alex takes on AKIRA
February 21 2020
Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated film Akira is perhaps the most stunning work of animation that I have ever seen. Its unique visuals are colorful, gorgeous, and brutal, with a fluidity of motion that belies the film’s commitment to a consistent 24 frames of hand-drawn animation per second, unmatched by any major animated feature at the time. I ran the numbers: unless I did it wrong, that is 178,560 drawings, painstakingly assembled. Watching the credits, it becomes apparent the sheer mass of people who worked on this film. Multiple studios and groups were concurrently working on storyboards, paint, lighting, and color testing, as well as some CGI effects. It is an astonishing and meticulously detailed work that could only be achieved through collective effort and widespread cooperation. Plus, it marks perhaps the best case scenario of film adaptations, with Otoshimo directing and writing the film based on his own nationally renowned manga series. Its influence on the rest of Japanese animation and the Cyberpunk subgenre of Science Fiction is undeniable and palpable; Its brief theatrical run and subsequent airings on US television was an early high water mark in the growing popularity of anime in North America. Gifs posted on Twitter show one film or tv show after another directly referencing the shot of Kaneda on his iconic red motorcycle powersliding away from the camera, edited together in quick succession. The first time I saw Akira, I was blown away by the visual design and unsettling atmosphere, not totally picking up on exactly what all was happening and what to make of it. Upon the second viewing, themes and allusions began to come into focus. It is a barrage of interconnected social issues, touching on everything from class war to masculinity and male friendship to the danger of funding scientific research to fuel the military-industrial complex. Like many science fiction writers, Otomo uses the future as a canvas to dissect our collective past and present, conjuring a vision of what could become of Japan’s postwar technology and industry boom if it spun out of control, until there were riots in the streets and military-funded research on the viability of psychokinetic weaponry.
I. The Big Bang
Many popular Japanese films will end with cities being destroyed completely by some outside force, be it a monster or a bomb. The distinctly Japanese kaiju genre of filmmaking comprises a number of similar scenarios in which an imposing monster attacks a major metropolitan area, ripping through its skyscrapers and called-in military defenses like a hot knife cuts through butter. This effortless destruction reflects the unforgettable nature of the two American atomic bombs that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (Napier, 332). The only two nuclear weapons ever deployed. This national trauma and subsequent U.S. occupation is a definitive turning point in Japan’s history, the States having restructured Japan’s economy and government during its occupation to mirror its own free market capitalism and partisan democracy. Not to be outdone by its kaiju predecessors, Akira begins with an explosion of the A-bomb’s magnitude, just before an indication that it was 1988 at the time. The screen becomes engulfed in white, then a blood red landscape, fading into a rebuilt city called Neo Tokyo in the year 2019, “31 years after World War III,” and the title screen (Otomo). It is as if the film wants to assert right away that there was a major disaster in the past, Old Tokyo is a crater, but Neo Tokyo has been built and there are new and different problems now; due to the former Prime Minister’s tax reforms, many have been left unemployed without a social safety net. Class struggle is evident: students and workers alike talk of revolution, and their protests are responded to by heavily armed riot police. Teenaged biker gangs wreak havoc in Neo Tokyo’s streets, looking very tough and cool, crossing paths with rival gangs and beating on each other with lead pipes. The military is experimenting on children with psychokinetic powers to use as weapons on the proletariat. A biker in one of these gangs named Tetsuo crashes into one of these children trying to escape military custody, and ends up with similar powers. There is talk of the return of a god-like figure named Akira, who is somehow linked with these children. The focus of this movie begins in many places, almost vignette-like, and they steadily converge, threatening to explode upon contact.
