You are the monster. You are the god. You are the destroyer, the creator, the ripping skein of life torn free and thrashing wild. You are the wind that cleanses and burns and you are only a boy.
And not even the most powerful one. That would be Akira.
The first time I saw Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime masterpiece Akira, I was in college. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say it tore my brain into tiny pieces. Everything about it—the kinetic, visceral animation; the deeply cinematic staging; the insidious score; the imagery that burned shadows into the back of my skull—left me dizzy.
I had almost no idea what had actually happened in the story, though, or why.
It was something complex about a teenager who discovers incredible power locked within him. He loses control. Neo-Tokyo, the setting for the tale, roils around him with motorcycle gang warfare, rebellion, religion, and rebirth. The world crumbles and re-compacts so that its myriad cracks fuse. But, still, you know those cracks remain. You can sense them everywhere.
Through the years I have watched Akira over and over again. I thought I understood its glorious but suggestively sketched plot. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right until I read the manga.
[Press play for mind control]
Back in 1982, writer and penciler Kasushiro Otomo began writing a serialized graphic novel, published in weekly installments in Japan’s Young Magazine. This was the start of Akira. By the time he finished, it was 1990 and he had produced over 2,000 pages.
Before the manga of Akira was finished, however, Otomo began working on an animated version of the story. The film was released in Japan in 1989, later in the West. The manga and the film are interlinked but not the same, like conjoined twins, developing together but growing apart. Both are adaptations of the other.
The film version is vastly condensed, omitting entire plots that spiral through the manga, cutting and combining major characters, and leaving themes and meaning to be inferred or even just sensed. Many of these omissions are hard losses. Lady Miyako, for example, appears only briefly in the film. Her seconds of peripheral screen time condense hundreds of pages of introspection on religion and religious warfare.
Neo-Tokyo also suffers as a character. Things that happen to it in the manga—nasty, horrible things—don’t happen in the film. Its cycle of rebirth disappears and so it cannot play counterpoint to the stories that do get told.
That’s some of how the film is different from the manga. The two are the same in other remarkable ways, though. For one, the plummeting, addictive sense of momentum holds true. Otomo’s drawings capture physicality in a way that shoves you around. His clever staging of panels makes it almost impossible to stop reading the thing once you’ve begun; it is as if you’re falling into the book (now available as six graphic novels).
While I’m not a connoisseur of manga, I do know a thing or two about comic books, and I’ve never read anything else like Akira. It’s like Frank Miller took 2,000 pages to adapt an Alan Moore story.
The grand overarching tale also remains the same. You get the story of Tetsuo Shima, orphan and weakling, who survives under the wing of his tougher friend, Capsule motorcycle gang leader Shotoro Kaneda. These young men live in Neo-Tokyo, a future city rebuilt after the cataclysm of World War III—which began on December 6, 1992.
In this reborn world, there are strange, secret post-humans; eternal children developed by an army that does not fully understand or control them. As politics and power struggles rip the city apart, Tetsuo collides with one of these ‘espers’ and his own immense potential is unleashed.
At the heart of both the manga and the film, Tetsuo and Kaneda spar. These old friends become enemies and the story maps their prolonged duel, interwoven with other aims, other parties, and other battles. It is a conflict between established blind strength and ravenous need. It is replayed through numerous variations, like a musical theme, avoiding platitudes and easy answers.
Many will tell you that the hero of the story is Kaneda—that he is the protagonist—and that Tetsuo is the villain. This is not true.
Kaneda—naive, rash, and egotistical—plays the part of the savior, but it’s an illusion. He never understands what is happening around him. He goes through the motions because that is what is expected of him. He is just an actor on too big a stage. A pawn, not a player.
The real protagonist of Akira is Tetsuo. Tetsuo the monster. Tetsuo the destroyer. Tetsuo the god. And you will not want to be him, either.
Akira is a disaster film from the point of view of the disaster. That is pretty hardcore.
Now, the story is vastly chaotic, as befits an eight-year endeavor. If you skip reading the manga, you will only ever be brushing against the surface of what Otomo has wrought. For me, for years, that was more than enough. If you do find that the film gets under your skin, however, the manga is definitely worth the investment. I read all 2,000 pages in under a week.
