30 years on, animation classic Akira is still inspiring artists around the world

In celebration of the anime classic's 30th anniversary, we look at Akira tribute projects from around the globe, and how the film still inspires creators to this day.

It's been 30 years since the release of Katsuhiro Ōtomo's anime classic Akira, the cyberpunk tale of biker gangs, telekinesis and a post-apocalyptic Tokyo city. The film looked and felt like nothing else at the time, and is to this day a stunning tour de force of animation, music and even adaptation, distilling the original multi-volume manga by the director into 124 minutes of dystopian delirium.

No surprise then that three decades on and Akira is still inspiring artists across a variety of fields, with 2018 seeing some intriguing tributes to the movie from illustrators and designers alike. We've seen film studio Post Panic reference the film in their award winning short  A Report Of Connected Events, with Kaneda's bike lurking in the background (check here for the full film and a VFX breakdown of the CGI motorcycle). A more recent example that will please Akira heads is this mock sleeve design for the film's stunning soundtrack, as designed by Italian Luca Longobardi.

Speaking with us about his record sleeve, Luca explains Akira's hold on him as an artist. Interestingly, the original manga has its own part to play in the story.

"The project was born after reading the complete work by the master mangaka Katsuhiro Ōtomo, republished in Italy in six volumes of about 400 pages each. When I was a child I was passionate about the animated version, but I had no idea how it represented only a small part compared to the paper version.

"When the film recently turned 30 years after its release, it was rereleased in some cinemas in my country with a new dubbing, and I decided to go and watch it again. The animated version, which before reading the manga seemed cryptic to me, this time was enlightening and also made me dwell on the power of the soundtrack made by Geinoh Yamashirogumi."

That soundtrack was rereleased by film music giants Milan Records last year, but we love Luca's stripped down take on the sleeve, which differs from this version and the original Japanese release with its focus on type.

"As a graphic designer I decided to realise my idea of a limited edition that would differ from the official releases produced so far, including the one from Milan Records. As a result, I made an artwork concentrating mainly on the typographic part, combining it with two images taken from the manga, trying to restore the dystopian tone present in Ōtomo's work", he explains.

That simple, brutal backbone to the manga is in raw effect on the sleeve, reflecting Luca's love of the stark aesthetic and power of both film and book by Ōtomo.

"The motivations are simple, its communicative power has always fascinated and excited me for the message that the author has decided to transmit to us.

"Moreover, both the manga and the anime have been realised with a crazy care for the drawings that page after page and frame after frame are able to give the work a unique character of its kind," he continues. "Each of us should be aware of and enjoy the timeless beauty of this masterpiece."

Someone who'd agree with Luca is US-based concept artist Gus Mendonca, who created a stunning 3D visualisation of Akira protagonist Tetsuo earlier this year. Like Luca's vinyl sleeve, the work is a passion project, but could be a nice bit of concept art should the much-mooted live adaptation ever take off the ground. But what does Tetsuo mean to the artist personally, and why did he depict this particular image for his piece?

"I find Tetsuo an incredibly interesting and tragic character that harkens back to some of the classical elements of Greek tragedy," Gus tells me by email. "Watching his powers grow and slowly destroy his mind and body is a powerful experience to say the least, especially because Katsuhiro Ōtomo does such a masterful job with the presentation of his character allowing the viewer to see him as a real three-dimensional character with grounded and believable virtues and flaws.

"I have always been fascinated by the psychological aspects of characters and their struggles to come to grips with power and its corrupting influence, so when I decided to create an Akira homage I knew Tetsuo would be the focus of it."

The art was created over a couple of evenings during the 4th of July holiday in the US, just in time to mark the film's original July release in Japan.

"In my gut, I knew I wanted to create an image that symbolised the rebirth of Tetsuo, and that decision led me to create this visual representation of Tetsuo’s rebirth with him being 'born' out of this mechanical tunnel inspired by Brutalist architecture," Gus explains.

"I was also looking at medical illustrations of internal organs and started to create a simplified directional pattern for the mechanical pipes based on those.