II. Power, violence, masculinity
Violent struggles for power lie at the core of every conflict between the men in Akira. These struggles, it should be noted, balloon out of control and end up harming the women who are present, without fail. The bickering between the young bikers mirrors that of the city council. The rivalries between Tetsuo and Kaneda, and Colonel Shikishima and Dr. Onishi represent a microcosm of the class war and military versus science struggles going on in the periphery of the film. Tetsuo and Kaneda’s dynamic is multi-layered, codifying class and the nature of male friendship in their developments over the story. Kaneda comes off as a preppy rich kid with a taste for trouble and a nihilistic outlook on life. He’s in a biker gang, but he’s got the nicest, most high-tech motorcycle. He wears nice clothes, has a cool bright red leather jacket, and has confidence when he pretends to know about the revolution when trying to pick up girls. Tetsuo is established early on as a much less imposing and assertive character, always playing the second in command to Kaneda. In flashbacks later on in the film, Tetsuo is revealed to be an orphan and the subject of bullying for much of his childhood. Pitting these two teenage boys together as friends and rivals and centering them in the film’s story provides an appropriate background for exploring masculine rage and angst on a massive scale. However, it is clear that Kaneda cares for Tetsuo quite a bit, given how often he comes to the rescue, the persistence with which he asks Tetsuo if he is ok while he is hallucinating about Akira and all of his entrails falling out. Tetsuo is too freaked out to tell anyone about what he’s experiencing. Not Kaneda, not his girlfriend Kaori. How could they ever understand?
Tetsuo’s new psychic powers, ones he didn’t ask for, bring him to a military research facility, stuck in all sorts of strange machinery. He has horrifying nightmares featuring gigantic children’s toys and an ocean of milk. He is on the cusp of adulthood, in chaotic surroundings, the workings of his body constantly changing in ways he does not recognize. Sheng-mei Ma observes: “The zeal with which this film weds all differences to herald an apocalypse reminds us of John’s Revelation as well as teenage angst turning into self-aggrandizement” (100). By the end of the film, Tetsuo, the once clear second fiddle in Kaneda’s gang has gone mad with power. He chastises Kaneda for underestimating him, for coming to try and save him from the military. He has made his way to the center of the city, where Akira, known now supposedly lies dormant, with the intent of awakening him and absorbing his powers to destroy the world. It does feel like a uniquely teenaged and masculine form of existential rage; wishing to destroy all that surrounds you for underestimating and ignoring you for too long. One day, you’ll all see what I’m capable of. One day, you’ll all get your just desserts. When nothing else grants you the attention you feel you deserve, resorting to destruction--the option a lot of men wish they could jump to immediately--becomes an easy backslide.
This frustration can be seen boiling over from within Tetsuo earlier in the film. After his horrific dream, he breaks out of the hospital and steals Kaneda’s bike to go on a joyride with his girlfriend Kaori, perhaps to leave Neo Tokyo behind for good. In the process, he gets jumped by the Clowns, a rival gang they encountered at the very beginning. Kaori gets her shirt ripped off, then the rest of the gang shows up for backup, and Tetsuo ends up beating one of the Clowns within an inch of his life. This sudden outburst comes at odds with Tetsuo’s previous characterization, but it is becoming of the horrors he’s experienced in dreams and being experimented on by the government. How could any teenage boy have the emotional fortitude to cope with what Tetsuo has been through? Particularly in a culture and social circle that expects toughness and emotional fortitude from men above all, Tetsuo’s character arc becomes something of a cautionary tale about how not to handle distress and trauma by suppression. Like a soda that has been shaken, those emotions increase pressure in the vessel of your body until they burst free at the lightest touch. Blown up to the appropriate action movie stakes, this emotional release threatens to wreak a second apocalypse on Neo Tokyo.
