Akira 2009 Remaster for the Bluray Edition

AKIRA - Behind the Remaster

Bandai Entertainment By: Jeff Kleist, Contributor to Blu-ray.com

AKIRA was a groundbreaking film that brought Japanese animation (anime) into the mainstream American consciousness upon its release in 1988. An entire generation who had grown up on "Space Battleship Yamato" ("Starblazers"), or "Macross" ("Robotech") were ready for something new and different. Combined with the newly ubiquitous VCR and video rental store, AKIRA quickly became the cult classic that defined anime fandom for the next decade. AKIRA was so popular, in fact, that even the Japanese making-of documentary special, “AKIRA Production Report,” was given a separate and highly publicized release. It remains the only film that Carl Macek, of Robotech fame, ever released in a subtitled VHS version through his US Based video company, Streamline Pictures.

After Streamline folded, the ill-fated Orion Pictures acquired their catalog and were subsequently bought by MGM. This resulted in an almost 4 year period where AKIRA and many other titles were simply not available for purchase in the United States. Fortunately, Pioneer acquired the film's rights and partnered with Bandai Visual to restore and re dub the film for a major re-release in 2001. High definition rights to AKIRA stayed with the AKIRA Production Committee; for the film's 20th anniversary, AKIRA has been restored to the highest level of quality and, subsequently, to Blu-ray Disc by Bandai Visual.

For the uninitiated, AKIRA is, at its heart, a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and the folly of human stubbornness. As humans, we insist on flirting with disaster; touching the stove even though we know it's hot, because maybe, just maybe this time it might not burn us quite as badly. AKIRA takes that trait to the next level. Thirty years after a mysterious explosion that set off a third World War, Neo-Tokyo has been built on the ashes of the old. The rich are richer, the poor poorer, and a totalitarian government has dominated virtually every aspect of daily life. Motorcycle gangs and revolutionaries cause daily destruction, leaving the entire city on the verge of exploding. The fuse is lit when Tetsuo, lifelong friend of Kaneda and the runt of his motorcycle gang, almost hits a strange albino boy with his motorcycle. Government agents show up seconds later, and ship him off to a secret facility where he discovers he has tremendous untapped power, and a mysterious predecessor named Akira.

Made for a then-record $10 million US dollars, AKIRA bucked many of the prevalent cost-saving trends in anime at the time by using an unprecedented 300+ colors for the film's cel-work and pre-recording the dialog so that the animation could be tailored to the performances. Two techniques that would later become standard tools in the animator's arsenal also made their Japanese-animated feature-film debut with AKIRA: Computer animation checking and graphics. For the first time, animators could scan their sketches into the computer and check them on the spot to see how closely they matched the dialog. In the film, computer animated spectroscopic graphics that display the character's psychic power profiles in the government lab, rather than being a mere gimmick, play an important part of the story, viscerally illustrating the rise of Tetsuo's power, and the march toward a potential second Armageddon.

Based on the graphic novel “AKIRA” by Katsuhiro Otomo, first published by “Young Magazine”, Kodansha Ltd.
© 1988 MASHROOM / AKIRA COMMITTEE All Rights Reserved.

Of course, this would not be the first or the last time that the behind-the- scenes story of AKIRA and new technology would be indelibly intertwined. As we've seen with many Hollywood titles, Blu-ray gives content producers the opportunity to produce near-theatrical quality archival masters of their work; Masters that can stand the test of time. It was in the planning stages for bringing AKIRA to Blu-ray, that composer Shoji Yamashiro proposed taking the format to its limits by including a 192khz/24-bit audio track that would allow viewers to experience the full warmth and detail of the original recordings. After much debate, the decision was made to move forward.

Unfortunately, there were no available studios with the ability to master at this level of fidelity, and many of their sound systems could not reliably reproduce the dynamic range of sound that Shoji Yamashiro wanted to bring to the front during the re mastering process. As a result, the soundtrack's re-mastering was done at Mr. Yamashiro's own studio, equipped with the best equipment available, and the original analog master tapes were brought out from storage. These tapes were then transferred and mixed using the 2001 restoration as a reference.

