This week: Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning Akira Vol 1., a seminal work frequently credited as the trigger for the international popularity of Japanese comics and the inspiration for hundreds of works for years to come.
Akira summary: The time is 2030 and the place is Neo-Tokyo. The original Tokyo was destroyed by a catastrophic explosion in the early ’90s, kicking off World War III. Neo-Tokyo was rebuilt on an artificial island, but is filled with strife. Protagonist Shōtarō Kaneda is a teenage delinquent and leader of a bōsōzoku gang. One night, Kaneda and his gang ride out into the old city, to the epicenter of the explosion. After riding as far as they can go, Kaneda suggests a race back. One of the gang members, Tetsuo Shima, pulls ahead of Kaneda, declaring that this time it would finally be he who was leaving the other in the dust—but a strange-looking child suddenly appears in the road and causes Tetsuo to crash. Kaneda is the only one to get a good look at the child, a young boy who has the face of an old man, before the kid vanishes. Tetsuo is taken to a hospital, but when the gang tries to visit him, none of them are able to find out where he is. Unbeknownst to Kaneda and his friends, Tetsuo has caught the interest of a covert government operation that begins to experiment upon him. Meanwhile, Kaneda comes across a girl named Kei who, along with her brother Ryu, is part of a resistance group that is looking for a child named Akira. Kaneda becomes entangled in both the resistance and the government’s operation when he manages to steal a very potent capsule from the very same strange-looking child who caused Tetsuo to crash. Kaneda and Kei must stay underground while the government tries to recover the capsule—that is, until Kaneda learns that a rival bike gang has begun expanding beyond their usual territory and stealing massive amounts of drugs. This gang, to his surprise, is led by Tetsuo—a Tetsuo, who, per Yamagata (Kaneda’s right hand), has come back “changed.” There are rumors that he is now incredibly powerful, powerful enough to make a man’s head explode. Kaneda rallies the leaders of the other gangs and launches a counter-offensive against the rival gang. In the final confrontation, Kaneda learns that the rumors are true and that Tetsuo has developed incredible psychokinetic powers. Tetsuo kills Yamagata and takes the capsule from Kaneda just as the government arrives on the scene. The capsule initially appears to kill him, but Tetsuo somehow survives—and is welcomed into the government’s training program with open arms.
J.A. Micheline: I wanted to talk about Akira for a lot of reasons. Its legacy as a landmark work in both film and comics. Nothing of its kind had ever been seen before and Otomo changed the game in both fields—which is relatively unusual. He allowed the comic to be made into a film on the condition that he was directly involved in the process and retained creative control. He actually took a break from the comic’s production (it was unfinished at the time the film was being made) in order to work properly on the film. Meanwhile, the comic itself was everything that Otomo had been working on previously, but on hyperdrive: intensely detailed line art, psychokinesis, meticulously rendered dilapidation, freedom fighting. This level of complexity and detail—both in art and story structure—had been previously unseen in most comics and influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of works to come.
I also have a bit of a strange relationship with it. I’ve seen the movie two or three times, and each time I had the sense that I could see the craft and see why it was a masterpiece—but I was never emotionally involved. Too much seemed to happen in the span of two hours and I couldn’t connect with Kaneda or Tetsuo the way I wanted to and I suspected reading the comic would solve this problem. There’s usually more space in a comic for character development and, given Akira expands into six volumes, I expected to be a bit more involved with the characters.
This was my second time reading Akira and I will say that it was a better experience than the first time, four years ago. Where I felt the 1988 film went at a pace that was, perhaps, too rapid for me to really invest myself in the characters, the speed of Volume 1 isn’t the problem (all in all, things move much more slowly) so much as the sense of monotony. Often, it felt very “this happened and then this happened and then also this”—it was almost too smooth, if that makes sense. I really wanted a second to experience something that wasn’t immediately plot related. It’s definitely an improvement over the film experience—I cared more about Yamagata’s death, I think, and have a better appreciation for Kei—but still, I could’ve used a little more meandering.
