Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Akira

by Jason Thompson, Apr 28th 2011

Episode XLIX: Akira

Almost every science fiction anime and manga from 1982 through most of the 1990s owes a debt to Akira. Masamune Shirow's Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, Kia Asamiya's Silent Möbius, even CLAMP's X/1999Katsuhiro Otomo's creativity influenced them all, together with a thousand lesser artists. It's one of those manga that's been ripped off by everyone so badly, it's hard to imagine how original it was when it came out. Whenever you see intricately detailed cityscapes and sci-fi hardware, whenever you see massive nuclear-scale destruction …even whenever you marvel at ultra-realistic manga backgrounds drawn with blood and sweat and rulers and screentone …you're probably reading a manga influenced by Akira.

"NEO-TOKYO IS ABOUT TO EXPLODE" was the tagline for the American release of the Akira movie. It's pretty accurate, since the manga has a lot of explosions, and a lot of Neo-Tokyo. Like Blade Runner (which came out the same year that Akira started), Otomo's super-detailed cityscapes in Akira helped define the city of the future, the vision of humanity's future circa 1982. Not just a boring sprawl of suburbs and freeways, Neo-Tokyo is a towering mechanical Babel of skyscrapers, a neo-Metropolis, the kind of city that would become emblematic of the cyberpunk genre when the word "cyberpunk" was invented in 1983.

The thing is, unlike someone just drawing giant buildings in the background because it looks cool, Katsuhiro Otomo really does know about cities: the feel of cities, the architecture of cities. He spent some time in New York, which made a big impression on him; one of his first manga collections—which he now refuses to allow to be printed in English, apparently because he doesn't like it anymore—was Sayonara Nippon, a collection of New York stories. His first major work, Domu, is set in an oppressive Tokyo apartment complex. Akira's Neo-Tokyo is kind of a fusion of New York and Tokyo, just like the movie Blade Runner (which came out in the same year that Akira started) is a fusion of Los Angeles and Tokyo. Even in his later anime works like Robot Carnival and Roujin Z and Steamboy, when Otomo had lost interest in manga and become a full-time anime guy, he seems fascinated with massive semi-mechanical structures: how they work, how they move. And most of all, how they blow up; how entropy takes over. He builds a world, then tears it apart.

The time and place is 2030, 38 years after World War III (I guess we missed it), which began with a mysterious explosion over Japan. Tokyo has been rebuilt from a smoldering ruin into a futuristic metropolis: the Japanese Economic Miracle, Take 2. The Olympics is going to be held in Neo-Tokyo soon, and for the occasion the government is planning to clean up the last rubble from the original bomb crater. But dig a little bit under the shiny surface, and Neo-Tokyo isn't much better than any poverty-plagued modern city. (Though honestly, it's not much worse than a modern city, either; there's no cannibalism or mutants or kangaroo-people or the other really weird dystopian stuff you see in comics like Judge Dredd or Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan.) The politicians are corrupt and ineffectual. The buildings are rundown and falling apart. And due to widespread poverty, violent youth gangs roam the streets, popping pills for kicks, starting trouble, driving around on streamlined motorcycles that look like they came out of TRON.

While racing one night in the outskirts of Tokyo, in the ruined freeway close to the old crater, two of those gang members, Kaneda and Tetsuo, find a strange child. At least, they think it's a child, but it has the withered features of an old man, and when they get too close to him, he somehow blows up one of their bikes and then vanishes into thin air. Tetsuo is injured in the explosion and is picked up by an ambulance that mysteriously shows up. The ambulance drivers tell Kaneda he's in a restricted area and to get lost, but Kaneda can't get the strange kid out of his mind. (For one thing, he owes him a beatdown for hurting his friend.) Kaneda goes searching for the mysterious kid, and meets Kei, a girl who is looking for the same quarry. Kei tells Kaneda to stay away if he knows what's good for him, but Kaneda follows her anyway—and ends up right in the middle of a military ambush. Kei and her accomplices are revolutionaries, and the mysterious child codenamed "number 26" is part of a secret military project that the revolutionaries want to stop! And now Kaneda, too, is on the military's most-wanted list!

Meanwhile, Tetsuo is released from the hospital, but he's not quite the same afterward, and it isn't long before he's kidnapped again and taken back for more 'testing'. Kaneda discovers that "number 26" was the result of a secret military experiment to create people with psychic powers…and now Tetsuo, too, has become part of the experiment. At first, Kaneda wants to rescue his friend, but Tetsuo escapes from the military hospital by himself, using his fast-growing psychokinetic abilities which let him rip apart a human head just as easily as he shatters a water glass. But as Tetsuo grows more powerful—and more dependent on powerful methamphetamines to control his powers—the latent rivalry between the two childhood friends boils to the surface. Driven by his uncontrollable pain and craving for drugs, Tetsuo becomes the leader of a rival motorcycle gang and tries to defeat his old friend to prove who's stronger. But soon, he starts hearing whispers and rumors of an even stronger person…the one the police and revolutionaries both fear…the one named "Ak>ira." Buried deep beneath the city of Tokyo, in an underground vault kept at absolute zero, sleeps Ak>ira, the most powerful psychic who ever existed. It was he, not a nuclear bomb, who created the blast that started World War III.

