The camera looks down on an expressway from a great height and follows its course by gradually panning horizontally. In addition to the houses along the street, more and more houses become visible until a high-rise cluster becomes visible in the distance, until the city on the horizon blurs into the hazy blue sky. The skyscrapers mark Shinjuku, the famous district of Tokyo, outshone by neon signs, in which the Japanese obsession with the future has taken shape.
And then a huge explosion rips the tranquil picture apart. This is what happens in the film, entitled Akira, a Japanese animation film or quintessential animation film that has defined this all-Japanese genre of “anime” since its release in 1988.
What forms the background of an action for which the overused adjective “dystopian” actually applies is the city, Tokyo before the imagined mega-explosion as well as after the subsequent reconstruction as “Neo Tokyo”.
That doesn’t make a big difference, because from the point of view of the filmmakers – and not just the animation filmmakers – Tokyo has always had the character of the hyperreal, of what is actually still to come and what has already happened, a hybrid state in which everything is possible and everything possible as well is likely.
The background drawings for “Akira”, i.e. the city scenes, can now be seen on the basis of 59 originals in the Museum of Architectural Drawings of the Tchoban Foundation. They are images on paper, drawn and colored by human hands; no computer could possibly achieve this surreal touch.
Among them is the scenery described at the beginning as a particularly impressive sheet: While the camera seems to wander into the distance, it actually scans the probably one meter high, incredibly detailed drawing without the viewer recognizing the trick.
For the 124-minute feature film, if you include all the preliminary and intermediate stages, around 120,000 drawings had to be made, which are spread over 2,200 shots. Sometimes several backgrounds have to be superimposed to create spatial depth; and in the foreground, drawn on foil, are the moving images of the characters involved, for example how they are chasing through the night-dark and at the same time neon-lit city in their vehicles.
The nature of such a complicated arrangement is made clear by a box in the exhibition, in which several backgrounds are clamped, those in front of the last one are cut out and mounted on transparent foil. The actual protagonist is missing: For copyright reasons, none of the people and therefore no consequences of the action can be found in the Museum am Pfefferberg. But it’s not about them either, it’s about the specific image of the city.
This is due to a remarkable extent to the visions that Japanese architecture has produced. Central is Kenzo Tange, the architect of the 1964 Olympic Stadium and adjacent structures, which first embodied post-war modern Japan. Tange had proposed a “structural reorganization” plan for Tokyo before the Olympics were built, which would build the city – the modern city, that is – on artificial islands in the sea bay, free from the constraints of the traditional structure.
Tange later designed Tokyo Prefecture’s administrative building, long the record-holder in Japan at 243 meters high – and under construction during the filming of “Akira”. Tange’s skyscraper is of course in Shinjuku.
Exhibition curator Stefan Riekeles, who has devoted himself to Japanese animation films for years, was able to borrow the drawings from their authors – above all Toshiharu Mizutani as the film’s art director and Hiroshi Ono as one of its most important artists. A total of around 20 artists were busy with the background images.
Once completed, the drawings were nothing more than a mountain of scrap paper for the production company; the draftsmen were allowed to use it, most of it was simply destroyed. A drawing was included with each copy of the VHS edition of the film “Akira” as proof of authenticity; today of course a rarity and sought after by anime fans.
“Neo Tokyo” is created in the film on the bay, as architect Tange had planned. It was a strange coincidence that the time of the new Olympic Games in Tokyo for the year 2020, as conceived in the film, actually happened. The games were not awarded until 2013. At the end of the film, Neo Tokyo is also destroyed.
The fascination with the architecture of the future goes hand in hand with the expectation of its demise. Nevertheless, drawings remain of a peculiar beauty that surpasses all reality.