My favorite scenes were the ones set at Kaneda’s school. You see what kind of kids he and the rest of his gang are—how they’re mistreated by the teachers (and the school nurse, though I’m not confident Otomo views this as mistreatment), how they look out for each other, what they feel they have to do to be strong. Some of the plot does find its way in, but it’s a little more gentle and not particularly necessary. I could’ve done with more of that throughout the work, especially when I’m meant to believe certain moments (for example, Kaneda failing to fire on Tetsuo when he had the chance).
Oliver, are you with me on this? What was your sense of the pacing and emotional content?
Oliver Sava: I’m glad you asked me about the pacing because it’s the number one thing on my mind after finishing the first volume. I’ve only seen the Akira movie once back in high school, and I wasn’t concerned with the character development as much as I was the exhilarating action. I gave the manga a shot after seeing the movie, but for some reason I never made it through more than the first sequence, probably because I was bingeing on American comics that were taking up my reading time and I only had so many days with my library copy of Akira. I remember only bits and pieces of the movie, so returning to Akira a decade later is almost like absorbing a new story, especially because the manga has the opportunity to expand on aspects of the narrative that are glossed over in the movie.
Akira Vol. 1 is one of the most exhilarating comics I’ve ever read. There’s a lot happening in these 350 pages, but it covers all this plot with an intense energy that rarely lets up, making for a very brisk read. I agree that the character relationships aren’t as full as they could be, but I’d much rather have Otomo maintain that brisk pace rather than slow down to detail the inner lives of these characters in more detail. I can glean the basics of Kaneda and Tetsuo’s friendship in that opening scene where Tetsuo tries to pull ahead of the rest of the gang, which establishes a sense of inferiority in Tetsuo while also showing Kaneda’s investment in his friend’s well-being. Those scenes at the school provide a lot of important context for why Kaneda and his friends act out, and I don’t need much more than that to latch onto those characters and understand their behavior.
That doesn’t mean I necessarily empathize, especially when Kaneda starts acting like a lecherous creep with Kei, but Kaneda having little respect for a woman’s personal boundaries is in line with his general lack of respect for any boundaries, whether they are the social expectations placed on him at school or the physical borders surrounding the detonation site of the bomb that destroyed Tokyo. He can be a brat and a jerk, but it’s fun to see a character like that forced into a heroic role, especially when he’s in over his head. Kaneda stumbles into a massive military conspiracy, and he bumbles his way through a lot of this first volume when he’s not on his motorcycle. He’s a badass action hero on his bike, but I love moments like Kaneda’s clumsy escape from the military base, where he keeps making loud noises when he’s supposed to be completely silent.
It’s easy to see why Akira was such a massive success when it come to the U.S., and while manga influences had been making their way into American comics during the ’80s, I imagine the storytelling style was foreign to a lot of readers at the time. When I think of how Akira compares to the popular comics of the time, the first thing that comes to mind is how sparse the writing is, and the visuals really carry the majority of the narrative weight. Otomo doesn’t need narration to describe the state of Neo-Tokyo when he has the ability to convey that information in evocative shots of the city’s majestic, imposing skyline and its dirty, graffiti-covered streets (I love how the considerable number of graffiti penises implies that the artists are most likely in their teens), and he’s clearly more interested in drawing dynamic action sequences rather than extended scenes of dialogue. Shea, what is it about Otomo’s action storytelling that makes him such a master of rapid, powerful movement? Are there any moments in this first volume that are especially memorable in terms of visceral impact?
Shea Hennum: I think, first and foremost, that comes down to Otomo’s intricate and detailed linework. This gives his bodies a particular weight, and you viscerally understand them to be moving, rather than a detached—maybe even theoretical—understanding of movement you get from less-skilled cartoonists. This also extends the viscera in the book, which Otomo renders as opaque splashes of thick ink. It’s not realistic gore, but it is an effective approximation of gore. There is a texture and a weight to his images that lend his work a certain illusory verisimilitude that is rather convincing.
