Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the 1988 film Akira is a loose adaptation of Otomo's manga comic that depicts a dystopian version of Tokyo in the year 2019. The film's premise is that Tokyo had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb 31 years prior to the start of the film; Tokyo has been rebuilt, but remains a troubled and dangerous place where the rich and the poor are pitted against one another. Akira focuses on Tetsuo and Kaneda, two orphaned teenagers who find safety and love in a biker gang which protects them from the worst elements of the city. After encountering the espers, a group of psychic children, Tetsuo's own latent psychic abilities are awoken, drawing the attention of Tokyo's totalitarian government. Desperate to prove himself and understand his ability, Tetsuo embarks on a search for Akira, a mysterious psychic with powers similar to Tetsuo's. Akira uses visual and literary techniques to explore themes such as friendship, sacrifice, the dangers of authority, and the burden of power.
Released at the end of the Showa period, Akira is similar to other "manga and film animation [in that it has] roots in the Meiji period's drive for modernity, military power, and the establishment of Japan's colonial empire" (Orbaugh 48). This is demonstrated most effectively in Akira's depiction of the near-future Japan as a military powerhouse that has managed to overcome the effects of a nuclear bomb in a mere three decades to become bigger, stronger, and richer than it had ever been before. According to film theorist Susan Napier, Neo-Tokyo has become "a place of overwhelming aesthetic and social alienation, a decaying cityscape that is physically fragmenting at the same time as its political centre is only barely held together by corrupt politicians and enigmatic military figures" (Napier 245). The totalitarian government and its brutal military play a pronounced role in Akira, driving the plot forward through their exacerbation of the gap between rich and poor and thereby providing Tetsuo, Kaneda, and others with something to fight against. Indeed, the initial destruction of Tokyo at the film's beginning acts as a catalyst which starts World War III and can be largely attributed to the Japanese government's incompetence and their inability to see past their own thirst for success and power. Tokyo would not have been destroyed in the first place had the government not been conducting a secret program for developing psychic power which led to Akira developing the unheard of power which eventually obliterated the city.
This is especially significant because a major theme of Akira is how the mistakes of the past are doomed to be repeated if the government, and others, are unable to stop the cycle of ignorance, incompetence, and violence. As Joseph Christopher Schaub points out in his essay, "Kusanagi's Body: Gender and Technology in Mecha-anime," it is "thanks to a scientific experiment conducted by a group of quasi-military researchers [that] Tetsuo begins to develop [the] technologically enhanced telepathic powers which he ultimately uses for purely destructive ends" (Schaub 88). Rather than try to prevent the mistake of Akira from being repeated, the military and government cannot help but try to exploit Tetsuo's psychic abilities for their own greedy and devious purposes.
This, despite the fact that Colonel Shikishima and Doctor Onishi are well aware of Tetsuo's potential and the fact that he has a power to rival Akira's that will inevitably lead to Neo-Tokyo's destruction. Asking Doctor Onishi how big a risk is involved in channeling Tetsuo's powers, and whether they will "really be able to control it this time" (Otomo), Colonel Shikishima does not receive a satisfactory answer and concludes that "memories are short" (Otomo). He reaches a similar conclusion while standing in front of the hidden underground chamber containing the cryogenically frozen body of Akira, and asks himself "Is this what it all comes to? Not much now to think it brought civilization right to the brink. A giant step backward in man's evolution toward eternity and redemption, the ultimate scientific nightmare! I can't believe the politicians would dare to tempt fate again" (Otomo). But dare they do, with the help and complicity of the military, and Tetsuo becomes a being of immense power who almost destroys Neo-Tokyo just as Akira had destroyed the original Tokyo.
As was mentioned in lecture, it is essential when looking at Japanese manga and anime to understand the historical context from which this art form derives. Clearly, the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki have had a long-lasting effect on Japanese artistic sensibilities. These events influenced Otomo's portrayal of a dystopic future for Japan where military and governmental powers have overtaken reason and compassion to the extreme. Given the deathly seriousness of Akira's themes, we must ask ourselves how the medium of anime effects the audience's reaction to such a dark and disturbing storyline. I believe that the two-dimensionality of animation renders this upsetting topic somewhat more palatable, allowing the audience to explore the consequences of military and governmental power in a safer and less off-putting arena than we might have had Akira been created using live action film techniques or documentary footage from World War II.
Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo. Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Film.
Essay Directory. Writing a Movie Review. Online. https://essaydirectory.com/movie-review/
Napier, Susan J. "Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira." Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. John Whittier Treat (Ed.).
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 235-262.
Orbaugh, Sharalyn. "Critical Approaches to Manga and Anime." PowerPoint Presentation.
Schaub, Joseph Christopher. "Kusanagi's Body: Gender and Technology in Mecha-anime." Asian Journal of Communication 11.2: 79-100.