection of teasers, trailers and a TV commercial along with a storyboards section with quite a few pieces to it. The real extra for this release is probably considered to be the first pressing booklet, but I would have liked to have seen the DVD era extras ported over as well since they’re so small overall.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Originally intended for release early on in the Blu-ray life cycle from Bandai Visual Japan, the feature was put on the backburner and it even missed its 20th-anniversary release because of it. Considered to be one of many gems in the Bandai Visual Japan catalog, it finally made its way to Blu-ray in 2009 and we’ve got a beautiful looking and exceptional sounding release. This is the kind of release that in some ways does raise the bar and it puts out a landmark film in a new format that will change how some people perceive it. This is the must-own edition of Akira for fans.

For many, Akira is a love it or hate it movie. A number of fans have a hard time finding a middle ground for it. A lot of this stems from the fact that for many years, it could only be had in dub form, and for many people, it was just a bad dub that could be made quite a bit of fun of. That’s all we’re going to talk about previous releases. Pioneer has gone quite far in distancing themselves from those releases, and their work and effort definitely deserve to move beyond what came before.

Akira’s story is like just about any other manga to anime translation, especially in going to a movie as opposed to a series of some sort. The changes are fairly strong, the pacing is entirely different and the ending and a good part of the final act have almost nothing in common. The core storyline though, at least the one I perceive, of friendship and the strength of those bonds is still there.

The film opens with the destruction of Tokyo in a black expanding ball in 1988. We flash forward 31 years later to 2019, where the rebuilt Neo-Tokyo is the shining jewel of Japan. The buildup and restoration is nothing short of amazing. The city has become filled with immense skyscrapers, giving the illusion of reaching the clouds with what looks like hundreds and hundreds of stories. Scattered throughout are tons of smaller but still tall buildings, each adding to the light and activity of it all.

But the story isn’t focused up in these gleaming towers. It’s down in the dank streets, where the citizenry is restless and there’s a feel of something powerful happening. Some of those in power can see it, they can feel that the city has become rotten, but those who appear to be in control are oblivious to it.

And down in these streets, this is where we get to know Kaneda, Tetsuo and others in their bike gang. Our introduction to them is terse, as one of the more experienced bikers, Yamagata, strides into a dank underground bar to get Kaneda. Their street enemy, the Clowns, have been herded to a less used route, and it’s time for them to teach them some respect.

What ensues is a bike chase/combat sequence that has been lifted in a number of other shows, including a homage in a recent animated dark knight show. The combination of the music, the visuals with the light streams from the bikes and the energy of the animation provides an exceptionally powerful sequence. Watching Kaneda, Yamagata and the Clowns go at it, the power that comes across from them is fantastic. While it’s certainly not the real thing, it’s a wonderfully visualized experience.

This sequence brings about a striking change though, as a wrong turn leads Tetsuo to run into a little kid, causing his bike to explode and throwing him off onto the pavement. Half unconscious, Tetsuo finds himself amazed to be alive and even more surprised to see this twisted looking little kid still alive as well. When the rest of the gang catches up to them, their surprise at this kid is quickly forgotten when the military arrives and takes Tetsuo and the kid away, while everyone else gets sent off to the police.

This is where the mystery begins to build, as Tetsuo learns of an immense psychic power that’s contained within him. Experiments begin to be performed on him, and those who are keeping an eye on him begin to give him certain drugs that help enhance and unlock his abilities, much like the children that they have kept guarded for so many years in their secret facilities. Tetsuo begins to learn what’s being done to him and why, and starts manipulating things to his advantage, as his mind slowly begins to warp under the drugs effects.

On the other side of the Tetsuo/Kaneda coin, Kaneda finds himself getting involved in a group that’s after information and secrets about the project that Tetsuo has found himself a part of. His chasing of a particular skirt, namely the main female character named Kei, brings him into their lair after he helps save Kei twice from the military types who are on the lookout for members of this group. Kaneda lucks out though when he realizes that the information they’re after is in regards to his friend Tetsuo, and they decided to take a slim chance with him.

The two sides of this coin begin to follow their own objectives, with the spiraling into madness Tetsuo searching for a power supposedly bigger than him and Kaneda trying to impress Kei and figure out what’s wrong with Tetsuo. This all serves as the main feature, while in the background there’s political wheeling and dealing, riots in the streets and the push of a civilization that’s become corrupt trying to find its way back to a place where it can be happy.

As I said earlier, part of my coloring of the storyline is my love of the manga, and I know parts of it seep into my perception of the movies storyline. I’ve done this with many manga/novel to movies in the past and sometimes it can’t be helped.

Since its original theatrical release, a lot has changed in the field of animation. What Akira, and those select few from the years around it, continues to prove is just how far ahead of their time they truly were. While theatrical anime movies of today are indeed flashy looking deals, Akira and its kind are so painstakingly detailed and richly animated, that they can continue to hold their own almost twenty years later, and in some cases surpass the quality of the latest movies.

In Summary:
The way this film was released is something that I had hoped originally we’d see more of, a worldwide bilingual release that uses the format as it should, solid video encoding and multiple lossless audio tracks. Akira is a landmark film for a lot of reasons and it really manages to hold up incredibly well some twenty years later. And come 2019, when the feature takes place, I’m sure it’ll still look amazing. While there are some things to nitpick over this release, overall it’s exactly what I want out of a Bandai Visual release and Blu-ray in general; worldwide simultaneous, bilingual and with an adherence to what high definition audio and video fans want. Akira has raised the bar significantly across the board when it comes to audio here and it should be widely recognized.

Japanese Dolby TrueHD (5.1ch, 192kHz, 24bit) Language, Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 Language, Japanese 2.0 PCM Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitlese, Japanese Subtitles, Teaser #1 & # 2, Trailers #1 & #2, TV Commercial, Complete StoryboardsInitial Pressing includes Original 32-page booklet & slipcase

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A+
Video Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: Bandai Visual
Release Date: February 24th, 2009
MSRP: $49.98
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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