Jun Takei, a producer at Bandai that has been at the helm of many of their Blu-ray releases, was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule and describe his work on restoring the film for Blu-ray. Even though AKIRA had major restoration work done for the 2001 DVD release, including a 1080p theatrical quality master, advances in digital restoration and film transfer technologies have increased to the point where a brand new transfer was warranted. As with the audio, a new inter-positive was struck from the original film negative for a new scan into a digital intermediate (DI); the master computer file upon which all of the remastering work was performed.

One of the biggest hurdles for any restoration project is budgetary in nature. Not only do technicians have to be paid, but equipment must be purchased or time in a facility rented. None of this is cheap, and the budget for AKIRA was larger than any previous Bandai Visual production. Traditionally, animation starts life as a series of pencil drawings that are transferred to a sheet of plastic called a “cel,” which is then painted and photographed. These days, the artwork is scanned into a computer and painted digitally. Before each cel is put into place, the background is wiped, and after the cel is put into place, it is also wiped to remove dust, hairs and other debris. Unfortunately this is not always as successful as one would like and Modern re-mastering techniques not only have to compensate for wear and tear on the negative itself, but have to deal with artifacts that were actually shot onto the camera negative itself.

After an automated pass, where the computer identifies what it believes to be print damage or debris and then eliminates it, the real work begins. Mr. Takei feels it is very important to maintain the character of the original film and the warmth of hand-painted animation. Even though modern audiences have grown used to computer painted animation it is very easy to go overboard during the cleaning process in an attempt to come closer to that look and feel, as has been the case with some Hollywood films where processing and noise reduction has been used to excess. Subsequently, AKIRA was given a thorough color correction and Mr. Takei believes the restoration team has gotten very close to the luster of the original animation cels, restoring the picture to a condition that allows AKIRA to be experienced as its creators had intended.

Both the audio and video teams worked on AKIRA concurrently. The film's dense aesthetic and cutting edge soundtrack, proved to be a major challenge for the compression team. Constant communication was required to make sure that they not only stayed within Blu-ray's 48 mbps maximum combined bitrate requirement, but that the final product would actually fit onto a normally spacious BD-50. Even at a running time of only 124 minutes, AKIRA pushes the boundaries of what can be compressed to a Blu-ray Disc. The root of this challenge lies in the 192khz/24-bit 5.1 track. Uncompressed linear PCM at this resolution needs an astonishing 28 megabits per second (mbps) of transfer rate. To give a point of reference, this is 30% greater than the video bitrate on the well- regarded Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest Blu-ray, and 8mbps over the maximum allowable combined audio bitrate in the Blu-ray spec. This of course, doesn't even account for the original Dolby Surround mix (linear PCM), the English Dub (48khz/16-bit Dolby TrueHD), or the Japanese Dolby Digital tracks. For help, Bandai turned to Dolby, whose TrueHD codec is standard for their releases. The two companies worked together closely to balance the available space on a BD-50 with the needs of both the audio and video tracks. In the end, the combined load of all four audio tracks bump their head against that 20mbps ceiling, never breaking through, while still leaving plenty of room for a high quality video presentation.

Naturally, there is a price to be paid for quality, and that comes in the form of bonus material. The disc is so full with the movie and its soundtrack that neither the “AKIRA Production Report” or the previous restoration documentaries were able to fit on the disc. What does make an appearance are the 4500 storyboards, complete and unabridged, newly rescanned at 1920x1080 resolution, and Japanese teasers, trailers, and TV commercials. Also included is a 32-page booklet detailing the creation of the film and its high-definition mastering, as well as an attractive slipcase. The last two items are limited editions, and are only included with the first pressing of the disc.

In the end, AKIRA is still a stunning artistic and technological achievement even 20 years after its original release. The existing fans of this landmark piece of animation will be amazed at all of the new detail that high-definition brings to the table, while audiophiles will marvel at the fidelity of the soundtrack. Ultimately, new viewers will have the opportunity to see what all the fuss is about in a style befitting this groundbreaking piece of animation.

AKIRA makes its Blu-ray debut On February 24, 2009. Dustin Somner has just reviewed AKIRA on Blu-ray, click here to read the full review: AKIRA Blu-ray review.