There has been much written on the 1988 film version of Akira but very little written in or translated into English that I can find on the ~2200 page comic book version. This is a shame because the comic book is the superior work-wider in scope, more brilliantly realized in the drawing, with dozens of memorable and three dimensional characters. The plot is byzantine and intricate in ways that can’t be stuffed into a 2 hour movie. The manga also reads much more fluently. The film is a collection of exceptional images. The manga is a fully realized and developed piece of art. It doesn’t feel long because you want there to be more. It has the gritty, street level qualities of violent pulp or West Side Story and the operatic scale and reach of Tolstoy or Wagner. It reads as fluidly as any comic ever made. A person with some experience reading comics could finish this in 2-3 days, I’ve finished it in a single day more than once. Don’t let the big page count scare you.
It takes place in 2019. Which we all survived. Well sorta. Thankfully no one that I heard about developed telekinesis, but a lot of other things went poorly. We did a lot better than the people of 2019 in this book is what I’m saying.
What does it all mean?
(as you might imagine, there are spoilers ahead. If you’ve never read Akira, do some googling, get to reading, and come back.)
Akira is a story about the relationship between children and adults, the catastrophic end-times-y quality of the post-nuclear era, the trauma of the bomb, the scarily exciting parts of apocalyptic daydreams.
The comic and movie both begin and end with a single explosion destroying most of Tokyo. In the comic variations on this event happen several times. Neither one makes any direct written references to WWII but we can guess that Hiroshima and Nagasaki also happened in this universe because of the fact so much promotional material used the tagline “30 Years After WWIII” and the Americans are shown as having developed nuclear weapons towards the end of the series. Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn’t new at the time, but nothing before Akira painted the post-apocalyptic world order quite so vividly.
While it would be quite a stretch to call the series realistic, the overarching view of the world shown in the text doesn’t vary that wildly from what we’re seeing politically now. Neo-Tokyo is shown the catastrophic impacts that messing with natural order of things can cause. 30 years later and rebuilt, the society is shown to have learned little to nothing-the telekinetic power of Akira, the power that destroyed Tokyo and later destroys Neo-Tokyo, is treated as a political means to an end or without much concern whether it destroys the world or not. If you substitute “telekinetic power” with “climate change”…
What 15 years ago when I first read this looked like kinetically paced science fiction seems closer and closer to the present. There is a lot of random gun violence in the street. Motorcycles didn’t make quite the comeback that Katsuhiro Otomo imagined, but the sense of warring extremist political factions doing their thing in front of a looming catastrophe resonates pretty hard in the US right now.
The central metaphor of the series is “the power”-the psychic abilities emerging in random individuals, parceled out in wildly varying levels. The power doesn’t seem to have a type except that it doesn’t emerge later than the age of 20. The physical development of the person with the power halts once they manifest the power, but they continue to age and wrinkle. The power is something latent in people that was then magnified/accelerated by government testing. The test subjects that didn’t die or become vegetables became powerful psychics who could do everything from destroying buildings to teleporting to seeing the future. Although it’s played very differently here, it isn’t that different from something like X-Men with the mutant powers. In some ways this could be read as one of the darkest superhero narratives ever done (with the acknowledgement that that probably wasn’t Otomo’s intention.)
There’s no guarantee that person’s gifted with awesome powers will use them for the public good and in practice most don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of bad apples to make for serious problems in this case.
There are some interesting omissions in this book-we never see anyone’s parents or hear about any parents besides a throwaway line Kei says to Kaneda early in the book when he comes onto her-“I could never look my dear mother in the eye again if I did.” The only two people in the book who are actually related are Kay and her aunt Chiyoko. In all 2000+ pages, we get maybe 10 total pages of flashbacks; while the teenagers in the story have no parents, they have inherited the problems created by their elders; they nonetheless always look forwards. They default to praxis. There is very little overt discussion of ideology. The famous motorcycles (which in the manga only show up in 2/6ths of the story) were meant to evoke images of the Japanese youth protest movement that emerged after WWII, the same movement portrayed in Nagisa Oshima’s Night And Fog In Japan. That’s about as close to an explicit political parallel or source in the text beyond the clear evocation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the two page spreads of enormous dome shaped explosions at multiple points in the text.
