Silence impregnated the room the first time I watched Akira. “What the f** just happened?” seemed to appropriately punctuate the confusion that had me staring at a black screen, trying to process something that felt ineffable. I would have to watch Akira a handful of times more to begin making sense of an experience that begins with a disturbingly iconic image of a mushroom cloud blooming over 1988 Tokyo but which quickly cuts to the future. And 2019 is the clamorous cyber-punk future that hosts a Neo-Tokyo never seen-heard before. 

Katsuhiro Ôtomo first created Akira as a manga serial in 1982 that he adapted into an anime film and directed in 1989. Neo-Tokyo in 2019 is a city beset with color and sounds, protest and anti-government activists, violence and corruption, and a gang of bikers whom Kaneda leads. Mishap leads to government officials taking Kaneda’s close friend Tetsuo, involving him in a top-secret project called Akira. Three pastel-color, senescent children wield a variety of psychic powers that are only a fraction of Tetsuo’s and the power that the elusive Akira once had and which ostensibly caused the explosion that pulverized Tokyo in 1988. Kaneda moves through the film as the hero trying to save Tetsuo as power precipitates his hellacious metamorphosis. 

One of the philosophical grains Akira explores is the proverbial cautionary tale of too much power. Akira had too much power, and vestigial parts of his body preserved in oblong glass capsules are all that remains. But power is not reified as corruption or corporate or bureaucratic. While these manifestations of power do appear in Akira, Tetsuo’s power (preceded by Akira’s) calls forth Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics: power as energy neither created nor destroyed but conserved and transferred. The process of transferring destroys while creating and creates while destroying. As Tetsuo’s energy increases, destruction appears ineluctable. But this time, Earth is spared at the expense of Tetsuo’s body, which is destroyed by the transfer of energy that turns him into a demiurge as his energy goes on to spawn a new universe. 


The visceral sensation of energy in Akira is conjured by sounds that elevate the human voice to instrumentality. The electronic manipulation of choral singing and primordial chant materializes sound into a breathing and fluctuating cyber-biotic element inseparable from the film’s movement. I suspect that one of the reasons the soundtrack is an autonomous identity in Akira, despite achieving intimate enmeshment with the visuals, is due to the unorthodox process of soundtrack anteceding visuals. 

After hearing their album Ecophony Rinne (1986), Katsuhiro Ôtomo commissioned the music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi to compose the soundtrack for Akira before beginning voice recordings and animating. In a 1998 interview, Tsutomu Ōhashi, the founder of Geinoh Yamashirogumi, reflected on his experience stating, “I feel like I’ve been swinging away with a sword with my eyes closed. It feels like I cut clean through something. But I still don’t know if I hit what I was supposed to, or if I just sliced my own leg open.” With an unlimited budget and creative freedom, the only parameters were to compose a soundtrack that considered the concepts “festival” and “requiem.” Akira’s soundtrack was not a postscript to the visual narration; it did not render a sonic interpretation of the drawings or imitate the visual experience aurally. Sounds sculpted a future without knowing what it would look like by harkening back to traditional and folkloric sounds. 


Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a music collective that re-creates folk music from around the world with modern instrumentation and synthesizers. The chimeric ancient-modern sounds that aurally narrate Akira draw from the Indonesian Gamelan orchestra characterized by gongs, metallophones, and drums; Indigenous Balinese Jegog played on instruments made of bamboo; Khasanbegura, Georgian melodies that are woven into a tapestry of polyphony; Japanese Buddhist chants recorded from the Todaiji Temple; chants from monks of the Gyuto Monastery, to name a few. And was emerges is a polyglot soundtrack that accompanies synthesized sounds to create the soundscape of the future. 

The Akira soundtrack, which is only a component of the soundscape the viewer experiences, is separated into ten sonic chapters, which I have listed below with links to each sound chapter. Some motifs like “Kaneda” are reprised throughout Akira, creating and acquiring affective value through the characters and actions they appear in concomitance with. Others like “Tetsuo” go through dramatic aural changes, reflecting Tetsuo’s psychological and physiological metamorphosis. 



“Battle Against Clown”

“Winds Over Neo-Tokyo”


“Dolls’ Polyphony”



“Exodus From The Underground Fortress”



Synthesized and electronic sounds are a noticeable component of Akira’s soundscape in sound effects and the distortion of vocals. But the presence of voice as an instrument in choir and chant recorded from different cultures, ethnicities, and religions engenders an aural texture that is very different from the sounds of Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott), which are non-vocal synthesized sounds. The sounds in Akira are disquieting without sounding vacuous and the aural magnitude of the destruction is not heard as cavernous as it often is in Blade Runner. 


Vietnamese experimental filmmaker Trihn Mi-Ha says, “national identity is not given but construed according to circumstances and contexts (here in its gender politics) – and the more you look into what you think is unique to your culture, the wider it gets.” The reassembling of sounds from different places and times into a soundscape of the future is evocative of the wideness of culture that Trihn Mi-Ha raises. The sounds in Akira, which were the sounds of the future, blurred the boundaries of time and space by weaving ancestral and folkloric sounds into futurity. Future expressed aurally does not only come from technological innovation and looking ahead; it emerges from reaching towards the past and adapting these sounds to speculate the soundscape of the future. 


Further Reading/ Sources


BALSOM, ERIKA. “‘There Is No Such Thing as Documentary’: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-Ha | Frieze.” Frieze, 1 Nov. 2018,


“BlueBlade AKIRA.”, 5 Mar. 2016, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.


Milan Records USA. “AKIRA Soundtrack – Geinoh Yamashirogumi – ‘Tetsuo.'” YouTube, 15 Sept. 2017, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.


Phillips, Yoh. “Silence Is Peace: Instrumental Music Just Feels Different.” DJBooth, 21 July 2020, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.

Radio, N. T. S. “Akira Influences W/ Dr Yamashiro 12th June 2018.” NTS Radio, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.


Schley, Matt. “‘Akira’ Soundtrack Featured Music Worthy of a Visual Masterpiece.” The Japan Times, 13 July 2018, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.