The truth behind Akira lies probably somewhere between those cultists who proclaim it to be the best animation movie ever made, and those born contrarians who think that it just plain sucks. On the one hand Akira is still technically excellent - more than ten years after it was made. Forget about the computer graphics employed (rather manifestly) in the likes of Disney movies like The Lion King, Tarzan, etc. Akira still holds up with the best of them - its animation frees movement in a way that cannot be replicated in live action movies, the special effects of The Matrix (1999) notwithstanding. Every frame of Akira bustles with the type of details lazier animators usually leave out: textures, shadows, and so forth. At times it is an assault on the senses and, like with a good comic book, it is probably a movie that one can rewatch again, just to take in the smaller details.
One would also unfortunately have to rewatch the movie to make more sense of the plot. Sure, you'll have no problem following the gist of it, but will probably have a tough time at certain points to explain what precisely was going on. Until about halfway through the movie you'll have to pay close attention to Akira's rather dense structure, which features a myriad of characters, subplots, background story and so forth. Maybe the running time (of more than two hours!) is too short to explain events at a more leisurely and transparent pace. Who knows? It is only about halfway through that the main plot - of a bike gang member who goes on the rampage in a futurist Tokyo after experiments made on him by a secret government agency gave him incredible telekinetic powers - comes to the fore.
Comparisons with Disney movies, by the way, are superfluous. If you've seen other Japanese animation movies (anime) like Wings Of Honneamise you'll know that they deal with more than just cute talking animals like they do in Disney movies. If the only anime you've seen is the stuff with battling morphing robots (like RoboTech) on television, then you're in for a surprise as well. Akira is a decidedly adult affair: it is quite violent with buckets of blood at times as well as a fleeting topless scene. So don't think it is something that you can quickly pop into the VCR to entertain the little 'uns. However, if you're into adult animation (like Heavy Metal) then you'd probably want to pop this Blade Runner (1982)/Mad Max (1979) hybrid into the VCR for yourself while sending the kids to bed...
(One of the most expensive anime movies to be made in Japan, Akira is based on a popular manga comic book of the same title. It is also one of the few anime titles to have been released theatrically in the States and elsewhere. I have the suspicion that most people can't reconcile the terms "adult" and "animation" without blowing a cervical cortex - in the same way some people I know just can't get it that a 32-year-old guy would be reading graphic novels...)
Review by James O'Ehley from The Sci-Fi Movie Page.