Introducing Manga to the West: Celebrating the Debut of Akira
Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo in a cyberpunk-ish near future. In the first volume of Akira Tetsuo, a member of a biker gang, develops strange psychic powers after an encounter with a strange child. This brings him to the attention of a secret government project that wants to use those powers, but it also leads to some horrible headaches and wild, irrational behavior. When Tetsuo falls out with gang leader Kaneda, he turns to anti-government terrorism and forms his own rival gang, kicking off a turf war. Blood is spilled, but the secretive “Akira” project has effectively made Tetsuo invincible — and something more than that.
Akira mainly follows Tetsuo and Kaneda as main characters, but the serial nature of the story lead to many threads that are picked up and dropped throughout the six volumes. The story works with themes of corruption, fear of government power, social isolation, and youth alienation. Critics have suggested that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during World War II, and its effect on Japanese culture, are reflected and explored in the manga.
Originally serialized in Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990, Akira was subsequently collected and published by Kodansha. It was popular enough that Otomo was approached about making an anime based on the manga, which he agreed to only because he was given full creative control over the film. The anime Akira was released in 1988, focusing on the events of the first half of the series, and Otomo worked on the film concurrently with the final volumes of the manga.
The first English translation was also released in 1988, to coincide with the release of the anime. It was published by Epic Comics, an imprint of Marvel Comics, and featured colorization of the original black and white art work. Otomo hand picked Steve Oliff to provide colors, and he went on to win three Harvey awards for his work on Akira, and revolutionized the industry by pioneering coloring by computer.
Akira was retranslated and republished by Dark Horse between 2000 and 2002, following the original Japanese six volume format, and using the original black and white art. Kodansha reacquired the English-language rights and re-released it again with Random House in 2009-2011. The English translation of Akira won four Harvey awards for Best American Edition of Foreign Language Material in 1990, 1992, 1993, and 1996.
Roger Sabin, in Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: a History of Comic Art, ascribes the introduction of manga and anime to Western audiences to Otomo and Akira. The series was translated into French in 1991 and German that same year. Akira was the most prominent work in a wave of imported Japanese comics that also included Lone Wolf And Cub, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Appleseed, and helped open the door to a diverse new section of the comic industry that has brought us Dragon Ball, Ghost In The Shell, Sailor Moon, and Attack on Titan, and new readers and new creators who have reshaped what we know comics can be.
Akira has a permanent place in the comics and cyberpunk canons, and will forever be remembered for its role in bringing Japanese manga to the rest of the world.