Before watching the movie:
I’ve heard the title of this movie thrown around a bit, but I never really understood much more. I didn’t know if it was a movie or a series or what, probably anime but maybe not. I assumed it was action, and probably grim and gritty, and that’s about the end of what I thought I knew, until I saw it called out as being extremely influential on Eastern and Western animation alike, and as the referent of that one motorbike slide that’s everywhere in animation.
It turns out this seems to also be the source of that “Neo-Tokyo” I’ve heard about. And this is probably why some of the names I hear come up a bunch in Anime circles come up so much, but I don’t know what Japanese names are more generic versus more unique.
After watching the movie:
On July 16, 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a massive explosion. Thirty-one years, a world war, a rebuilding of “Neo-Tokyo”, and a corrupt government wracked by widespread protests, terrorism, and gang wars later, Kaneda’s bike gang the Capsules frequently locks horns with the Clown gang. When an anti-government resistance organization aids the psychic Takashi, a powerful psionic-enhanced elderly child, in escaping a secret government lab, Kaneda’s shrimpy best friend Tetsuo almost crashes into him while fleeing the police and gets injured, and just as the rest of the Capsules arrive, military helicopters appear to take Takashi back into custody as well as arrest all the Capsules. In the police station, Kaneda meets Kei, another resistance member, and tells the police she’s with the capsules so they release her with them, while at the hospital, the military doctor Onishi discovers that Tetsuo has psionic abilities comparable to Akira, the psychic test subject that caused the 1988 explosion. Another psychic child in the same program as Takashi, Kiyoko, calls Col. Shikishima to her to warn him that she saw in a dream that if Takashi cannot be controlled, the events of 1988 will happen again. However, the incident with Takashi’s escape has exhausted the government’s budget and patience with Shikishima’s project, and they refuse to take the warning seriously. Kaneda, trying to pick up Kei, wanders into her resistance cell’s meeting, and convinces them to let him join their mission to free the psychics, including Tetsuo. Meanwhile, the other psychics, trying to avert cataclysm, attempt to kill Tetsuo, but his rapidly growing abilities easily rebuff them, and Tetsuo begins to realize that maybe he finally doesn’t need to rely on Kaneda getting him out of trouble like always, if only he could have help controlling his powers, and it turns out Akira, the only one who’s experienced what Tetsuo is going through, has been in cryogenic storage this whole time.
In the early scenes of this movie, I felt very lost. After the explosion, I felt like I’d been thrown into events without enough exposition of what I was seeing. And I got very worried, because the last time I watched a cyberpunk anime movie with the intention to review it, I was so lost, and it was so much more gritty and Adult than I expected, that I gave up on reviewing it, which I think is the only time I decided not to write a post about a movie after playing the movie, and definitely the only time it was because I failed so hard at getting it. I like something resembling cyberpunk, and I can appreciate grimdark stories, but I am finding that the original 80s grimdark cyberpunk is beyond my taste. Fortunately, I was able to piece together enough that things started to make sense when the plot got going, and most things that I wanted more explanation of (why are the psychics children but also super old?) I could just go with and probably come up with a halfway-satisfying answer of my own (because they’ve been kept as children for over 30 years while being powerful psychics). I assume there’s more explanation of stuff in the manga series I didn’t know existed until after I finished the movie and started reading more than the barest plot summaries.
I appreciate the complexity of the plot having multiple opposing sides with no true villain. Some of them, particularly the Colonel, seem to be positioned as the bad guy, but then we come to recognize the good motives and hard choices behind the actions. In the end, not even Tetsuo, who is for most of the third act a psychopathic walking A-bomb, is really evil, just overwhelmed with what’s happening to him. The closest thing this story has to a real bad guy is the government, and it’s pretty clear that a lot of the problems with the government are them trying to contain the mistakes of an even worse prior administration. This is a world rebuilt after a nuclear war, it’s actually kind of impressive the system works as well as it does only a generation later.
On the flip side of that, the protagonist seems to shift as the story goes. It’s Kaneda by the end, but along the way Tetsuo and Shikishima seem to have their turns as well, and part of what makes it hard to pick up what’s going on in the beginning is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong viewpoint character until after Tetsuo’s accident. This is probably an artifact of being based on a long form manga that would have had more space to shift between viewpoints, but also it seems to show that this mess from the last generation is everyone’s problem now.
I’m not sure how this is just as influential and groundbreaking as they say. I respect that when something is groundbreaking, the things that come after it make the original seem less special, but I don’t really see what’s going on here that everyone after it latched onto, aside from the aforementioned slide. Thinking back, the manga came out in 1982 and a lot of the most iconic cyberpunk stories came out in the mid to late 80s and maybe the ones with the more gruesome and sinister aspects I don’t care for took more influence from this. In the 80s it seems like everyone was obsessed with gang violence, government corruption, and body horror and it’s hard to really point to an origin point. I do have to admire the audacity of explicitly making the catastrophe that haunts the story not just the same year as the movie’s release but the exact day of its release. I think I’d appreciate this story more on a second viewing, but I still don’t think it’s just the movie for me.