"The other hidden visual cue in this piece is the two overlapping circles (one created by the energy sphere around Tetsuo and the second by the entrance of the tunnel) that together create the infinity symbol as a way to communicate the potential of the power Tetsuo is channeling. Fans of the anime will remember Doctor Onishi’s remarks about the power of Akira as well as the spherical UI interface that showed the viewers the growth of Tetsuo’s powers."

The piece is a mix of 2D and 3D, which Gus set about with by first making a loose thumbnail sketch on a Post-It note.

"After that, I created a black and white character sketch in Adobe Photoshop and from there I started to block out the scene in Maya. Those elements were done on the first evening I worked on the piece and the second and final evening was focused on modelling the environment and the Tetsuo character in Maya and Z-Brush respectively. After the models were 'done' I did a quick lighting pass in Maya and created a 4K render that I painted over in Photoshop."

For Gus, the experience of making this homage was "incredibly fun and humbling", and a nice love letter to his beloved anime.

"I love the believable and gritty look of Akira and Ōtomo has always been a huge influence on me even though I don’t necessarily try to emulate his style," he says. "To me, Ōtomo’s work is a representation of excellence and that is something that I always aspire to achieve.

"It formed my understanding of a benchmark for artistic excellence that I constantly try to bring to my work no matter the subject matter. I try to focus on the the foundation of his work as well as the work discipline and dedication that goes into it. In many ways, it represents my artistic true north.

"I was born around the same time the anime was released so I ended up watching Akira for the first time when I was a teenager," Gus recounts. "I lived in Brazil at the time and I think it took several years for the anime to be released there. I just remember being completely blown away by it. I had seen nothing quite like it then nor since.

"It hit all the right notes for me," he gushes. "I loved the characters, the world building, the action, drama and particularly all of the surreal elements of it. The music of Akira also had a huge impact on me and in my opinion, it still holds up today.  I was actually listening to the soundtrack the entire time I worked on my illustration. I just love that musical style."

Music plays a key role in the Akira legacy, and a 'synthwave' tribute to the soundtrack from this year saw a great cover based on a poster by Brazilian artist Lucas Mendonça (no relation) which is imbued with a lovely 'manga paper' feel. Check out Lucas' rendition of Akira and Tetsuo in full, grainy glory below.

"The rivalry and complicity between the two characters is very unique, so I decided to use them in my artwork, says Lucas, who says the film will "always be one of (his) greatest inspirations."

Another artist inspired enough by the film to make a personal tribute project is US illustrator Ash Thorp, who collaborated with China's Xiaolin Zeng on the gorgeous Awaken Akira short, a one minute CGI piece made from glimpses of objects, symbols and buildings from the film set to some heart pounding music. The work acts like a post-modern tribute to the original animation, and is full of references only fans will recognise that stand in a kind of ceremonial, deconstructionist light.

"Our goal with Awaken Akira was to pay homage to a piece of our childhood that was very special to us," says Ash on the project's Behance page.

"We had to be very cautious of not breaking the rules of the world and playing within its creative boundaries yet elevating the art form. I feel that we were able to pay homage yet give it a new voice by translating the art form to CGI.

"(But) instead of trying a CGI route, we decided to use in-camera effects to symbolise the metamorphosis of Tetsuo."

Speaking to Digital Arts about Akira's impact on him as an artist, Ash's thoughts chime in with the other creators who've paid homage to the anime this year.

"The first time I saw Akira, it really and truly shook me to the core as a creative person," he tells us.

"The level of craft and detail combined with a relatable yet abstract world, showed me that a whole other reality could exist within the world of art.

"Akira helped define me as a creative, and I reflect on it throughout my life as a touchstone of quality and overall level of craft," he concludes.

Three decades on, Akira's star shows no sign of abating, and no doubt its influence will be seen over the next 30 years. Who knows, maybe we'll even see something Akira-related pop up at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics; after all, the event was foretold by both the film and the original 1982 manga, somehow.

Read next: This fantastic short film from Post Panic is packed with hidden TV and film references like Akira

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