Cinematic Scene Analysis: Comparing Dystopian Futures in ‘Akira’ and ‘The Time Machine’

Akira and the Time Machine, despite both being films that deal with versions of the future, contain many similarities and differences in terms of the themes associated with this coming time, due to their stark differences in their production context. Akira is a 1988 Japanese film, that depicts a war-ravaged alternate version of Tokyo, that through its cinematic devices presents themes of the effects of an oppressive government; being inequality, youth and adult disconnect, pigeonholing and decay. The Time Machine is a 1960 Hollywood sci-fi film that follows an inventor from 1900 that goes forward to the distant future, that, through its own cinematic devices, depicts themes the effects of loss of knowledge and being docile; those being deterioration and loss of control.

To begin, Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, deals with a future that, after ravaged by a nuclear weapon many years previous, is stunningly high tech at the top, but deteriorating physically and ripped apart by gang warfare at any point (economically) below. This future raises themes of the effects of an oppressive government, those being; inequality, a disconnect between the adults and the youth, and a constricting and pigeonholing society. These key ideas of Akira’s future are explored in the “interrogation scene”, through the production elements of mise en scene and camera movement. This section of the film comes during the first act, when our main characters, members of a teenage biker gang, are being processed by the government after bearing witness to an escaped “weapon”.

Firstly, mis en scene is used by Otomo in this scene from the establishing frame, depicting the sign for the government building. The central part of the frame is the sign itself, which is peeling and littered with graffiti, showing the decay of the city itself. Behind it, however, are shiny high tech machines, building up cleaner and expensive buildings, presumably for the elite. This further adds to the themes associated with the oppressive government, showing the distinction between the rich and poor, and how the real city is deteriorating while those at the very top flourish, presenting the film’s theme of inequality. Further along in this scene, once we are inside this government building, mise-en-scene is again used to show the themes put forward by this version of the future. Otomo, in the establishing shot for the character, shows us the government officer interrogating the teenagers. This man, despite being physically large, and metaphorically being the most powerful character on screen, shown by the amount of space he takes up and his physical build, has a desk that is disorderly and tattered, filled with loose papers and cigarette butts. These components of the scene combine to demonstrate how even a powerful government figure is himself working with a disorderly and messy workplace, pushing forward the themes of the cities decay/disorder, as well as themes of inequity between the absolute elite, and anyone who falls even slightly short of that. Finally, a shot used in the last parts of the scene, showing a high angle of the entire room, with the teenagers forced to be crammed into a small space in the corner, while the adult, government operatives, have large desk spaces to themselves again reveals more. The makeup of this scene works, as a metaphor, to promote the themes of this future by creating a disconnect between the adults and the youth. The teenagers are given no space and therefore forced to “band together”, as well as seeing the adults as being separate from them, and therefore the enemy.

Secondly, the cinematic device of camera movement is also used within this scene to promote these same themes associated with this future, that being the effects of an oppressive government. This is first used in a shot from the perspective of the main government agent when examining our protagonist Kaneda’s ID. The shot moves from focusing on the photo itself, showing an aggressive Kaneda, to the actual Kaneda, who is smiling eagerly in his chair. This camera contrast is used to demonstrate how the government itself views these teenagers (aggressive, dangerous), and has them categorised as, is different from how they actually are inwardly (kind, passive). They have been classified as rebellious and a generally negative aspect of this society, and despite the fact that this may not be true, are treated as such by the government. Further along in this scene, the camera is used again to signify a similar theme, when, right before being dismissed all as “bozos” collectively, and sent out to join the other teenagers in line, a shot shows them all lined up, indistinguishable from each other. This is a further representation of how the government views these teenagers as all the same, with no regard for their individual personalities. They have been all been compartmentalised as the stupid, rebellious youth, and then left there by those in charge. In summary, through the cinematic devices of mise en scene and camera movement/shots in this interrogation scene, Akira shows the themes associated with its representation of the future, those being the effects an oppressive and restrictive government; decay, a pigeonholing society, inequality and a disconnect between the adults and the youth.

