Akira. A lot gets said about it. Words like definitive, ground-breaking and brilliant get bandied around all over the place like bullets in a John Woo movie whenever it’s mentioned. And rightly so. It was a movie that left a huge, meteoric impact crater on the grown-up, film going, cross cultural psyche that some people, myself included, will never quite get over.
The interesting thing about it however, is that over a decade later it has lost none of its power to impress. Watching it again, I still got goosebumps. It still has the power to awe me, even on the small screen. Visually, it’s a feast, more so now that it’s been cleaned up. My own old copy resembles Neo-Tokyo in winter — snow everywhere — but I never realised how much detail I was missing until I saw the Special Edition. I found myself writing “It’s SO CLEAR” in the margins of my review notes and eventually ended up abandoning taking notes altogether because I just couldn’t concentrate enough to write anything. I was mesmerised on almost all levels. The sound quality is astonishing, equally as clear as the animation. The music practically soars again and the overall improved quality in sound effects makes the whole experience just that much more tactile. The technical remastering of this film was such an improvement as to be bordering on religious experience and worth every effort.
But what of the other changes? The first time I watched the SE version, I had to contend with my younger and equally otaku sister’s running commentary bemoaning the numerous alterations — some seemingly arbitrary, others quite obviously functional — that had been made to the dialogue. A lot of the voices are different for a start. Kaneda has lost a little of his attitude, grown up a little and (thankfully) Tetsuo doesn’t whine quite so much. The voices of the three children now actually sound like children and the general and sundry, badly characterised voices (the Government Boardroom scene being perhaps the worst culprit in this category) have been normalised to a much more human level.
But that’s just the beginning. There are not only quite significant changes to the timbre and personalities of the characters’ voices, but much of what they have to say has been changed too. Out is the over-abundance of assorted grunts, growls, gasps and groans etc. In is more contemporary slang (‘old man’ not ‘pops’ thanks very much), more straightforward jargon (and just when my coils were reaching the green line…) and the proper pronunciation of everyone’s names (okay so maybe that’s not that important but I always like to hear properly pronounced names).
Added to this, the fact that they changed the dialogue actually adds to the story, making it possible to read a little deeper into the characters. This struck me most in the smaller scenes, like when, having been disciplined for spending the night in lock-up, the subject of the missing, injured Tetsuo comes up amongst the gang members. Kaneda, instead of cursing him for an idiot with obvious contempt in the old version, sounds more like he actually cares about Tetsuo and just can’t say it out loud in front of his gang.
Previously, Kaneda’s regard towards the younger man bordered on cruel. And considering how annoying Tetsuo really was, that was okay. But the new Tetsuo is much more likeable, his motivations a little more clear and his mental degradation as his psychic powers get out of hand a lot more believable. Kaneda’s relationship with him is given a long needed boost also. Now it’s a little easier to see the big-brotherly affection he has for the younger man, making his desire to save him, even from his own out of control powers, much more believable.
What dialogue was retained from the original version is given slightly more weight but on close examination, there’s actually little of it left, having been re-translated from the original Japanese screenplay. So a lot has been altered, in degrees varying from single words to entire scenes (or parts thereof). From the point of view of someone who didn’t mind that the storyline was vague and open to a great deal of interpretation, it’s not as cerebral a film now. However that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. If you are watching it for the first time you’re not going to experience quite the same level of ‘What the-?’ as those who grew up on the 1988 version did. If you did cut your anime teeth on the original version, you probably won’t even notice the script changes unless you know the original film word for word (like my sister) or go to the trouble of comparing the two films scene by scene (like I did, just out of masochistic curiosity). The changes made to the dialogue are in delivery, not meaning.
Which is acceptable (unless you’re a purist) and just as well. I for one would have been placard waving in violent street demonstrations if the changes initiated in SE had compromised the film or the characters and their relationships in any way. As it is, the producers in charge of the remastering have respected everything that Akira was about, both technically and conceptually. They have been given the power to go back and fix things that perhaps don’t work anymore or indeed that never really worked for most people to start with, an awesome and frightening power in the wrong hands. Yes the original Akira will always hold a special, sentimental place in my heart, but Akira Special Edition is an example of what can be achieved when the power of THX is given to those capable of using it for good and not evil.