I saw this film when it originally came out in the US back in 1989. I was in my late teens early 20's when I saw it…it was in a limited release in NYC that I went with my boyfriend at the time. When it was over, neither of us could speak since we were both trying to piece together what it was we saw. For me, what was going through my mind was that I saw one of the most amazing films ever, not just in anime but in film in general.
Any film that can stun you into silence while you meditated on its meaning, its significance to film in general is to me a religious experience. I'm envious of those who are experiencing this great film for the first time. You may not understand the ending's meaning at first...after numerous viewings you can piece together something but still come away thinking about it. Did Tetsuo become a god? Maybe. Maybe not. But he made the transformation into a "higher being" or entity, becoming a part of something far greater than what he ever was as a mortal human. Was that what he was secretly wishing for all along? That's one of the questions this film asks its audience. What is our purpose here? What are we really made of and what are we capable of if something in us became altered either naturally or by scientific interference. Man tries to manipulate or change nature and gets royally fucked in the bargain. There's a lot of different ideas that the film throws at you. In the manga, there's a ton more.
The shot of Kaneda catching Tetsuo's spirit spark in cupped hands and holds it for a moment before finally going out, was a beautiful shot that remembering it brings a little tear to my eyes. It's a powerful image and a bittersweet one. He lost his friend, he couldn't save him, but perhaps he got something far greater in return in the end. A part of Tetsuo will remain with Kaneda forever. Did Tetsuo become immortal? Yes, he did. To Kaneda, he did at least. It was when my father passed away last August it made me think about this theme again. About the nature of immortality and whether or not that concept truly exists. It goes back to the Buddhist concept of transcendence at the time of death. But perhaps others may look at this differently. But a way we can understand many anime films, or any film for that matter, is try to dig deeply into the culture of who created the film, to a situation that caused the filmmaker or writer to look at,and react to, the world around him..
The very last frame with the V.O "I am Tetsuo" sent shivers down my spine. And still does to this day every time I few it. This film is one of the world's greatest. Not only is it one of my all time favorite anime films but one of the greatest films of ALL TIME. One piece of trivia I learned a while back was that Otomo was still publishing the manga at the time he was working on the film and he didn't have an ending for the manga yet. So for the film he had to come up with one that would work within the context of the script he wrote for the film. I recently just re-brought the manga series so I'll be able to reread it and know if the manga ended the same as the anime. Somehow I doubt it. The manga had so much to the story and far more elements came into play that the film hints at but because of time doesn't expand on.
I don't really have a solid explanation for what the ending is supposed to mean. Like any great film, everyone is going to read different things into it. As I continue to study the Japanese language, I'm also trying to study and understand Japanese culture and their religion, which is mostly Shinto and Buddhism. So just based on that, their concepts of spirituality will be very different from the Judeo-Christian beliefs. I believe that a hint to the film's meaning can be found with Buddhism and bringing those ideas within the context of Akira. One of the themes of the story is that it makes a statement about the role religion plays, or how much of a role it should play and how cults emerge in the wake of religious fanaticism. That's a concept you don't think of with something logical like Buddhism. But the world of Akira was so chaotic and uncertain it created the right atmosphere for a group to worship Akira as a god or messiah. I think the manga goes into more detail about this but I read it so long ago I know I'll have to read it.
It makes me very happy and excited that you guys watched this film and enjoyed it. I'm kind of jealous of you getting to see it for the first time. It's a religious experience to see a classic of the genre like this. Akira came out long before Ghost in the Shell but in its own way Akira asks similar questions as GITS did but in different contexts. A year or two ago, my partner bought me the blu-ray release of it, the Funi version actually. He hadn't seen it and I was very interested to see what he would think of it. Much to my delight, he loved it!!! :) This one will give you lots to ponder over. Give yourselves a few days to weeks, maybe a little longer than that and then watch it again and see if you pick up something new than from the first time you watched it. Every time I've sat down with it I notice something else, get a new idea. It's really that kind of film.