It’s equally as important to consider Otomo’s storytelling style, which has more in common with the New Hollywood films he was a fan of—like the work Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, even George Lucas—than other manga work from that period. In Akira you see Otomo replicating, or approximating, filmic techniques: fade-ins and fade-outs, zoom-ins, sustained holds, smash cuts, and even certain sequences where one panel fluidly leads us into the next panel as if the image was moving. Otomo accomplishes what he accomplishes partially because of the way he composes and renders his images, but his effectiveness is also down to the particular way Otomo sequences his images. Like that page of Tetsuo riding his motorcycle with no hands—that huge panel of him looking like the coolest person alive, and then the next panel is just a slight push in, an emphasis and a hold; that’s the whole page. The way the page flows recalls the flow of images in a film, and it works for me every time I see it.
Otomo’s contemporaries, like Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Toriyama, Rumiko Takahashi—or even his antecedents, Osamu Tezuka or the Garo regulars like Seiichi Hayashi, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Shigeru Mizuki—nobody really drew comics like Katsuhiro Otomo. No one was using these techniques, except, I would argue, Shirow Masamune. That’s not a value judgement; I am an enormous fan of many of Otomo’s contemporaries. But something like Dr. Slump and Akira operate differently.
To answer your second question: my favorite page in the book is one that has struck me since I first read it almost 10 years ago. It’s not the most moving or affecting page in the series, or even the book, but its particular sequence of images sticks with me so clearly. When Tetsuo kills Yamagata we see three panels of Yamagata reeling back. Then Otomo cuts to a POV shot—Kaneda from Yamagata’s perspective, upside down and shouting “YA—!”—and then Yamagata’s brains burst. Everything I love about Otomo is right there on that single page.
What is interesting to me, Oliver, is the way that both you and J.A. categorize Otomo and Akira. It seems to me that what most affected you, for better or worse, was the story and the art’s energy and movement. For me, however, what is most striking about Otomo’s work, and about Akira, is the opposite. I appreciate, admire, and love his command of the quiet: Those moments of silence, when you can just sense the sound dropping out, or when the time between panels is non-existent, as if we’re seeing multiple images from the same moment. Caitlin, I’m interested to hear what your thoughts on Otomo’s style are. In particular, J.A. mentioned at the top how influential Akira and Otomo are; what do you attribute that influence to? What about Otomo’s style and work so ardently invites imitation and homage?
Caitlin Rosberg: We all talked about how The Dark Knight Returns cast a long shadow on the industry, but revisiting Akira has been a good reminder that TDKR is far from the only book to have a massive influence in comics and beyond. For me, I think the reason Akira has lingered for so long and has been imitated so many times is that it’s strikingly different from what most American audiences could get their hands on, and it’s exceptionally well crafted.
Like a lot of people, I discovered the movie before the manga, and I think that really informs the way a lot of people feel about Otomo’s style, I suspect including Oliver and J.A.: If the overwhelming shared experience is the movie, people will absolutely focus on the storytelling rather than the art, since the film doesn’t have the same visual quality as the manga does. It’s hard to have a conversation about what makes Akira-the-manga special with people who have only seen Akira-the-movie. Once I did get my hands on the manga, years after watching and subsequently becoming obsessed with the movie, the art was the first thing to strike me. It is incredibly cinematic and clearly informed by some of the film styles Shea mentioned, and I can’t help but assume that’s part of the reason it was adapted so quickly into a feature film itself. Otomo did a lot of the hard work of storyboarding and setting up visually stunning, iconic shots in the book itself, so translating his work into animation feels like a no-brainer. It certainly doesn’t hurt that so many of the individual panels and sequences are instantly recognizable, like the no-hands moment you mentioned, Shea, or the infamous and oft-replicated motorcycle skid.
