The 2020s Are About to Explode: What We Can Learn From Akira's Vision of Destruction and Rebirth

by Evan Minto,

In 2013, the Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo would be the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics. In a case of life imitating art, Japan planned to recreate the famous Neo-Tokyo 2020 Olympics from Katsuhiro Otomo's legendary sci-fi manga and anime film Akira! The connection delighted fans on social media, but the similarities don't end there. In fact, this nearly 40-year-old manga explores themes that feel awfully familiar in our modern world.

Akira is both post- and pre-apocalyptic. Thirty years after a psychic blast leveled Tokyo and set off World War III, the glittering city of Neo-Tokyo towers above the rubble — the fruit of a laborious reconstruction. However, the city sits upon a weak foundation: failed economic policies have turned the people against their government, biker gangs rule the streets, and multiple factions dream of a violent coup d'etat. As the infamous English-language marketing so aptly put it, “Neo-Tokyo is about to E.X.P.L.O.D.E.”

In the opening months of 2021, it feels like we, too, are waiting for the apocalypse. It's been only 13 years since the Great Recession. The pandemic that brought the world to its knees just passed its first birthday. Climate scientists tell us we need to eliminate or offset all carbon emissions before 2050 or face irreversible damage. While our leaders sit on their thumbs or actively work against the interests of the people, political movements across the ideological spectrum are demanding change and clashing in the streets with the police and each other. It feels like it's all leading to a big bang that will determine the next decades of human history for better or worse.

Well, Akira is all about big bangs.

It's a story where the heroes are rarely able to effect any change in their world, and the people actually holding the reins of power — bureaucrats, scientists, and military officers — are incapable of handling the overlapping crises they face. Experimentation on psychic children caused the downfall of Tokyo, so what are Japanese scientists up to 30 years later? More experimentation on psychic children! The machinery of power chugs along, learning nothing from its failures. No wonder Neo-Tokyo feels like a city on the verge of another apocalypse.

If this seems prescient, it's only because history has a tendency to rhyme. Katsuhiro Otomo came of age at the tail end of the 1960s student movement in Japan. The movement was analogous in some ways to its US counterpart but was also colored by Japan's status as a client state of the country that bombed it into oblivion just 20 years prior.

The US was using Japan as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and a staging ground for its wars in Asia, helping to fuel the post-war “economic miracle.” This moral contradiction perturbed many young people, who also feared being caught in the crossfire of a US-Soviet nuclear war. Activists organized massive protests against the signing of the US-Japan security treaty. They were met with brutal police crackdowns that only bolstered the movement's popularity.

Then, just as the momentum of the Japanese “New Left” was hitting its peak, it all came to a crashing halt. A deadly hostage situation and shootout erupted between police and the United Red Army and was broadcast around the country in Japan's first live TV marathon. Activists quickly lost their popular support, and just like that, a movement that seemed poised to bloom into full-blown revolution was put to bed.

Otomo brings all of this into the world of Akira. Neo-Tokyo's revolutionaries are tragic figures blinded by an idealized vision of revolution. They rescue one of the psychic kids but don't seem to have a plan for what comes next or even a clearly-stated ideology. They rely on the support of a sniveling politician named Nezu (literally “rat”) who ultimately betrays them. Even against the hapless bureaucrats of Neo-Tokyo, they don't stand a chance.

That's not to say the military has any control of the situation either. Colonel Shikishima spends most of the story in both versions single-mindedly focused on stopping Tetsuo's psychic rampage, but even his steely determination and top-notch military hardware (the guy has an orbital laser!) are no match for the psychic teenager.

Yes, Akira is a story about disillusionment, but not despair. Change comes to Neo-Tokyo after all ... just not in the way anyone expects.

The compounding crises of Neo-Tokyo push the city to its breaking point. The lies of the elite. The city's unjust reconstruction. The psychic experimentation. All of this trauma generates energy. It's expressed in the fervor of the protesters, the hedonism of the biker gangs, the rage of the looters. A society can let that energy out and process it together, or it can try to suppress it by way of a militarized police force. But the energy eventually finds an outlet.

So it erupts for a second time, wiping away the excesses of Neo-Tokyo in karmic retribution for the city's failures. Akira himself is an avatar of the human capacity for change, with all the danger and potential that entails. In the manga, religious leader Miyako explains how everyone is carried along by the “stream” of the universe, but only Akira can divert the stream. There's an echo of Marxism to this — the idea that it's our collective material conditions, not our individual ideals, that determine the course of history.

The cycle of escalation and catharsis repeats itself over the course of the Akira manga as Tokyo is destroyed and remade. The conflict between the government and the rebels triggers an explosion, setting the stage for a new conflict between Tetsuo's pseudo-fascist empire and Miyako's humanitarian religious sect. That battle ends in yet another explosion. Each step re-shuffles the political deck, turning enemies into allies and vice-versa. The anti-government rebel Kei teams up with her arch-enemy Colonel Shikishima. Kaneda makes common cause with Joker, the leader of the rival Clowns gang. Their petty differences and ideological convictions melt away in response to the threats they face.

For people in the real world fighting for a more just society, the lesson isn't that those struggles are meaningless. Overthrowing the powerful forces of capitalism, white supremacy, and the like can seem impossible, but the injustices of today create the very conditions for their eventual destruction. The psychic power at the center of Akira is a natural part of human evolution, irresponsibly accelerated by greedy scientists. Trying to grasp that power before we're ready can cause untold devastation — no doubt a reflection of Otomo's experience with the student movement. But his caution is coupled with a bit of hope. As the psychic child Kiyoko says near the end of the film, “someday, we'll also be able to...”

As we kick off the 2020s with a year of colossal elite failure and stare down a climate apocalypse, Akira reminds us that change is not only possible but inevitable. The important question is how we harness that change for good, and build a new world from the ashes of the old.


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