And of course, you can't mention a terrifying buried secret in a story without someone digging it up. Preventing this from happening is the main goal of the Colonel, a military man who wants to protect the peace and stability of Neo-Tokyo, no matter who he has to kill in the process. Harsh, unforgiving and with a really short crew-cut, the Colonel has no patience for short-sighted politicians and scientists. "I can't risk millions of lives just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—and your ego!" he tells the head scientist in charge of the Ak>ira project. Without batting an eye, he gives the order to kill Kei, Kaneda and those other meddling kids who keep stumbling around secret military bases in search of things it was better not to know. Unfortunately for him, his subordinates are incompetent, and time after time Kaneda slips through his hands. "You idiots!" is the Colonel's most commonly spoken line. But the tough old fascist is really a brave soldier deep down, and when things get out of control, he puts his own life on the line to protect the city. (Bruce Willis as the Colonel, anybody?) Maybe the Colonel was right to be so ruthless, because when Akira is finally unleashed, disaster follows. At the midway point of Akira, Neo-Tokyo is blasted to smithereens.

For page after page, skyscrapers are sent flying in the air. City blocks are vaporized. The earth cracks. The oceans rush in. Millions of people die. Neo-Tokyo is destroyed, and the second half of Akira—the part they didn't really manage to fit into the 1988 anime—is a post-apocalyptic manga set in the ruined city. The awakened Ak>ira, who is more like a force of nature than a human being, becomes the focus of a cult, with his more human right-hand man Tetsuo as the real one in command. (Or is he?) In the ruins of the city, the cult appropriates emergency relief supplies and fights other factions for power. Kei and her few surviving friends, including Auntie Chiyoko, a badass middle-aged woman a little like Otomo's other character Mother Sarah, struggle to survive against looters, aki>ra fanatics, malfunctioning drone robots and swarms of rats. Outside the city, the great global superpowers—Russia, India, America—gather in their battleships and monitor the situation, ready to strike back if A>kira or Tetsuo attack again. But within the ruins, Tetsuo is going off his drugs and approaching the next stage in his evolution. He's preparing to discover the limits of where his psychic power can take him. He's getting stronger and stronger, and soon, nothing will be able to stop him…

Akira is a manga where everything that can blow up, blows up, and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It feels like Jeff Goldblum should show up as the scientist from Jurassic Park and start talking about chaos theory. The world is knocked apart like the children's building blocks that Otomo uses for imagery, not unlike Otomo's first psychic manga Domu which also equated psychic powers with a child's tantrum, although not to the extreme level that it is here. Otomo clearly spent some time developing the world, but we don't get much time to stop and see the scenery, or talk about backstory, because it's really an action manga: Kaneda and the other heroes are always on the run, surviving by wits and luck, narrowly avoiding getting shot by the cops or crushed by falling rubble. (It seems like it would make a great video game, but somehow it was only ever made into awful ones; maybe it's because the motorcycling was such a big part of the movie, no game developer could do an Akira game without including a motorcycle sequence, but it's almost impossible to have good platforming AND racing in the same game, so the idea of an Akira game was probably always a recipe for crappy-half-platformer-half-racing disaster.)

Akira is also a bit of a fighting manga. The battle between Tetsuo and Kaneda, or rather EVERYONE'S constant attempts to defeat Tetsuo, are what keeps the plot moving. (Depending on your taste, it does get kind of draggy and tiresome at points.) At first all the guns and military equipment seen in the series are basically the same as you'd find in the late 20th century, but later the tech starts escalating. First there's the experimental military hoverchairs. Then there are the caretaker robots, automated drones which are called out to keep order when the city is in a state of martial law. "Guns can't hurt Tetsuo now…we need something more…" says Kei, as she searches a military armory and arms herself with an experimental laser rifle. "We're going to need missiles…fighter planes! Call for every weapon available!" shouts the Colonel. And don't forget the giant orbital laser cannon which features in one of the most famous scenes in the anime. But it's all to no avail; although they use bigger and bigger guns, the ever-increasing power of Tetsuo is always just a step beyond them. At least Tetsuo isn't merely a stereotypical cool, cackling villain. In fact, he's a punk, a stubborn jerk with spiky hair and bad attitude…apart from the drug abuse and wanton slaughter of innocents, he's a typical shonen manga character, really.