Akira is also part of a legacy of Japanese films, shows, and manga that have reached critical and popular success in the West despite lacking a specific cultural context that really acts as the foundation of the story, and I think that’s both part of the reason for the book’s influence and not discussed nearly enough. Stories like Godzilla and Akira are rooted very specifically in the Japanese experience of nuclear weapons and warfare. In the ’80s, American audiences were absolutely primed for villains that literally or figuratively represented USSR or the nebulous threat of China’s increasing industrial presence, but Americans have a deeply different understanding of what using nuclear weapons looks like, and I think that fascinates Western audiences. The fact that Akira has this sort of alien familiarity—dealing with history and fears that are similar enough to the audiences to be recognizable but different enough to be enticing—is I think a huge part of why it’s been as successful as it is. Godzilla and Akira certainly aren’t alone in this category, joined by Ghost In The Shell and entire subgenres of horror manga that captures Western audiences by being at once completely foreign and strikingly familiar. The generational gap Akira portrays between an individualistic, disrespectful youth culture and a group of adults that are either catatonic or militaristic is far from unique to Japan in the ’80s; just look back at The Dark Knight Rises and you’ll see just how universal that particular trope is.
J.A., would you agree that the cultural and historical context of the book contributed to its success in the West, or do you think rather that Otomo’s work had to overcome that barrier in order to reach audiences?
JAM: This is the kind of question I hate to answer because it’s never based in anything but my own sense about what is true about audiences, which will always wind up being off in one way or another. It’s based on not just who I think was and is reading Akira but why they were reading it—in other words, it’s absolute guesswork, especially at the level of historical and cultural context in 1988.
So here’s my guess: The cultural and historical context contributed in some capacity but was not the driving force. The West makes a practice of viewing non-Western histories and cultures as Other, which means that the vast majority of people are neither educated in them nor even consider works within their original context without very heavy narrative cues. What’s worse, the West has developed a habit of co-opting narratives that are critical of its own actions. It’s unconscionable to me that, for example, when Godzilla was re-made in America, it was repackaged as just another monster movie. Godzilla was, originally, a very pointed critique of nuclear warfare and America’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For America to turn around and cut that narrative away from the Godzilla symbol is—well, it’s very convenient, isn’t it?
So when I think about Westerners reading Akira in the late ’80s and beyond, I’m skeptical that most are looking at it as the post-war narrative I imagine Otomo intended it to be or considering the specific context in which this is appearing. That’s not a condemnation of them as individuals, so much as a condemnation of the Western lens and framework. Cultural and historical context enhance the read, certainly, but they aren’t what’s core to the comic’s popularity.
And really, I don’t view it as something that Otomo had to “overcome” because I think the reason it saw such international success is because it’s superior work. That is my honest answer. I think Otomo is so good that no one is really worrying about context—or needs to worry about the context—in order to find Akira engaging. As Shea has already described, his craft is nothing short of legendary and was nothing like anything anybody else was doing (and, despite being imitated for decades beyond, I suspect nothing like anybody will ever do again). And even without the post-war context, he depicts feelings of rivalry, of anger, of lust, of righteousness—feelings anyone can understand, as you said, Caitlin. And even if you leave the feelings and the craft aside, it’s just really goddamn cool. A post-apocalyptic bike gang racing to the site of a massive explosion at the end of city limits? From the very start, Kaneda is on the edge of everything and atop this enormously powerful and gorgeous machine. It’s evocative. It’s a youthful fantasy—pthat is, before everything goes wrong.
But since we’re talking about cool—Oliver, I want to hear what you think about the fashion in Akira. Comics discourse could use a lot more meditation on fashion choices and beyond Kaneda’s bike, his jacket is iconic.
OS: We don’t actually see Kaneda’s jacket in this first book, right? When he’s not riding his bike, Kaneda’s fashion actually leans toward ’80s preppy, which emphasizes his youth. I’m specifically thinking about the striped sweater over a collared shirt that he wears on the day Tetsuo comes back to school, a day that ends with Kaneda stepping further in the action hero role as he escapes from the military base on the future Olympics site. He’s out of his element, and his outfit reinforces that idea because he’s still dressed like a student.
