Film * Katsuhiro Otomo * Post-Human Apocalypse * 1988
Hey! Let’s talk about a cool movie! I may not know exactly what the hell just happened, but I’ll be damned if this thing doesn’t have styyyyle. Akira is a film from Japan, and it is animated. It is adapted from a comic series of the same name. Because they are Japanese, I have to call them anime and manga, respectively. I don’t know why Japan gets their own terms, but they do. Anyway, this film has a look. Like, this thing is nearly 30 years old and it still manages to impress on the merits of its art direction and overall vibe. Akira is not unlike other anime legends in this sense. Like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, Akira prioritizes style and presentation over plot and character. This is not to say the story isn’t important! The narrative tends to be convoluted, and I’m fairly convinced they’re constructed to facilitate the maximum amount of Cool Shit to happen. In Akira, the plot is a mish-mash of post-apocalyptic urbanism and post-human, semi-mystical musing. But man, it all looks so rad.
Here’s what I could figure out. The story takes place in a place called Neo Tokyo in the fantastically futuristic year of 2019. This is 31 years after a presumed nuclear war destroyed Old Tokyo. I say presumed because it turns out that nuclear warfare is too simple for Akira. That’s not terribly important right now. What’s important is Neo Tokyo itself, which is just a fantastic example of the Asian supercity. It’s massive and bright and expansive and colorful, but it is also filthy and decadent and slowly falling apart. The main group of characters are a bunch of malcontents. They rip around on sick future bikes and fuck with rival gangs and basically wreak havoc on the highways of Neo Tokyo.
One night, while they’re doing this, they get all mixed up with some seriously weird business. As in this green child who appears to suffer from progeria is wandering around and blowing things up with his mind? And the Army is out to catch him, but then these biker kids get all up in the way and now there’s this big mess. So, your principle characters emerge right around this point. You’ve got the leader of the biker gang, Kaneda, and it’s real weird to watch the subtitled version because it sounds like people are just yelling “CANADA!” throughout the entire movie. Anyway, he’s your typical devil-may-care chaotic good character. Rough and tumble but has a heart of gold. Then there’s Tetsuo. He’s the little wiener kid who’s constantly being bailed out by the much cooler Kaneda and is always butt-hurt about it. Tetsuo has a massive inferiority complex and is a little dickhead about it. He basically kicks this entire fiasco off because he was trying to be all badass and steals Kaneda’s sick bike and wrecks it and gets his little girlfriend beat up by a rival gang and he can’t even deal with it because he’s such a little bitch and basically fuck Tetsuo.
Eventually, the green progeria kid is recaptured. However, in all the brouhaha caused in part by Kaneda’s gang, Tetsuo has been claimed by the Army. It’s… more complicated than that, but really the whole point is to get Tetsuo in a position where his fantastical powers are unveiled. Turns out the dorky little shit with no personal agency is in fact very powerful! Except he’s also a vindictive little asshole who should definitely not have telekinetic powers of any kind. It soon becomes clear that Tetsuo is way more than the Army can handle, is more than Kaneda can handle, and definitely more than Tetsuo can handle. He goes on a rampage, the green progeria kids try and stop him, some weird metaphysical nonsense happens, and that’s the movie. That’s what happens, and yet I’m confident I’ve spoiled nothing because this is not a film about plot.
Clearly, the easiest bit of analysis for a film like this is the old chestnut: Japan got nuked and is still fucked up about it. Awesome, we’re done here. See you next time!
Okay, maybe that’s a touch on the glib side. My problem is that I know next to nothing about Japanese culture outside of video games. I have a broad understanding of their history that is summed up in the above sentence. So then I read some things and here we go. Once upon a time Japan was an aggressive nation bordering on a world superpower. Then they picked on the wrong up-and-coming superpower and got themselves nuked. After that they were ashamed and docile and morose. Personally, I think it’s silly to try and psychoanalyze a society. Especially decades after the fact. Yes, Akira begins with the utter decimation of an entire city. However, we’re given exactly zero background on the how or why of the situation. There is an offhand reference to World War III, and then it isn’t mentioned again. Did the United States and Soviet Union off each other? Did China lob a nuke at Tokyo for funsies? Again, not mentioned and therefore not important. As the film unfolds, it becomes fairly clear that Akira isn’t terribly interested in mass destruction at all.
If anything, it seems like the film is a response to the economic and cultural upheavals of the eighties. My first thought watching the introduction was “dang, Tokyo was leveled and in only 30 years here’s a late-stage Asian supercity already to the point where it’s kind of falling apart.” This was quickly followed up by the realization that Japan already did this. After the war, Japan rebounded relatively fast after the utter destruction it had brought on itself. This rapid growth peaked in 1990 (or so) before crashing out. The original manga began in ’82 and the film appeared in ’88. While the shadow of the nuclear bombing might still have been in the back of the citizen’s mind, it makes more sense that something like Akira appeared from this turbulent social era of rapid growth and changing cultural morality.
Akira has more in common with something like Some Do Not… or The Sun Also Rises than it does Godzilla. Those classics of Modernism were written during a time of social chaos and reorganization following a massive cataclysm. Akira is doing the same thing on a different timeframe within a different culture. If anything, Japanese culture was even more entrenched than the social structures of the United Kingdom and Europe. World War II broke down this society even more comprehensively than World War I broke down Europe’s. The recovery period was just as turbulent and just as devastating, and nobody knew how things were going to turn out. Akira has a great many concerns about the future of not only Japanese society, but about humanity in general.
Over and over again Akira shows us lovingly animated scenes of Neo Tokyo, probably the best example of the futuristic Asian supercity I’ve ever seen. It’s massive and glittering, clearly an achievement of human ambition and intelligence. However, the film spends most of its time with characters of the underclass, and like any good supercity of late-stage capitalism, income inequality is the chief characteristic of the society. Kaneda and his gang live within the gloriously seedy underbelly of Neo Tokyo. While the gleaming towers of the masters soar above them, they are forced to live in the decaying, cast-off areas in urban squalor. They’re forgotten, unimportant. Their school is all graffiti and overturned desks and angry teens. The most important part of their lives is getting into gang fights on their sick motorcycles. On the flip side of this, Akira also shows us the ruling class. These motherfuckers are even worse: fat, corrupt, unscrupulous, greedy dickweeds. Neo Tokyo is not a good place to be.
Even worse is the direction the city – and the society – is heading. Tokyo was lost thirty years ago, destroyed by errant technology run amok. The reaction to this apocalypse was to rebuild as quickly as possible, and to double down on the principles that led to the city’s destruction in the first place. The end result was the aforementioned corruption and decay. Beyond this, however, the city’s masters are attempting to exploit post-human technology. This is where the creepy green kids and Tetsuo come in. Turns out, that first city-killing explosion was a result of a kid named Akira losing control of the massive power generated by his own brain. Now Tetsuo has the same kind of power, facilitated by a power elite eager to push technology (and thus their own power and control) further and faster than they can deal with. The predictable result of this is that they’re undone by their own short-sightedness.
Akira is a film about social anxiety, that much is clear. While some of that anxiety may be residue from the original atomic bombings of 1945, it seems that the underlying worry is more about human nature than anything else. Like most other Modern and Postmodern art, Akira is trying to come to terms with the whirlwind of technological advancement pushing society further and faster than it can psychologically handle. Again, I don’t want to put an entire civilization on the therapy couch, but at the very least the creative mind(s) behind Akira have these concerns. I’m just happy they managed to work through their anxiety by producing such a stylish, beautiful film.
All that said, never forget: