Akira is a landmark of animation and one of the most influential films of all time. Set in a dystopian future, the film follows the story of Kaneda—leader of a biker gang in the futuristic city of Neo-Tokyo.

When it was released in 1988, Akira was like nothing the world had seen before. Chaotic, violent and relentlessly kinetic, the film elevated the craft of animation to new heights. It triggered an explosion of interest in manga, anime and Japanese popular culture throughout the western world, and influenced countless works of animation, comics, film, music, television and video games.

As The Japan Times recently summarised, ‘Without Akira there would be no ‘Cool Japan’.”

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Two layered cels and a background from the film.

But like many great masterpieces, Akira came from humble beginnings. Before it was a ground-breaking film, Akira was a simple black and white comic—and its creator Katsuhiro Otomo had no expectations it would become anything more.

“I remember from the first meeting with the publisher for Akira that it would only be like ten episodes or something like that, so quite short and would be done quickly. So I really wasn’t expecting it to be a success at all when I started it.”

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A panel from the original manga.

Otomo’s low expectations extended to the film as well.

“Actually, when I saw the first rush of the movie I thought it would be a failure. I left the theatre very quickly and came back home to tell my wife that the movie was a failure. It made me feel miserable. However, when Shoji Yamashiro did the remake with 5 channel audio, he invited me over and showed me the movie again. So this was a very long time since I had seen the movie back when it was released. Maybe time had made me softer but when I saw it again I thought that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.”

Every one of the 172,000 frames of the film was hand drawn. As these early pencil tests show, speed and dynamism were key to its aesthetic.

“Producing animation is very similar to making a live-action film. I used the techniques and forms best suited to my purposes: cinematic styles, building up speed, cutting and editing.”

Because each scene featured multiple layers of animation the studio assembled a team of 68 key animators to bring the ambitious story to life.

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Many of the films scenes were made up of several layers which were animated independently.

Working with a team of this size required some adjustments for the unassuming Otomo.

“To work alone is both harder and easier. There’s nothing fabulous about drawing comic books. When you finish, you’re relieved and happy, but it’s the middle of the night and there is no one to share your joy with. With filmmaking you have a party with your crew and then the premiere. All that stuff you miss when you just draw manga. But there are drawbacks to filmmaking too: sometimes it’s really difficult to get your ideas across to your crew for example. But it’s true that I’ve discovered the joy in working with other people.”

Akira’s world was unique, but it was also deeply rooted in reality.

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A background depiction of Neo Tokyo.

“I wanted to revive a Japan like the one I grew up in after the Second World War, with a government in difficulty, a world being rebuilt, external political pressures, an uncertain future and a gang of kids left to fend for themselves who cheat boredom by racing on motorbikes. It is extremely difficult to express the depth of such a vast city. In the comic, I used each issue to build more depth and size. But in a film, you get to combine this all into one. It’s much more convincing… I could really create the type of environment that I wanted to depict.”

This environment was also heavily inspired by Moebius, the French creator of sci-fi comics like the Silver Surfer who also produced concept art for Alien, The Fifth Element and The Abyss.

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Voyage d’Hermès by Moebius, one of the artists who inspired Akira.

“At the time, manga was confined to the real, the everyday, the concrete, the social. Everyone used lots of frames and sombre compositions. The clear yet very expressive and detailed line of Moebius was a real revelation. A fantastical universe like that pushed us out of our routines. We took it as an invitation to immerse ourselves in new worlds, to open up fresh artistic perspectives.”

Other contemporary sci-fi was also an inspiration.

“In terms of Kaneda’s bike in Akira, the initial inspiration was the lightcycles from Tron designed by Syd Mead. However, they are wide, so I halved them and used that as an initial basis.”

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A "lightcycle" from the movie Tron.

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An early sketch of Kaneda's bike in Akira.

Unlike typical manga which exaggerates the size of eyes, the characters in Akira had much more “normal” features.

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Left: Goku from Dragonball-Z. Right: Kaneda from Akira.

“I try to draw things as true as possible, without falling into mannerism. Manga these days is drawn with predetermined symbols that people just arrange on the page. That’s not really drawing, I don’t think someone can make any real breakthroughs that way. I think it’s important to actually look at things and draw them. My style took shape naturally by observing things.”

Otomo has this advice for anyone who wants to draw like him:

“All you have to do is buckle down while you’re young and draw as much as you can, and you’ll get really good at it. You keep correcting yourself a little bit at a time, so your work really changes. Eventually you hit a point where you feel really free, like you can draw anything the way you want. Drawing for a long time helps you see things you didn’t see before, in terms of composition, in terms of poses.”

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Katsuhiro Otomo in his studio.

Despite his success, Otomo remains unconcerned about his legacy.

“I don’t really mind how people regard me. I should do what I want and not repeat myself. I don’t mind what others think of me or my work. I don’t think there is anything to gain from that for me. What I hate most is to stay stuck in the same spot. Finding something that you think is interesting and making it for yourself: that’s the starting point for people like me.”