Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo

Under discussion: Akira 1-6 by Katsuhiro Otomo

Pairs well with: Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld; Blade Runner; “Alleys of Your Mind” by Cybotron; the charred wreckage of a bombed-out, burned-down Yoshinoya.

When I try to explain to people why I moved to Japan, I usually talk about it in terms of repulsion, not attraction. I needed to get out of Pennsylvania. I needed to get out of the states. I needed space. Independence. Time to think. To get away.

That’s all true enough, but there was something pulling me, also. There were a few books that I had read before leaving that painted Japan as a machine that ran on the same fuel that I did. In the Realm of a Dying Emperor by Norma Field. The Nobility of Failure by Ivan Morris. And Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld.

It’s really easy to read Speed Tribes incorrectly. To get mired in the exotic stuff, the fly-on-the-wall reportage of the lives of drug dealers and sex workers. But the book paints all of these people not as types, but as characters. As individuals. People struggling in a country that, from the perspective of Greenfeld’s characters, have been sold an idea of Japan as a place where anybody can get ahead as long as they work hard and accept their allotted role in life with humility. Doesn’t usually pan out, though.

Akira takes this disillusionment about peace and stability and paints an epic dystopian landscape out of it. Here, the lie is given form in the images of old-faced children, in the machine-morphed body of the teenager Tetsuo, in the shots of a Tokyo landscape as bent, cracked, and smashed as it might have looked in the days of the air raids: blown-out windows, smashed-flat buildings, bodies rotting in the streets.

What seems to have survived best from Akira is the tone and taste of its cyberpunk biker gangs, mostly thanks to the 1988 animated film version, directed by the mangaka who wrote and drew the comics, Katsuhiro Otomo. Flashy bikes slashing across abandoned freeways. There are pills and chains and plenty of red leather. Akira (the manga) appeared in 1982, the same year as Blade Runner and two years before Neuromancer, and while it shares some aesthetic genealogy with those two works of art, it also brings a sense of glee and angst and youth and speed that those other titles are missing.

What’s also different about Akira is the nationalistic ending. The banner draped across the bombed-out thoroughfare at the end reads THE GREAT TOKYO EMPIRE. On the road, Kaneda and Kei, the heroes of the story, meet their onetime adversary, the General. The General admits a grudging respect for having told the American army to piss off and not come back, that the Empire is a sovereign nation and that they’ll be treated like invaders if they ever come back. Reading this right on the heels of Good-Bye by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, one sees a thread connecting them—a sense that there are transformations happening in Japan, that whether you like it or not, things are changing.

The main plot of the book follows Kaneda and Tetsuo, high school biker gang pals, who get caught up in the tail end of a government experiment to create telekinetic weapons by experimenting on children. Akira, the most powerful of those children, was either the target or the cause of a blast that destroyed Tokyo during WWIII, and many of the major action sequences in Akira are punctuated by enormous explosions or laser blasts from space whose consequences look an awful lot like a nuclear detonation.

But Akira isn’t moralistic about war. It posits war as the striving of nations against each other, which is as inevitable as the striving of individual people against each other. I don’t know I’m surprised or super NOT surprised to find a rock-solid spine of neo-Confucian idealism running through Akira, draped, as it is, in the trappings of iconoclasm. Peace in the self, peace in the couple, peace in the city, peace in the nation, peace in the world. That’s the argument at it’s core–and you’ve no doubt heard it many times before.

A radical reading of that proverb says that if that’s true, then we are all equally responsible for the well-being of the entire world. That we are all equally powerful and equally powerless. Philosophers might posit sages or princes as holding more significance to the general health of the nation-state or globe, but Akira illuminates the manner in which new sages and princes are made and reminds us of how they fall, thereby reinforcing the anarcho-communist reading of Confucious.

Life is, in the end, a continuous fight not to lose oneself, and a constant effort not to take another person’s identity from them.

So sayeth Akira.