The fashion in mainstream American comics at the time of Akira’s publication was abysmal, so I imagine many readers were caught off guard by the specificity Otomo brings to what the characters wear. Otomo understands that fashion is an extension of an individual’s personality, and while he’s not necessarily giving every clothing choice a deeper meaning, he’s making sure to vary the fashion to imply more dimensional characters, even for smaller players in the cast. Characters wear hoodies, T-shirts, tank tops, and a variety of jackets with different cuts, collar shapes, and button placements. A lot of artists struggle with drawing feet; Otomo draws great feet and puts those feet in different kinds of shoes. My favorite outfit in Book One is what Kei is wearing when she first appears: a double-breasted, half-sleeved peacoat with a long-sleeved shirt underneath, dark pants, and a gray scarf. It’s a fairly masculine look that minimizes her curves and gives her a boxier shape, and it’s pretty cool to see the book’s major female character introduced without having her appearance sexualized in any way.
Yamagata, who is arguably the roughest member of Kaneda’s gang, likes to wear shirts that are ripped at the sleeves, which implies a certain wildness while also making him stand out amongst the rest of the gang. He needs to stand out because he’s the one that ends up getting his head psychically blown up, and fashion plays a major part in differentiating him from the rest of Kaneda and Tetsuo’s buddies. I appreciate how fashion also heightens the contrast between Kaneda and Tetsuo by the end of Book One, with Kaneda fully covered in a jumpsuit while Tetsuo is wearing raggedy ripped pants and a tank top. That wildness of Yamagata’s clothing is amplified by what Tetsuo is wearing, and I love the idea that clothes cannot contain the power contained within Tetsuo. (The tank top also draws attention to Tetsuo’s arms, which will be responsible for one of Akira’s most powerful moments down the line.)
There’s much more variation in the clothing of the teen characters, which makes sense considering teens tend to make really bold, often misguided fashion choices as they try to figure out their identities. Which brings us to the topic of adolescence. Shea, what do you think Otomo is saying about the nature of adolescence in Akira? How do you think major cultural youth movements of the ’80s, and adults’ reactions to those movements, play into Otomo’s take on the youth of this story?
SH: That’s an interesting question, and it is one that was in the back of mind as I reread this volume again. I have the 2009 Kodansha edition, which features a brief preface from Otomo that may not be in other editions, and in this preface Otomo nostalgically reminisces about how Akira still includes all his thoughts on life and death. I couldn’t help but think: “What exactly is Otomo trying to say?” After all, as you can expect with a work as lengthy and epic in scope as Akira, Otomo’s apparent arguments are multi-faceted and problematic.
J.A. and I have talked about what exactly constitutes “cyberpunk” before, and Akira for me is a text that—I admit this is a unique opinion—is not cyberpunk. It does, however, earn the “punk” suffix. After all, Neo-Tokyo is a particularly ’80s conception of the future, and it resembles the same cataclysmic climax of Thatcherite/Reagan-esque politics as V For Vendetta, Neuromancer, Blade Runner, etc. But its punk-ness is not just in its aesthetic (which did, I think we can agree, innovate and subvert the look and feel of manga) but in its ethos. Akira isn’t just a “the kids are all right” comic; it’s a “the kids fucking rule—everyone over 30 go kill yourself” comic. Kaneda’s youthful exuberance, his energy, and his verve make him sympathetic and endearing at the same time as they make him sleazy and gross. His misogynist and relentless pursuit of Kei comes from the same place as his foolishly standing up to Colonel Shikishima here in Volume 1, and then to the monstrous Tetsuo in Volume 6. The older characters—the bureaucrats, the soldiers, the teachers, and administrators—are left to rot under the boot heel of Akira’s Great Tokyo Empire in later books.
