Akira Limited Edition 4K Review
While I’m sure many of you don’t need a detailed breakdown of Akira, I will obviously cover the basics. It started out life as a manga written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo, though the film does diverge from the manga quite quickly, especially in the latter half. Releasing in 1988, Akira was the most expensive anime movie ever made at the time but due to the sheer quality, it wasn’t long making that money back.
Set in the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world of Neo-Tokyo in 2019 (they weren’t far off correctly predicting 2019 being post-apocalypse, to be fair…) Akira focuses on a biker gang led by Shotaro Kaneda, and perhaps more significantly, his friend Tetsuo Shima, who, while fighting with a rival gang, crashes his bike when a child-sized old man runs across the road. The old man, Takashi, is an Esper who was being experimented on by the Neo-Tokyo government, and unfortunately for Tetsuo, the experience awakes psychic powers in him too, leading to his capture along with Takashi. At the same time, Kaneda and his gang are arrested but manage to get free and meet up with a lady named Kei and her activist group…
This is where the film starts rocketing forward into the cool and the surreal, as we get plenty of cyberpunk action alongside Tetsuo discovering his psychic powers and having odd visions. I won’t explain any further just on the off-chance this will be your first time with this classic, but it gets grander and weirder and a little bit gross before the film’s climax. Full of stunning animation and an amazing, often tribal soundtrack by Shoji Yamashiro and Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira still lives up to the high bar it set, even a year after the future date in which the film was set.
So now we get to the big question: what about the 4K transfer? Well, for starters, it somehow completely lacks the HDR featured in the Japanese release, something you can read more about by looking at our news article HERE. This is obviously a major issue, given it’s one of the few things something animated can benefit from on a 4K release, lacking the kind of background detail a live action film or TV show on 4K disc can otherwise benefit from. I will say that while the original Blu-ray had overly soft colours which made even the blacks sometimes seem grey, the 4K print has much better colour levels, with things like the light trails of the bikes and the neon blaring colours (in SDR…) while keeping the black area around them still dark, but there is still a softness to a lot of the picture’s colour. There is a lack of film grain in a lot of the picture as well, due to an overuse of DNR I imagine, though it bothers me slightly less with animation over live action film, given the grittier nature of Akira, it does seem like an odd decision. There are obviously zero compression artefacts, the 4K disc has no need for anything like that (though a few old frame imperfections remain on screen now and again), but in general given the lack of HDR it doesn’t seem like a massive leap from the Blu-ray, more just “a bit better.”
The soundtrack on the other hand is noticeably better in all areas here. I don’t even have the best sound system but I can tell how much clearer it is and how much more oomph the music has. Both the original 1989 English dub and the more recent dub from 2001 are featured here, alongside the original Japanese version with the accurate subtitles that were finally added to the 25th anniversary release. The original Japanese version and the 2001 dub feature Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound (with the ’89 dub receiving Dolby TrueHD 2.0), so the audio mix is definitely the most noticeably improved thing about the 4K release, again owing to the complete lack of any compression and what was presumably just a general remixing of the sound levels. Obviously purists will lament the loss of the original Japanese 2.0 mix, but I did enjoy the new version immensely.
What do you get in your 4K Collectors set? Well, quite a lot! The new extras including a further look at the soundtrack, specifically the remaking for this 4K release done in 2019, the end credits for the 1998 theatrical re-release, and more trailers than you can shake a stick at. This goes along with the extras that were included on the Blu-ray release (both discs of which are included in this set), which include interviews, features (including more features on the soundtrack… can’t blame them!), storyboards and yet more trailers and adverts. Alongside all this is a physical 40-page booklet which includes “‘The Energy Of Akira Stimulates The Human Mind’ by Ryusuke Hikawa, ‘The Music of Akira Continues to Evolve’ by Reiji Asakura, a round table interview with the Japanese cast and sound director, and ‘Timeline of Events in Akira’.” according to Manga Entertainment (a book wasn’t provided with the review discs, but I see no reason why this line up of book features would change!)
So for 4K collectors, you get a lot of stuff, but the main event will fall short of expectation, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the Japanese 4K release earlier in the year. There are still moments of “wow” and the sound side of the release is top-notch, so I’m willing to bet most people wouldn’t even notice the lack of HDR and the softer colours (though people who buy 4K releases are likely to be the more extreme end of the perfectionist market to begin with, so…), and putting a screen from this 4K next to the Blu-ray release will still show this is a better transfer, but there really isn’t any excuse for us on this side of the world to end up with a lesser release. Given 8K, if it ever comes home, will require such massive TVs at entry level that many living rooms and bedrooms won’t have the space for them, combined with the declining sales of physical media, this 4K release may well end up being the final physical release Akira gets, and in that sense, it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a true, 4K experience with it…