Akira's Motorcycles Came Straight Out Of Another Sci-Fi Classic

It's a proven scientific fact that the lead motorcycle in Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 anime film, "Akira," is just plain cool. When we first see it, a boy named Tetsuo, voiced by Nozomu Sasaki in the Japanese version, is sitting on it. But it's not actually his motorcycle. He just wants to drive it, and some viewers might feel the same way.

If only there were a live-action version of that thing, right? Well, it turns out there were already several (sort of), featured in a well-known American sci-fi movie that opened in Japanese theaters six years earlier, on September 18, 1982. It was three months after that, on December 20, 1982, that a biweekly magazine first began serializing Otomo's original "Akira" manga, which eventually spanned over 2,000 pages across six collected editions.

The motorcycle's real owner in the "Akira" movie adaptation is Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), the leader of Tetsuo's bōsōzoku gang. Though bōsōzoku bikers, with their customized motorcycles, first emerged in Japan in the 1950s, their ranks swelled to their highest number on record in 1982. Otomo funneled this into his manga and anime.

As Kaneda fires up his futuristic red bike at the beginning of the "Akira" movie, the wheels seem to crackle with lightning. When Kaneda and his gang, the Capsules, take to the streets, the bike also leaves light trails behind it. That might give you a hint about which sci-fi movie it was that inspired Kaneda's motorcycle.

In an in-depth interview with Forbes in 2017, Otomo revealed:

"In terms of Kaneda's bike in 'Akira,' the initial inspiration was the lightcycles from 'TRON' designed by Syd Mead. However, they are wide, so I halved them and used that as an initial basis."

You can ride Tron's lightcycles (and Kaneda's in spirit)

Hearing that the lightcycles in "TRON" inspired Kaneda's bike might leave some cinephiles smacking their heads and thinking, "Of course! How did I not see that?" It's the mark of a great artist, perhaps, that Otomo was able to take this mainstream influence and conceal it within the cyberpunk surroundings of Neo-Tokyo in such a way that "Akira" did not immediately seem derivative of "TRON."

"TRON" stars Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, both of whom reprised their roles in the 2010 sequel, "TRON: Legacy," which remains memorable for its Daft Punk soundtrack. The story involves a video game developer entering the Grid, a proto-Matrix-like, computer-generated world where programs compete in deadly battles by way of lightcycle matches and disc wars.

Otomo spoke further about some of the Japanese layout artists and/or animator assistants who helped inspire the other vehicles and machinery in "Akira." He said:

"In terms of the other bikes in the anime, Koji Morimoto did some and the cars were by Kiyomi Tanaka. A lot of the mecha design was from the original manga though, which I did. However, things like the complex inner parts of Akira's cryogenic pod were done by [Takashi] Watabe."

Syd Mead also did concept art and was credited as the "visual futurist" for "Blade Runner," another 1982 film that has become associated with Tokyo, where Otomo lives. "TRON," meanwhile, is also a Disney movie, and it has since inspired an attraction called Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disneyland, which will soon be coming to Disney World. In a roundabout way, you could conceivably saddle up on a lightcycle at Disney one day and know that you were experiencing a real-world equivalent of the bikes that inspired "Akira." Meanwhile, some have simply chosen to make their own.