Conversely, it is precisely these traits of Kaneda’s that lead him to fall into heroism that precipitate World War III. Tetsuo is driven by a childish rage, an immature and petty petulance, and he brings the world to the brink of devastation because of his arrested development and his inability to admit that he needs help. Now, Akira is an interesting character, because his age precludes him from controlling his power and he kicks off the end of the world. But when Tetsuo frees him from the giant Dewar flask, Akira is cold, detached, totally in control of himself—with few exceptions.
Otomo, who was 28 at the time Akira started (36 by the time it ended), explores youth without any real conclusions. There is a lot of disdain for older characters like Ryu, Nezu, and all the background figures; their plans to prevent the resurrection of Akira come to naught, their plans to kill him are too little too late, and Otomo even draws them as sniveling and grotesque people. But Otomo’s explication of youth is similarly complex—it can lead to good, but it can also lead to death and dismay.
All in all, I can’t rightly answer your question, Oliver. It’s hard to say precisely what Otomo’s argument is. Though, I do appreciate the question, because it is something worth spending more time ruminating on.
Caitlin, another thing that J.A. and I have discussed elsewhere is how the pacing in this volume differs from the pacing of the film. We’ve kind of circled around this question throughout the discussion, but how do you think the comic compares to the 1988 film? Are there areas in which you think the film excels? Things the comic does better?
CR: I’m almost always a “the book is better” person with a few remarkable exceptions, but I think my feelings about Akira are a little more complicated than with other similar stories. The biggest issue with film-Akira is that there’s a lot less time for the build-up of relationships, let alone the individual characters in them. The movie dives into the middle of the action and cuts out a big chunk of the middle volumes of book-Akira, and it’s almost all character development, though Otomo tends to do a lot of that with action sequences as you pointed out, Shea. Film-Akira is undeniably beautiful and still manages to make Tetsuo, Kaneda, and the Espers (the psychic children) sympathetic and interesting. But Kei, whose role in the first volume of book-Akira is frustratingly sidelined to begin with, is even more minimized in the movie, and the rest of the supporting cast are cut down to a few scant lines or eliminated entirely, especially the biker gangs. Similarly, the world-building in book-Akira is far more complete. There’s a lot more to be gleaned about the program that created Akira and the Espers, the men that thought this would all be a good idea. It’s part of the reason that I sometimes get fixated on the cultural foundations of Akira, because the book features enough of it to actually make sense to an outsider.
But most of that is just the nature of the limitations of a two-hour movie versus six volumes with 300 or more pages each: It’s impossible to fit the same amount of storytelling into both. And the difficult thing for me is that this doesn’t make the book better than the film (or vice versa)—it makes them different from one another. While Otomo’s fierce artwork and the choice to show characterization through conflict does mean that book-Akira is still chock-full of action sequences, there are still sections that drag a little bit. They’re still better than a lot of complete comics are by sheer dint of Otomo’s overwhelming artistic talent, but it’s definitely a challenge sometimes. Because the level of conflict and action stays relatively high for the entire story, the lack of downtime makes for an intense but also sometimes flat reading experience, which you can get away with more easily in movies.
I think ultimately the strength of film-Akira is that it brought so many people to a new style of storytelling, animation, and comics. Though not everyone who has seen the film has also read the books, Akira has reached a much wider audience than a lot of other comics, and I think it also changed some minds about both Japanese animation and manga. Though there were certainly some Western viewers and readers that were familiar with manga and anime before the Akira reached them, Otomo’s influence is a lot like Miyazaki’s in that he expanded that audience by a significant margin. It feels safe to argue that without film-Akira, we likely wouldn’t have nearly as much manga and anime available in the West. And we absolutely wouldn’t have film-Akira without book-Akira. Maybe that’s Otomo’s ultimate legacy: by retaining control of the adaptation of his work, he demonstrated just how masterfully you can jump from one medium to another, and how wide your work’s influence can spread when it’s executed so well.