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Japanator Interview: The Art of Akira

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We gave you a brief introduction to the Art of Akira collection when we showed you a video about the loving detail put into some of the scenes from the collection's owner, Joe Peacock. Fascinating, to be sure, and our readers liked seeing it. But afterwards, we got to wondering what exactly was ticking in the head of the man who owned the largest collection of Akira cel art in the world. 

Hit the jump to learn about how this amazing collection got started, where you can see it up close and personal, and make sure to check out the gallery to see tons of the cels from the actual collection.

And, if you're super nice to Joe, he might just let you see the Akira tattoo sleeve on his left arm. Maybe.

Japanator: How did Akira affect you when you saw it for the first time? What made you decide you wanted to begin to collect the art from the film?

Joe: It certainly impressed me. I was 12 years old, and my father had driven me nearly two hours to Athens, GA to the student film club screening at UGA. It was in Japanese, with no subtitles -- a print direct from Japan. I'm pretty sure I swallowed a bug or two, because my jaw hung open the entire time.  I was a fan of the Marvel/Epic Akira comics, so I had some idea of what was going on, but my poor dad... He was so lost.

To be completely honest, I didn't grasp the weight and importance of the film at the time -- I just knew there were awesome bikes and explosions and Tetsuo going crazy and a big morphing baby thing at the end which was gross and awesome at the same time.

But to be fair to myself, I don't think anyone understood just how important and deep the film was at the time. It's only when time keeps on passing between when something's made and right now and nothing even comes close to matching it that you start to really get how important it is.

Japanator: In what year did you purchase the first cel that would become the beginning of the collection?

Joe: As far as collecting the art -- when the film was released in the US by Streamline in 1992, they very brilliantly bought the original animation art from Kodansha and gave away cels as a premium for preorders. At the time (and, I think still today) Akira was the highest-grossing bootleg film of all time, and they needed a good reason for people to buy a retail, legitimate copy. And the original cels were certainly a good reason. When I got my hands on my first cel, I started lusting for more art. I traded anything I had to my friends to get theirs, and even tried to make deals with the comic shop owner for his entire box. He wasn't up for it though.

Japanator: You've mentioned in the past you are interested in the technical aspects of the cels you collect, not just pictures of hot bikes in action. Care to elaborate?

Joe: Where do I begin? The quality and skill of the artistry is astounding -- any one cel is impressive to look at as a piece of painted art, but to see them in stacks, all of them amazingly high quality, all of them using these insane color palletes -- and you don't even realize how incredible they are until you flip one over and realize they were all painted upside down! The light colors (like light reflecting in eyeballs, the color of eyes, highlights in hair) all had to go in first, and then the flatter darker / background paint goes in in layers behind it. 

Japanator: Is there anything in the collection that is much more rare than other pieces (in other words, your holy grail)?

Joe: Akira used so many new (at the time) techniques for cel animation, but I think one of the rarest pieces I have is the Kabuse (correction cel). The quality control of the animation was so stringent, it was very rare for a cel to make it to the shooting phase with a defect or flaw in movement, but when one did, they literally airbrushed the correction on a cel right on top of the flawed cel. I own only one, and from what I understand, there are an incredibly few number of these. Which is yet another mind-blowing testament to how great the technical merit of the flim is, when you consider there are over 160,000 individual cels which comprise the film.

But as far as my personal holy grail, I still haven't gotten it yet. It's the scene everyone knows from Akira, with Kaneda skidding out sideways on the highway from the dual with the Joker. I only know one person who has ever had a cel from that cut, and he'd rather die than part with it.

Japanator: Tell us how the Art of Akira exhibit got started. Can we see it in cities near us in the future?

Joe:  I bought a small collection off of a guy, about 60 pieces or so, and one of the sets was a scene where Ryu and Nezu are discussing the state of the political atmosphere in Neo Tokyo. They stroll across a walkway and in the background is the city lit up at night. I was amazed at all the detail in the buildings. Also in that set was an INCREDIBLE hand-painted background of a city -- but I didn't recognize it as being part of Akira. Sometimes, collections will have pieces from other movies in them, especially those from Streamline. I tried paring the background up with the storyboards in Continuity of Akira, no luck. I watched the film from beginning to end, couldn't see it. That's what I thought this was, just a pretty city scene from another film.

It was months later that it finally clicked -- I was watching Akira, and just barely spotted it. In the far distance, in a 1-inch gap between buildings, was that incredible city painting, but you couldn't fully appreciate it. I literally cried. It tore me apart that this absolutely beautiful piece of art couldn't ever be appreciated by a mass audience... Unless someone let them see it. That's the moment the Art of Akira Exhibit was born.

 It took a few years of planning and a very helpful introduction to Joe Wos at Toonseum by the incredible comic book illustrator Ed Piskor to formalize an exhibit and find a host museum.

Japanator: You have shared that you are introducing a new phase of the exhibit soon. Can you tell us about it?

Joe: At the risk of setting a very high bar for myself: I'm scanning in all of the cels from a six second sequence from Akira (a very well known one!) and am working on a web-based display which will let you turn "on" and "off" the various layers which make up the scene (showing and hiding overlapping cels). If you want to see only one bike, you can; if you want to just see the road and some features, you can. And when you hit "play" it'll play the scene from the film on one viewport, and your layered cel view on another, showing exactly what goes into making up a scene. I'd like to replicate this in a real-life display as well, but it'll likely just be cheapest and easiest to use the website version on a laptop at the talks and shows.

Japanator: What is the most rewarding part of being the owner of this collection?

Joe: This might sound completely cheesy, but it's true: There are these moments at some shows where a parent brings their kids to the exhibit/show and the kid will sit there and draw out scenes from Akira. It fills me with joy. Not only because these kids are learning about the greatest animation ever made, but because when I was a kid, I didn't have that kind of support, and art and drawing were things that I was highly discouraged in various ways from pursuing. And it makes me so happy to see parents who foster that interest in their children.

Japanator: Do you have any plans for the future you'd like to share with us?

Joe: Hopes! We're still working out the end of 2011, but as of right now Art of Akira will be at the Shaw Convention Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, CA on March 20 for the Canadian debut, then from there the tentative schedule is to Dallas, then Cleveland, then Charlotte for HeroesCon, then the UK and Paris, then back to the US for DragonCon, then BACK to the UK for Scotland Loves Animation, wrapping with a course study on Akira in Kyoto at Manji University. It's an exciting time!

Japanator: How do you feel about Akira being made into a live action film?

Joe: Pass.

Japanator:  Is Akira your favorite film? If not, what is?

Joe: No, not really. It's an astounding work of art and a technical wonder, but as a film, it's actually pretty weak. It rushes through certain aspects of the story, and even though the Japanese script is a little better than the English-translated version at conveying some of the motivations of characters, it's still murky just what is happening with Tetsuo, why is he morphing, what is the military's end in fostering his growth... It's such an incredibly complex story in the manga, I do think it's pretty much impossible to recreate it in an animation or movie, especially in only 2 hours.

My favorite film depends on the day. I'd say just about any film by David Fincher, especially Se7en and Fight Club, or The Big Lebowski. I also can't not watch Drumline when it's on at three in the morning. It's a horrible film, and I love it very, very much. Don't judge me.

 


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