Although it's basically an action comic, there are many characters, most of them short-lived, most of them ruthless. The leader of the political opposition party is just as corrupt as the Colonel, if not more so. Lady Miyako, a cult leader with psychic powers, seems to want to protect Neo-Tokyo, but she too uses people for her own means. Beneath his boyish good looks, Kaneda is also a huge jerk—a gang leader whose biggest motivations are thrills, revenge, drugs and getting laid. When the girl who steals him his pills from the school pharmacy tells him she's pregnant, he says, "Hey great! Can I watch you have it?" For hundreds of pages, it seems like he has no motivation to even be in the story except for randomly bumbling into things, but gradually he becomes less irresponsible, and by the end of Akira he's jumping into danger for heroic reasons, not just to get his bike back. Kei is probably the most likeable character, maybe because she keeps resisting Kaneda's attempts to hit on her. But deep down, the story is about friendship and rivalry. After countless apocalypses and transformations, Tetsuo and Kaneda remain determined to settle the score with one another. Even two mooks from the secondary cast have a strong enough grudge to fight to the death in a knife fight in an underground laboratory. And the redemption of the manga's characters is through friendship. "What the hell was the point of these experiments? All they brought was death and destruction!" one character shouts towards the end of the story. (I'm paraphrasing.) "It wasn't all bad…it brought us friends!" answers the spirits of number 26, number 28 and the other psychic children who met each other in the lab. At the core of the destruction, on the other side of the abyss of ultimate psychic power and anger, is a moment of childhood Nirvana, a glimpse of the time in childhood when we were loved and happy. It's not an incredibly deep message, but after 2000 pages of death and destruction, it feels like a well-earned moment of relief.

Akira was very popular in America as well as Japan, partly due to the 1988 anime movie, which condensed the plot into a semi-coherent story with great animation and TONS of scenes of the two main characters shouting at each other "Kaneda!" "Tetsuo!" "KANEEEDAAAAA!" "TETSUUOOOOO!" For a while in American fandom, it was THE anime to see, although due to better timing and marketing, Ghost in the Shell ended up outselling it on video. (The British magazine Manga Max once said that if you got into anime between 1990 and 1996, you were a fan of the Akira/Ranma ½ generation.) Akira also had the honor of being chosen as one of the very, very few manga ever translated by Marvel Comics, who released it in a flipped, colorized edition edited by Marvel's then-resident manga fan Jo Duffy. (The more recent Dark Horse and Kodansha editions use a different translation.)

In some ways, Akira was actually a natural fit for the American market in the '80s, as the basic outline—scientific experiments create a human being with terrifying absolute power—is similar to many cult classic superhero comics from the same period, such as Alan Moore's Miracleman and Rick Veitch's The One and Maximortal. Maybe it was a message particularly suited to the '80s, when a nuclear war between the US and Russia seemed like the biggest threat to human existence; it was easy to imagine one person destroying the world with a flick of their hand, or the push of a button. Or maybe Akira sprang from the same impulse to do an 'adult' version of a 'childish' genre like superheroes. Psychic superheroes were popular in anime and manga long before Akira—just look at Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Giant Robo, or Kazumasa Hirai and Shotaro Ishinomori's Genma Taisen, on whose movie version Otomo worked as an animator. Did Otomo think of himself as doing the ultimate 'realistic' take on the psychic hero genre, a sort of Watchmen for psychic anime, the Last Psychic Manga? If so, like Watchmen, he only created a boom in the genre, specifically psychic stories and stories of big balls of energy blowing up things.

Is it ever possible to overstate the influence of Akira? Maybe it's just me, but when Tetsuo transforms towards the end, before he enters the zone of Tetsuo: The Iron Man-style monstrousness, he goes through a phase with white spiky hair in which I couldn't help thinking "Is that…is that Super Saiyan Vegeta?" By the same token, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to think that Otomo's thunderous visions of Japanese cities destroyed by massive blasts was influenced by World War II nuclear destruction, particularly later in the manga when the arrogant American general shows up, fully prepared to destroy all of Neo-Tokyo as long as Tetsuo and Ak>ira are destroyed in the process. But when I see giant explosions blowing up cities in post-1982 anime and manga, I don't necessarily think "It must be WWII trauma" like some Western anime critics insist on always saying. I usually think "Someone's been reading Akira."

At one point when I was working on Manga: The Complete Guide, one of the editors suggested that the cover of the book should simply be a big image from Akira. I said no; Akira is nearly 30 years old, it isn't so popular wi>th manga fandom nowadays. But its influence still touches us. For one thing, manga like Akira, with its realistic, almost 'Western' artwork and heavy sci-fi plot, helped make Americans take manga seriously back in the old days. Otomo was a big deal in the Japanese manga community as well. In his untranslated Japanese book Moeru America, Seiji Horibuchi, one of the two co-founders of VIZ, writes: "My experience wi>th manga that left the strongest impression on me are… Domu (1983) by Katsuhiro Otomo. It is a SF manga masterpiece that portrays a world with supernatural powers in an everyday landscape, but the other reason that it left such an overpowering impression on me is most likely because I myself had been strongly influenced by the New Age movement so active in America during the 1970s." VIZ couldn't get the rights to translate Akira or Domu because they were owned by Kodansha, a rival company, but in the early days of translated manga, everyone felt the shadow of Katsuhiro Otomo.

For another thing, Masashi Kishimoto, creator of Naruto, has said that Katsuhiro Otomo was one of his biggest influences, along with Akira Toriyama. Looking at Kishimoto's art, you can see the shadow of Otomo's chiseled faces, his ultra-detailed backgrounds. You can see the crazy power escalation of Tetsuo and the lesser, ninja-esque superpowers of Akira's other psychics. Akira never ended; it simply absorbed all other manga into itself. We never stopped reading Akira. It mutates, but it can never die.


Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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