What we get instead of the verbose philosophizing of a Ghost In The Shell is an ideology described in the terms of the actions of the characters; they see situations and respond to them according to their loose prerogatives or because it’s a vision they think is their destiny. This collection of motives makes them more fluid-they feel fleshed out because every element of their visual presence from their body language to their clothing to their surroundings are carefully considered and realized. His designs are striking. He lets those do a lot of the heavy lifting-compared to US comics, there are effectively no strictly narrative captions, few captions period, and exposition is kept to a bare minimum in favor of fast paced relentless forward motion.
The world of Akira is what I would call the hyper-Anthropocene. The only nature we see is the water surrounding the island of Tokyo. There are no trees or flowers or really…plants at all in this book. The only food specifically named is “synthetic fish”. We are often shown skyscrapers either lit up or contorted into rubble; people who like photos of liminal spaces should find plenty to love in Akira. This ensures that the technological destruction that riddles this text happens in the face of a man-made and man-destroyed environment. In some sense Tetsuo’s god-like powers to mold and destroy his environment with no real boundaries until his power to do so ultimately consumes him is humanity in the Anthropocene.
Since I put the spoiler warning, let’s go really hard on that and go directly to the end. This is a book that, while it’s rarely discussed, has 2 endings. To explain this, let’s go into the publication history of Akira. Akira first showed up in Young Magazine #24, released in 1983. The very first release of the manga was put out in chapters around 20 pages in length in Young Magazine in another 119 issues, making for 120 episodes total in the original publication. The serial ended in 1990. From 1989-1996 it was flipped, translated, and digitally colored by Steve Oliff for release in the US by Marvel, split over 38 issues instead the 120 of Young or the 6 volume split used in all subsequent releases. It is still being reissued in multiple languages up to the present day.
The ending in most collected forms of Akira is a 20 page epilogue following Akira’s absorbing Tetsuo inside of himself. In the Marvel version, this is issue 38. Foreign governments show up to Neo-Tokyo to render aid and the surviving members of the cast tell them off, and falsely imply Akira is still alive in order to maintain their sovereignty. The last page is a 2 page spread of giant buildings and the survivors riding motorcycles into the distance. It’s not a terrible ending, but in my mind I feel like the original ending is a more effective point to leave off. The 120th and final installment that was published in Young Magazine is usually collected as the 2nd to last chapter, issue 37 in the Marvel version. This ending leaves us on a splash page with no dialogue. Here are the original last two pages that were printed in Young Magazine (not scanned from a Young Magazine because I am not rich):
And here’s the actual last page in the Dark Horse edition:
I much prefer the first image. It leaves the future in the literal foreground; suddenly, finally freed of the threat of the psychokinetic children, Kei and Kaneda survey the ruins. It should also be noted that most of the series takes place at night or in dark indoor spaces-the colorized version’s one weakness is that sometimes the coloring is too dark and it obscures Otomo’s line work. The sun coming out finally and seeing the wreckage we’ve seen so often in darkness in the light of a beautiful day gets the point across succinctly and beautifully-the future is for the youth and theirs, if they should be so lucky as to snatch it from the hands of the mistakes of their elders. The epilogue chapter does a somewhat sloppy job of underlining that point. We don’t need to see the buildings reconstructed, or Tetsuo and Yamagata’s ghost heads above them as they ride off on motorcycles. In the original ending, their destiny is entirely, or at least as much as it ever has been, in their hands, not even influenced by the machinations of the author.
So the surviving Neo Tokyo residents, mostly the younger ones, get to write their own version of their environment, if only in the limited area of Neo-Tokyo, now renamed “The Great Akira Empire”. They reenact the Anthropocene in their own image. We are asked to hope that this society will turn out better.