Moving on, The Time Machine, directed by George Pal, is a science fiction film that follows inventor HG Wells travelling forward into the future, to find it populated by a lazy and uneducated population (the Eloi) that is being harvested for food by a deformed upper class (Murlocks) that live underground. In the dinner scene, in which Wells is formally introduced to this Eloi population, cinematic devices are used in order to reveal the themes associated with this future, those being the effects of ignorance and blind acceptance of your superiors. Pal first implements this with the cinematic device of acting, with the main actor Rod Taylor, who plays protagonist HG Wells. This is used from the beginning of the scene, when Wells when asking the Eloi about their world, is extremely polite. What is important to understand, is this character is our protagonist, and up to this point, has contained no real character flaws. He is a fully good and moral character, and therefore, as the audience, we are positioned to agree with and trust his views and opinions. Also, he has been able to control his emotions, not becoming outwardly upset even when his friends dismiss his invention. So, as this scene progress, and he becomes more and more frustrated with the Eloi, stating in an exasperated way that “asking questions” is the “only way man has learnt and developed” in criticism of their world, it has much more impact. When finally he completely loses it in the final part of the scene, upon discovering that the Eloi has let their one source of knowledge (books) decay, he begins yelling lines extremely angrily, that directly state that they have let all human progress “crumble to dust”, due to them simply being lazy. Due to our past with this character, when he states these things and acts so angrily to these characters, we are inclined, by the director, to believe he is completely in the right. This is not a man who normally becomes enraged to this point, so when he does, the point he is making is designed to have extra impact. The statements he’s saying, and the way he delivers them, lend directly to themes of this future, explicitly stating that laziness will lead to decay, as will blindly accepting the world you are in. The cinematic device of acting, used by George Pal, pushes these themes forward, using his anger as a way to tell the audience how important they are.

The second cinematic device used in this scene, framing, is used to support this method implemented by acting. When the wide framing, used to show how HG Wells respects and associates with those around him, is used at the beginning of the scene, when he is just being introduced to these Eloi, we as the audience are again meant to take his side. If he respects and is included with these people, then we should be too, he is our protagonist. So, equally, when the shot closes in as Wells learns more about their civilisation, and we are told he longer respects and identifies with these people, due to the fact that they have let their society deteriorate due to passiveness, we are also not meant to respect them. Once again Pal is, through the positive connotations we have with our protagonist, making us feel the messages about this future that he is pushing to be true. So, in this scene, through the cinematic devices of acting and framing, The Time Machine explores and pushes forward the themes of its future, being the negative effects of lack of knowledge and laziness.

Finally, when examining and comparing the themes that both films put forward with their representation of the future, it must be considered how the context of each film caused these themes to be. Akira was created in Japan in the late eighties, a period when the country was still full of people, particularly people involved in media, who were still heavily scarred by the effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which left the country in a state of decay. That same lack of national unity and a city in destruction is shown in Akira, explaining the themes that are presented in the film. Through this movie, the filmmakers are expressing the anxiety felt after such an event, by the country. Furthermore, the themes of an overly repressive society that compartmentalises its citizens can be traced back to the fascist aligned government that was felt at that same time in the war, that would have carried many of the same values, such as an aggressive police force and a focus on military and technological expansion over everything else, that are shown in Akira, and the chosen scene specifically. The Time Machine, despite being made in 1960, sticks closely enough to the original source material written in 1895, that that time period needs to be studied in order to understand the themes presented in the film. The author, HG Wells, was an outward socialist and stated that he believed that the current social theories of his time, “natural selection”(that was being used to justify the huge gap between rich and poor in 19th century England) were misguided. Using his book, he works to inform the “common citizens” that if they accept these ideologies with no protest, and allow capitalism to reach, what he believed to be, its natural conclusion, then the working class will be simply harvested by an evolved upper class. Since no one at the time was resisting the horrible conditions and remained primarily illiterate, Wells was pushing the themes we see in his future in a persuasive sense, moved by what he saw around him, and trying to convince the populace to resist. With that being acknowledged, the way these two futures are depicted can be compared. Both of them obviously are presenting a future in which those now in charge are having a negative effect on the population, and are acting as a kind of all-powerful force. Also, the future of both films push themes of decay of a once great civilisation, although the reasons for the decay, negligence vs corruption, are quite different. Furthermore, one future, Akira’s, is shown as an extension of today’s society, while the Time Machine’s is a completely new society. In terms of production elements for the chosen scenes, both films use camera shots in order to communicate the themes associated with their futures (in the chosen scene), although they both use acting and mise en scene respectively.

Both The Time Machine and Akira use production elements in their chosen scenes, in order to demonstrate the themes associated with their version of the future. Akira, through mis en scene and camera movement, captures themes of the effects of a constricting and evil government body, reflecting anxieties and feelings from the time it was created, while The Time Machine, through framing and acting, reveals themes of the effects of passiveness and obviousness.