Screen & Page: Grappling With The Legacy of ‘Akira’
With Screen & Page, we typically explore the relationship between anime shows or films and the manga series inspired by them, but today we're making an exception for a manga and anime produced in overlapping schedules by the same author. The anime is more famous in the West, but both works deserve to be regarded as essential.
It's no stretch to say that Akira is one of the most important films of the 1980s. An enormous hit in Japan, Akira's unique cyberpunk aesthetic, gorgeous non-traditional score from the music collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi, dark screenplay by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto, and incredible animation from Otomo and TMS Entertainment (then known as Tokyo Movie Shinsha) all combined to set off a lightning storm of critical and popular acclaim.
Here in the West, Akira was a cult sensation, boosting the UK anime boom of the 1980s and presaging the US boom of the 1990s. Most critics loved it, and it flew off video shelves nationwide. Recently, its 25th anniversary theatrical and Blu-Ray re-release by current rights holder Funimation set off a new wave of appreciation for the film.
But when I first saw it at 16, on a friend's recommendation, I didn't get it. I liked a lot of the elements, but the final act repulsed and confused me. And yet, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and other high-concept sci-fi, my appreciation of Akira has only increased with time. Now I recognize it for the thrilling jolt that it is.
Set in the bleak dystopian future of... three years from now (so clearly this is the President Trump timeline), Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a city slowly rebuilding itself from the shadow of an enormous explosion. It wasn't nukes; in 1988, a boy named Akira blew up a huge portion of Tokyo with his immensely powerful psychic powers, kickstarting World War III.
31 years later, Neo-Tokyo is preparing to host the Olympics (something the actual Tokyo is, eerily enough, doing next year) in a new stadium built near the crater of Old Tokyo. The new city, though, is plagued by lawlessness and gang violence. When Tetsuo, a member of the Capsules motorcycle gang, encounters an eerie child and is seized by the Japanese Self-Defense Force, he's subjected to testing that unleashes his own untapped psychic abilities. Meanwhile gang leader Kaneda --- driver of that iconic red motorcycle --- teams with a group of rebels to try to save his friend. The result is an odyssey of death and destruction, a revolting evolution for Tetsuo, and a moment of divine transcendence and rebirth.
In her essay, "Akira and Ranma 1/2: The Monstrous Adolescent," from her book Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle:Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, anime scholar and Japanese culture professor Susan J. Napier writes that Akira appeared at a time "when Japan had reached what has perhaps been its postwar peak of international influence ... a period when many nations felt threatened by what they saw as Japan's emerging superpower status. Tetsuo's monstrousness can thus be coded ... as a reflection of Japan's own deep-seated ambivalence at this time, partly glorying in its new identity but also partly fearing it."
Tetsuo's mental and physical arc throughout the film parallels not only the 1980s Japan boom, but also the angst that comes with the physical and emotional turmoil of adolescence --- something Napier also addresses in her essay. (Her book is required reading for anyone interested in critically thinking about anime.)
Even after all these years, the bodily transformations that Tetsuo goes through --- up to and including a giant baby form --- are still grotesque to look at. It spills over onto the screen, practically daring you to look away as it writhes and squirms. But there's a lot more to this movie than its embrace of the bizarre.
There's an enormous amount of technical acumen on display. Some of the earliest mixing of CGI and traditional animation appears in Akira, and the movie reaches a high mark for the practice that much other anime couldn't match until relatively recently. There's also fantastic character animation, perfectly matching Otomo's designs. The deceptively simple faces and artful use of body language reveal a wealth of emotion.
As a director and writer , Otomo knows exactly how to stage action and weave in lighter moments to break it up; there's a great moment when, after getting beaten and "disciplined" by their gym teacher, the Capsules all say, "Thank you sir!"
This is a movie that not only needs to be watched; it demands attention. It's an important document of 1980s Japan and a fantastic technical and artistic achievement. While this isn't necessarily the film I would start with if you're looking to get into anime, I'd recommend it as an early step in discovering the breadth of what anime can offer.
Just as Akira the film is a milestone in world cinema and animation history, so Otomo's original manga is equally vital to comics.
Limited only by Otomo's talent, imagination and time, the manga was published on a weekly basis in Young Magazine in Japan --- a frankly astonishing feat given its intricate detail and wide scope. Because of the overlapping production with the movie, the story goes in a different direction --- the film really only covers the first half of the story and diverges from there.
The manga explores more of the history of Neo-Tokyo, and develops the story much farther. While in the film (spoiler alert) Akira is revealed to have been dissected, in the manga, his body is intact. Released from cryogenic storage, he causes another massive explosion that devastates a huge part of Neo-Tokyo, and in the aftermath a civil war breaks out, with Tetsuo setting up the aggressive Great Tokyo Empire with Akira as a mute emperor figure and himself as an all-powerful Prime Minister.
A true epic, Akira tells a huge, complex story, and its impact manifested in some unexpected ways. For example, up until the mid-'90s, manga sold in the West was usually flipped from its original right-to-left reading order, and often colorized. Akira got a bigger break than most when it was published by Marvel's Epic Comics imprint. Colorist Steve Oliff was handpicked by Otomo for the job after being introduced to him by Archie Goodwin, and his pioneering computer coloring helped shift the US coloring industry towards digital. (Deb Aoki at Anime News Network recently conducted a fascinating interview with Oliff, who is now selling some of his Akira coloring guides.)
Akira was later republished in the US in black-and-white phonebook-sized volumes by Dark Horse, with a translation co-written by Star Wars and Fallen Angels writer Jo Duffy, and later by Kodansha Comics.
Otomo and Akira changed the way audiences thought about manga, and the way that manga handled science fiction. It remains essential reading for all comics fans, and one of the true hallmarks of comics history. The sprawling story of the original manga version of Akira is absolutely worth getting lost in.
Akira is available widely on digital, Blu-Ray & DVD. The manga is available in print from a variety of retailers and your local library.