Film

How the artwork from anime classic 'Akira' was given a permanent home in the U.S.

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

On Dec. 2, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or the Oscars, as most of us know them) held a special screening of the animated Japanese classic “Akira” in Los Angeles.

Since its release in 1988, the dystopian, cyberpunk epic has never really left the public consciousness, but it has been in the zeitgeist even more than usual recently: It celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, takes place in 2019 and is set for both a Hollywood remake and a recently announced new anime series. And, as the academy notes, the film “represents a cultural and technological landmark that continues to inspire modern animators.”

“I’m not sure you can get to ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ or ‘The Matrix’ without ‘Akira,'” says Anne Coco, head of Graphic Arts Collections at the Margaret Herrick Library, the academy’s publicly accessible film archive.

The sold-out screening, held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, featured a Q&A with several big-name animators, including Peter Chung, the creator of “Aeon Flux,” Genndy Tartakovsky, the man behind “Samurai Jack,” and Randy Haycock, an animator who worked on Disney films such as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

“That was the first time I think I understood that animation was an art form beyond just what I had grown up with as a little kid,” said Tartakovsky during the session. “It just changed everything I thought about what animation could be. From there, I’ve just been chasing it ever since.”

“There was this enveloping world that I’d never seen before,” said Hancock. “At Disney we talk a lot about the world and how important that is, but very seldom do we get such a unique vision of a world that completely sucks you in. You really felt like you lived in that place while you were watching the film.”

There’s another reason the academy has chosen to honor “Akira” now: The Margaret Herrick Library just landed the holy grail of behind-the-scenes “Akira” material — a collection of thousands of animation cels, backgrounds and other art. Crafted at a time in which each frame of animation was drawn and painted by hand, the collection represents the beautiful building blocks used to create the film.

But the 31-year journey those materials took to reach the academy is a long and strange one.

Following its Japanese release in July 1988, “Akira” found its way to the United States via Streamline Pictures, one of the first companies founded to license and localize Japanese animation for English-speaking audiences. At the time the company was founded — around the same time “Akira” was being released in Japan — Hollywood had a very different attitude toward Japanese animation.

“Movie executives back then didn’t even know what a comic convention was,” says Streamline co-founder, Jerry Beck. “They didn’t know fandom or anime and they couldn’t have cared less.”

That couldn’t-care-less attitude on the part of Hollywood, plus the fact that their first direct competitors wouldn’t be founded for another few years, gave Beck and co-founder Carl Macek their pick of Japan’s animated library, and “Akira” was an obvious choice. Streamline licensed the film and gave it a successful run in arthouse theaters across the country, even hosting director Katsuhiro Otomo for a Q&A following a screening in New York.

Beck says that it was during this time that he thought to himself, “You know what would be really cool? What if we asked the Japanese animation studio if we could have a cel to put on our wall to commemorate that we’re the distributor of this film?”

Macek and Beck got on the phone with their “Akira” contacts, who told the pair they had an entire warehouse of “Akira” cels that were about to be thrown in the trash.

“The artwork was looked at as a means to an end,” says Beck. “The movie was the end product. It would’ve been like making an iPhone and saying, ‘Gee, why didn’t anybody keep the screws?'”

The rescuers: 'Akira' fan Joe Peacock (left) and Jerry Beck, who helped distribute the film in the U.S., worked together to get artwork from the anime classic to a safe and permanent home. | COURTESY OF JOE PEACOCK
The rescuers: ‘Akira’ fan Joe Peacock (left) and Jerry Beck, who helped distribute the film in the U.S., worked together to get artwork from the anime classic to a safe and permanent home. | COURTESY OF JOE PEACOCK

And so it was that the art of “Akira,” destined for a landfill, was saved by a well-timed intervention by Macek and Beck, who negotiated to have the entire warehouse of material shipped to Los Angeles.

A few months later, “one of the biggest moving vans you’ve ever seen” showed up at Streamline’s office with the film’s cels and pencil art sandwiched between strange-looking packing material — which Beck soon realized was actually the film’s background art.

“It was like an emergency room scene from a movie, with us scrambling around the office and unfolding these backgrounds and flattening them out, trying to restore them.”

Now in possession of the “Akira” material, Streamline began slowly selling it to galleries, dealers and collectors. When the company got the rights to distribute “Akira” on home video, it included cels with copies of the film on VHS and laser disc. And when Streamline folded, the remaining materials, goes one version of the story, were taken by a few employees in lieu of a final paycheck and sold off at comic conventions. As the years went by and internet auctions went mainstream, the collection found itself split into more and more pieces.

Enter Joe Peacock, an “Akira” fan who had been entranced by the film ever since he saw it at a screening in 1990. Peacock made it his mission to put the material back together in the early 2000s, and before too long, had amassed some 20,000 pieces. In the first half of the 2010s, Peacock teamed up with another collector to show their material in the U.S. and around the world in an exhibition they called “Art of Akira.”

But keeping an exhibition on the road became a challenge, and when Peacock and his partner took a break, he began to feel he was doing the art a “disservice by not getting it out there into the world.”

This year, Peacock decided to give away the collection to a place that would keep it in one piece, properly preserved and open to the public. In his search for an organization that could satisfy those conditions, he turned to one of the men who’d brought the material to the U.S. in the first place: Beck, who had in the intervening years become president of ASIFA-Hollywood, a nonprofit dedicated to the art of animation. Beck thought the Oscars would be a perfect fit for the “Akira” collection.

“I think the Academy is ultimately going to be the place for animation archives worldwide, and I think something like ‘Akira’ is a crown jewel for them,” says Beck.

Meanwhile, at the Academy archive, Coco says she jumped at the change to host the collection.

“My response was immediate: ‘Yes please,'” she says. “These are moments that don’t come along very frequently.”

In the years since its release, “Akira” has gone from something about which Hollywood “couldn’t care less” to what Coco calls a “game changer” and a “landmark achievement.” And the art destined for the trash bin three decades ago is now set to be preserved and displayed by the world’s foremost organization dedicated to cinema.

“It’s a happy ending,” says Beck. “We, the fans, saved this material.”

“Akira” is currently streaming on Netflix. To read more about Joe Peacock and his “Akira” art collection, visit features.japantimes.co.jp/akiraweek-art.

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