Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated masterpiece has been re-released into cinemas to celebrate its 25th anniversary. I saw it on its original UK theatrical run in 1991 on a trip to the cinema that blew my mind.
I knew almost nothing about it, other than the fact that it was a) Japanese and b) based on a comic book. I didn’t know if it was good or bad because no mainstream publications had reviewed it. I hadn’t seen any clips from it as it was too niche to make it onto UK television and there was no such thing as the Internet, so it was impossible to even know what it looked like. Manga and anime were a long way from achieving a tangible presence in the UK.
It was on in only in a handful of arthouse cinemas nationwide and the ICA was one of them. A life-changing trip to Japan a few years earlier had tattooed onto my brain the notion that Anything Japanese = Good, so I decided that I had to see the film at any and all costs.
Being that I was 14 years old and couldn’t convince any of my other friends to go and see it, I was chaperoned by my mum, a wonderful woman with exquisite tastes but not the sort of person you’d usually take to see an obscure cyperpunk anime.
We took our seats, the lights dimmed and what followed was two of the most incredible hours of my life.
I still get chills thinking about it even now. The opening seconds of the film, depicting the swift, silent annihilation of Tokyo before the viewer hears the ominous thuds of a Taiko drum, left me awestruck and spellbound. The film had me there and then. All I could do was hang on for the ride.
When I think back to watching that film for the first time, I think of a string of moments unlike I’d anything I’d ever seen. I remember seeing the motorbike light trails during the bike chase which starts the film proper, marvelling at how they could have accomplished such a thing using hand-drawn animation.
I remember hearing the bizarre, esoteric soundtrack which stayed with me for days afterward, and which was the subject of frenzied scanning of import CDs at HMV and Tower Records in the West End.
I remember the short, brutal bursts of violence (which made my mum gasp audibly in the cinema) and more than anything I remember practically hearing my pupils dilating and my mouth opening agape during the film’s spectacular, horrifying climax.
Because I had no idea what to expect, what I ended up being given blew my mind.
Discovering an entire story, a whole world and a cast of characters from scratch was one of the most rewarding narrative experiences I have ever had. And it’s one I’ve had very rarely since.
Nowadays, bombarded by trailers, TV spots and publicity campaigns, you can see the choicest morsels from an entire film before it even arrives in theatres. But because it was 1991, I was living in an age long before the advent of YouTube, smartphones and viral marketing. I went in cold, and Akira swept me up and whisked me away.
Steven Spielberg once talked about his impressions of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey at the cinema. He has never taken drugs in his life, he said, but that movie gave him a profound, psychedelic experience.
At age 14, I stumbled, dazed and blinking out of the cinema, my equally gob-smacked mum in tow. I had no idea what I had just seen, but I did have the feeling that, probably, it was The Most Awesome Thing Ever. It was my 2001.
Hopefully anyone reading this has some idea of what I’m talking about. I have watched the film many, many times since, but nothing will replace the magic of that night at the ICA 22 years ago.