You might also wonder who the Akira of the title is. Too bad; I’m not going to get into it. His identity is one of the core mysteries of the story. He is, thematically, also central. This is communicated through repetitive visual motifs.
Neo-Tokyo is in for quite a change! This city is already saturated. It’s become an over-ripe fruit that’s begun to stink. But there’s a new seed germinating inside. All we have to do is wait for the wind to blow and the fruit will fall into our hands. Wait for the wind called Akira!
Dissolution, Fusion, Singularity
I don’t want to give you the impression that in order to watch and enjoy Akira you need to keep your smart pants on. Remember: the first time I watched this film I was more or less completely befuddled by it and I loved it immensely. Like any serious work of art, however, you can peel back layers of text and imagery to find truth.
In Akira, you will notice a few images repeating. Crumbling dissolution squares off against enveloping fusion. This cycle is seen in everything from fracturing pavement, to swallowing pink smoke, to infinitely replicating flesh. Solid and necessary crumbles away. New and ravenous envelops. It is the old war between Apollo and Dionysus; chaos and order; yin and yang; government and rebellion; Kaneda and Tetsuo.
Akira suggests there is a final stage to this cycle, one that seems—in appearance and in effect—to be nuclear. This is a Japanese story after all, and a monster movie, and nothing represents both potential and destructive force like an atomic-style blast.
In this film, the third major symbol combines the first two. Everything is torn apart and smashed together in order to be overcome by the spreading singularity. This is depicted as a growing orb and the growing orb is, in all ways, Akira.
This time, that energy will be ours
Writing about Akira, I feel a bit like one of its characters, ranting on the street corner, mobilizing troops to call forth the impending apocalypse. But I also feel like a kid at the candy store because when you’re watching this film, everywhere you look is something you want to ingest.
Even if you ignore all the intricate, half-explained thematic stuff, you still get a kick-ass sci-fi adventure.
Visually, Akira takes the panels of the manga as a starting point, but then it layers in deeply cinematic effects. Otomo uses shallow focus to mimic three-dimensionality, slo-motion, and as you see here, lighting effects like trails.
This is hand-drawn stuff, not the computer generated material you get from today’s animation powerhouses. In that way, Akira looks more like a classic Disney film.
Although not, of course, in terms of subject matter. Akira is undeniably adult. This is a story full of violence, death, and horror. Kaneda and the rest of the Capsules are not fine, young, upstanding men. You should not show Akira to children unless you want them to be terrified of their teddy bears for the rest of their lives. Or kill everyone with their psycho-kinetic powers.
There is a depth to this animation that trumps most other productions. Dialogue was pre-recorded so characters could move their mouths in synch. Backgrounds look rich in immersive detail. Otomo elevated the standards of the genre with these and other innovations. It cost and he paid.
The other element that makes Akira so compelling is its score. Hopefully you’re listening to some of it now through the audio players embedded in this post. (The tracks are Kaneda, Battle Against the Clowns, and the second half of Tetsuo.)
Composed and conducted by Shoji Yamashiro, this music sounds like something Ennio Morricone might have dreamt up while chugging ayahuasca. Powerful choral chants overlay odd instrumentation—lots of xylophone, synth, and percussion. Some of it sounds like religious music. Some of it is borderline cacophonous. I find it all insidious and transportive.
The soundtrack comes in two versions, if you wish to pretend you are about to destroy Neo-Tokyo at home. The original version is the rerecorded, expanded score split into tracks that more or less follow the sequence of the film. Another version is available that lifts the audio directly from the film and cuts in sound bytes of the characters.
Speaking of audio, should you be settling in for a screening of Akira, don’t be a jackass: listen to it with the original Japanese audio track and subtitles. This is a very Japanese story. You want to hear the Japanese inflection and emotion. Reading won’t kill you and you’ll probably fail to understand everything the first time through anyway.
If you only ever see one anime film, Akira should be it. It is as thematically robust a film as Blade Runner, as emotionally evocative as 2001, and as viscerally engaging as Children of Men. It is a film I love and have seen a dozen times or more.
Watching Akira will change you. It will break you down, fuse the pieces, and absorb you whole.
Then you’ll want to watch it again.