III. Against Militarization: Akira’s Politics
Colonel Shikishima is the most masculine, imposing character in the film, looking something like the Spider-Man villain Kingpin if he had a moustache and proportions approaching that of a real human being. As the leader of Japan’s military and this secret research project of which Tetsuo has found himself a subject, his intentions are clear: to use these psychically powered children as weapons. Militarization is a feature of Neo Tokyo. The cops are part and parcel with the military; they carry fully automatic weapons and riot shields. They shoot mushroom clouds of tear gas at protestors. A large number of them are seen early on unloading their machine gun clips on a man from the resistance trying to escape with one of the psychic children in his custody. He has already been shot once by a different cop, and is already bleeding out on the pavement at this point. When Tetsuo is on the loose searching for Akira, they bring in tanks to try and suppress this teenage boy. It would be an absurd level of cruelty if it was not so on the nose for actual police activity in the United States in 2019. Shikishima and Dr Onishi clash on what to do with the discovery of this energy and the ability to imbue humans with it. Onishi sees this as a potential next step in the evolution of mankind and medicine, but Shikishima has determined to recapture Tetsuo. Right as he is informed that he is to be removed from his position, Shikishima orders a military coup to take control of the situation. Akira presents a world where the need for total control perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence. The explosion seen at the beginning of the movie was, in fact, caused by government experiments on Akira (Napier, 339). This sort of power is not meant to be harnessed or tampered with by a human. While Akira poses no solutions to the problems it presents, it functions as a sharp critique of capitalism and scientific endeavors funded to meet military ends.
The film’s focus on outcast characters such as political revolutionaries and lawless bikers is another key to understanding its political messaging. At the street level, distrust for the government, police, and general authority is a given. Though not explicitly fascist, the Japanese government in Akira’s 2019 exert repressive force and control over the general population, even sending in riot cops to break up a group of Akira cultists peacefully heralding the second coming of their god. Bikers like Kaneda and Tetsuo enjoy the thrill of speed and violence, and do not particularly concern themselves with applying this energy for revolutionary purposes. Once it is Tetsuo who is in the custody of authorities, however, Kaneda suddenly wants to jump right in and go along with the revolutionaries he once did not care for unless he found himself attracted to them. Critics have previously referred to Akira’s politics as a “pastiche,” or a patchwork of invocations of different moments in Japan’s history: 1930s militarization, WWII, the Cold War and its accompanying protests. Artist Takashi Murakami regards the bomb as the end of history in Japan, the beginning of a postmodern era where the rise of conservatism and consumer culture governed Japanese life (Bolton, 301). Thus, the beginning of the film, too, constitutes a symbolic and literal destruction of modern Japanese society, a dark new postmodern era emerging from the glowing red ashes. True as that may be, the message is not muddled; Akira recognizes what fascist governments do to everyday people. You may think you are not affected, and will not be affected, until someone you love is declared an enemy of the state. Or, in this case, Tetsuo has been captured for the purpose of becoming a super powerful weapon for the state. From then on, one has to realize that there is no choice but to join in with those fighting for freedom or risk losing what you hold dear. This is the crux of Kaneda’s character arc; he may be privileged, but he hangs around with the gutter folk and the crust punks, and considers them family; he would not just abandon Tetsuo like that, so he joins Kei and the revolutionaries to try and rescue his best friend from the brink. Except, Tetsuo has already gone far off the edge.
IV. “I am Tetsuo!”
When Tetsuo comes upon Akira’s remains, the grand reveal of what everyone has been after all this time is subverted. Akira was a child the government experimented on in secret, but he has technically been dead for many years, the strands of nerves that amount to his consciousness are preserved in jars inside a strange metallic dome at the edge of the city under the Olympic stadium, a dome seen earlier in the movie as being under tight lock and key. No problem for Tetsuo, of course. Kaneda and Shikishima are powerless to stop Tetsuo, even with laser rifles and tanks, as the psychically supercharged teenage boy breaks open the jars and absorbs Akira’s power, beginning an irreversible process that suggests the rebirth of not only Neo Tokyo, or the planet, but the entire universe. A torrent of flesh rockets out of his prosthetic arm, rapidly expanding into the shape of a giant baby, continuing to expand, threatening to engulf and eventually squeeze the life out of Kei and Kaneda on its way to the heavens. It mirrors the giant teddy bear and toy car the other psychic children conjured in his mind earlier in the film, this time manifesting as a literal child, rather than symbols of childhood. That terror was playtime for those psychic kids. This, on the other hand, is very much real. The whole world gets engulfed in light. When it clears, somehow, Kaneda and Kei survived.
