The seminal anime's soundtrack is getting an official reissue, so we chart how, over 25 years, it's seeped into the mainstream cultural sphere
When Katsuhiro Otomo began writing, drawing and serialising the cyberpunk manga Akira back in 1982, who could have known the bloody, mutative tremors he would blast through the world, to shape pop culture as we know it today. The 1988 film adaptation of Akira put anime on the global stage, unleashing a new era for the genre with mature story-telling and razor-sharp animation.
From there, it created the framework for the brutal realities of The Matrix and Chronicle, with a narrative that raced through a post WWIII Japanese landscape, splattered by terrorism and organised crime with a military project choking the city. Sprawling scenes of a gang-saturated dystopian Tokyo were permeated by the dramatic soundtrack of Geinoh Yamashirogumi. The clashes of the motorcycle gangs the Clowns and the Capsules, the graphic transformation of our antagonist Tetsuo as his psychic abilities engulf him - all arresting visuals elevated only further by the urgent guitar lines, symphonic voices and arm hair-raising drum beats. Now, the soundtrack is getting an official reissue, sure to bring the sour winds of neo-Tokyo to a new audience. And though it’s been over 25 years since the film first aired, it's left an acidic mark on popular music today; so we delve into its aural legacy.
Kanye West loves Akira like Kanye loves Kanye. “No way Spirited Away is better than Akira… NOOO WAAAY…sorry was just looking at a youtube of top 10 anime films,” he tweeted last year. Though his social media TL makes it clear it’s the best anime of all time, his musical output show’s it better. Yeezy’s “Stronger”, from his 2007 album Graduation, melds electro and rap with the vocal sample from French house set Daft Punk and repurposes philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's “what does not kill him, makes him stronger” dictum. Though as Ye explores the mistakes, trials and tribulations of his past year in “Stronger”, it could also be the anthem of the defiant bōsōzoku gangs of the sinister Japanese metropolis, or the backdrop to the crescendo-ing, painful transformation of Tetsuo. The Tokyo-based video for the track lifts directly from the anime: he shot-for-shot parallels the story of Tetsuo as he realises his psychic powers that could once again destroy an entire city, and the government forces that attempt to harness him. With neon, Japanimation-inspired visuals, the only thing he’s missing is the red cape.
“He was always inspired by Akira,” Hype Williams, the video director said of West. “There was a point where we really dove in and wound up filming parts of that movie for the video, but we decided to back off of it and do something a little more abstract for the final version. So originally it went from inspired by — to us really diving into that world and giving him a piece of the story and that kind of transmutated into the video that’s out now.”
Brixton-born artist Gaika spans a compelling mix of dancehall, grime, trip-hop and rap to illustrate his own perspective on a dystopian London, which culminates in his mixtape SECURITY. His politically-charged work explores the sinister streets of the British capital and its inhabitants forced into the shadows. Although it’s not the rubble of a post-world war city, the London he speculates on is post-Tory government, post-Brexit, post-any kind of safe future for its young people. The themes of control, youthful rebellion and a city as a character in itself draw big similarities with the Akira we know. Speaking with Dazed, he explained how it delved into “how we all live under this blanket of fear, this indiscriminate fear which causes us to be controlled”.
An accompanying video puts the visuals to work, referencing the bar the gangs gather in.” I always wondered if there was a club in that bar, what music they would play – sonically that’s how the sound was influenced. I linked that to my own experience as a fiend of the night,” he said. Would Gaika, be a Clown, or a Capsule?
The late icon’s duet with his sister Janet is a cathartic, vocal cord-snapping screech of frustration and aggression following the ruthless tabloid coverage of Jackson’s child abuse accusations back in 1993. The video was one of the most expensive in history, zooming in at $7million to create. Directed by Mark Romanek, the scene follows the Jackson siblings as they travel on a spaceship through a futuristic dystopia. Filmed in black and white, scenes could be snipped and stuck onto the storyboard of an anime. And while also referencing the work of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack, Jackson also includes footage of Akira. Specifically, a scene where Tetsuo falls from a military laboratory. Maybe, as the main character was engulfed by his growing powers and a military that wanted to contain him, Jackson was consumed by his own actions and a media frenzy.
Synth-pop duo Crater harness their dark, ambient concoction of electronica in an aural homage to the cyber-anime. Stifling, distorted samples overlay a walking, synthy bassline in “No Paradise”: one could be staring at the ceiling from Tetsuo’s hospital bed as robots work around him, or staring into the neon streetlights of the deserted Japanese streets, with the laughter of approaching youths ringing off the chrome buildings.
The Toronto-based producer released a sonic tribute to the film via the Scottish label LuckyMe, with LP Capsule’s Pride. It originally began as a playful project that cut up bits of Akira’s dialogue, before growing into the production that incorporates the music, voices and sound effects of the original show. While still wandering the lines of techno and ambient electronic beats, Bwana takes us on a hypnotic journey through the neon streets of neo-Tokyo, with tracks like “Akira’s Light” and “Kiyoko's Vision” adopting syncopated drum beats that echo the firey motorcycle engines, and rising and falling synths that chart Tetsuo’s break. What could be straight-up nostalgia instead reinvents the seminal piece, reimagining a new, urgent world within the cuts of Akira.