Akira and the final explosion become a kind of new-age cheat, a divine light that resolves everything by magic. One could consider this ending a failure of narrative or political imagination. One could suggest that Ōtomo resorted to the abstractions of this final deus ex machina or deus ex lumina because he could not think of a way to resolve the plot. (Bolton, 305)
This perspective holds water in my view, as does it garner my sympathy as a writer. When you weave such a dense web of political problems and opposed factions, how is there to be an adequate resolution? I think this ending is reflective of how I think about the real world. No, I do not think we should scrap everything and start over. We really truly do experience a reality this complicated, fragmented, and abstract, and our political and social problems are equally so. So, what is there to be done with a bunch of problems that are distinct but basically connected and woven in on itself? It would be like trying to solve time. Capitalism ought to be dismantled, but by what means, and replaced by what? We all have ideas, no real concrete answers. Thus, Otomo gives us a vague postmodern answer to a vague postmodern question: disregard everything, start over anew when things have gotten too heady. The last line before the credits roll is “I am Tetsuo!”, an acknowledgement of the self that belies whether or not Tetsuo really exists. Is he everywhere? Or nowhere? It is vaguely spiritual, transcendent even, though it provides no closure or roadmap for how to proceed. Bolton posits that Kei and Kaneda surviving positions them as the Adam and Eve of their new world (305). That feels a little ridiculous.
Akira is such a dense text that has taken me multiple viewings to parse concrete ideas from, but viewing it still communicates its unique power. Still, so much is conveyed only through its visuals that only minute dialogue and exposition is needed to flesh out its world. It is surreal and uncanny in a slow-burning way yet full of kinetic, heart-pounding action. In some ways, it is such a sensory overload the first time, a two hour onslaught of aesthetic beauty by disturbance. The colors are vibrant and rich, detailed in their placement; motorcycle tail lights leave a trail of sunset-like oranges and reds in their wake. Bloodshed is frequent, in vivid, bright red. The meticulous animation and artwork by Katsuhiro Otomo is highly original. It did not look much like other Japanese animation at the time, and it looks even more different from anime of the 21st century. Akira’s cultural impact lies in its explosive portrayal of unspeakable tragedy, power struggles in masculinity, and the detrimental effects of capitalism on a nation, most specifically in worst case scenarios in which scientific research is funded by the military to meet military ends. This is especially significant to Japan’s history and the futuristic setting and plot creates an allegory for rapid industrialization and cultural change seen just after World War II as a result of . We see the limits of human violence pushed until it becomes subhuman -- the destruction that is accelerated through Tetsuo’s demoralization. His newfound psychic powers set off the film’s momentum, which rockets to a conclusion, resulting in the grotesque, destructive, and oversized horror vacui of flesh seen at the end of the film. Akira is a revelation, cinematic landmark, that set off a cultural phenomenon that has, for better or for worse, made Japan one of the most renowned exporters of animation in the world. It is an excellent piece of science fiction and a key entry in the cyberpunk milieu, conveying a message that is eerily relevant to the year 2019 -- its dramatic portrayal of flesh and metal marking the earth-shattering end of mankind feels like an ultimatum to the state of today’s society, especially when the film becomes a raw, fantastical portrait of our modern world gone wrong. This modern world is kickstarted to life by a motorcycle chase, but dives deep down into the depths of the human psyche, working its way through the fraught relationship between society, gender, power, and violence, ending everything with a cleansed blank slate, like a dip in water after a baptism by fire. The rampant capitalism, militarism and suppression Akira displays it all in the goriest form makes the audience wonder about our own modern predicaments, rendering these complex ideas with characters full of depth and hand-drawn animation that has met no equal before or since.
“Animeʹs Atom Dialectic: From Trauma to Manna.” East-West Montage: Reflections on Asian Bodies in Diaspora, by Sheng-mei Ma, University of Hawai'i Press, 2007, pp. 97–110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqvkz.10.
Christopher Bolton. “From Ground Zero to Degree Zero: Akira from Origin to Oblivion.” Mechademia, vol. 9, 2014, pp. 295–315. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/mech.9.2014.0295.
Napier, Susan J. “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira.” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1993, pp. 327–351. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/132643.
Otomo, Katsuhiro, director. Akira. Toho, 1988.