The following was originally published in July of 2020, at the very prolonged height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid ongoing protests against police violence all over the world. It was written to examine an odd parallel between what happens in the movie Akira (which takes place in an alternate-universe Japan ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics) and what was happening in the real world, where the actual 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed because of the virus. The delayed Olympic Games are now happening, but because of new COVID spikes and a slow vaccine rollout in Japan, fans will not be allowed to attend. Things may seem like they’re getting better in the U.S., if only in terms of being able to finally reunite with friends and family again now that more and more people are vaccinated, but that’s not necessarily the case everywhere in the world. That makes Akira’s apocalyptic version of 2020 still a worthwhile warning.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, one of the most groundbreaking and influential animated films of all time, opens with an iconic motorcycle chase through the neon streets of Neo-Tokyo, a beautiful cyberpunk Metropolis built on the ruins of old Tokyo. The rest of the city, as explained in the opening text, was wiped out in an apparent nuclear blast in 1988 that plunged the planet into another devastating World War. The main events of Akira take place decades later, just ahead of 2020, but the impact left by the war quietly hangs over everything that happens in the movie in a way that feels surprisingly relevant to what’s going on in our very real 2020.
This is most obvious in a weirdly prescient bit of scenery first shown immediately after the violent bike chase, which ends with main protagonist Shotaro Kaneda and his friends getting arrested while his injured childhood buddy Tetsuo is taken “to a hospital” by mysterious government agents. On a sign in front of a construction site, Akira teases that Neo-Tokyo will be the site of the 2020 Olympic Games, just like how regular Tokyo in the real world was going to be the site of the 2020 Olympics until they were postponed because of COVID-19. In Akira, the sign promoting the Olympics also has a message in Japanese advocating for unity: “With everyone’s support, let’s make this a success.” People don’t seem to be buying that, though, because underneath is some graffiti that reads “Just cancel it”—another parallel to our 2020, and one that reflects a deeper connection between Akira and what we’re going through.
As established over the course of the bike chase, there are rising tensions in Neo-Tokyo between the haves and have-nots—a conflict the film draws attention to with the bikers harassing a corporate office drone in a car and a wealthy couple who are literally sitting with their backs to what’s happening on the streets. There’s also a steadily growing protest happening at the same time as the biker duel, with a quick glimpse of a TV news report mentioning that a “skirmish has broken out between student protestors and riot police.” (Note the familiar lack of blame put on either party for starting the fight; TV news is apparently ineffectual in every reality.) In Akira, it’s legitimately unclear why the protest turns violent; one moment there’s a seemingly peaceful march, the next the protestors are flipping over militaristic police vehicles, while—in a moment of dark humor that is darker and less humorous now—a riot cop launches a tear gas canister directly into someone’s chest.
The scene is recognizable even if its causes don’t quite match our circumstances. In our world, protestors are marching against injustice and cops are jumping to lethal force. Things escalate, and while it’s not always clear how exactly that happens, we do know that one side tends to show up looking to talk and the other shows up looking for a fight. In Akira, the protest is about tax reforms, a suggestion that the three decades since the war have been good to the rich people of Neo-Tokyo and to no one else. We’re marching against systemic racism and police violence in 2020, but let’s not forget that our rich people are making out pretty well, too: Billionaires have made billions more over the course of the pandemic while millions of Americans have lost their jobs. (Fox News actually aired a graphic correlating major events of civil unrest and violence against Black people—like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rodney King verdict—with a positive bump in the stock market.)
Akira’s Olympics are a literal manifestation of the tension between the powerful and the powerless. The games are never directly addressed again, but the sign and the “cancel it” graffiti sprayed underneath are enough to prove that the impending games are a sham, being used to paper over Neo-Tokyo’s civil unrest in hopes of convincing everyone to surrender to complacency for the sake of getting back to normal. The sign might as well read, “Let’s stop protesting, let’s all band together to support something totally normal like the Olympics, and also let’s re-open the economy!”
Okay, that last bit is mostly from the real world. The push for the Olympics to happen in the movie springs from the same mindset driving a lot of our craven politicians and pundits, which is that the real victim of this virus is the economy. COVID is surging again all over the country and predictions for the death toll are skyrocketing, yet people are falling for this idea that it’s okay for bars and restaurants and movie theaters to reopen because they have to—as if there’s no other option. (Though, given lawmakers’ reluctance to approve significant government aid packages, maybe there isn’t.)
It’s similar to the pearl-clutching reactions from some people in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, as if the destruction of a Target in Minneapolis is even remotely comparable to Black people being murdered by cops. A building can be fixed and looted items can be recovered or replaced, so denouncing just and necessary protests because of property damage isn’t helping anyone but the heartless machine of capitalism. Like the ill-conceived push to reopen businesses, it’s contributing to society’s repugnant tendency to value money over human lives.
Akira’s Olympic stadium is one giant representation of that philosophy. It was built on top of a secret facility containing the remains of Akira, a young boy who was experimented on by the Japanese military in the ’80s and developed powerful psychic abilities, which were the actual cause of the blast that destroyed old Tokyo. The military is still performing these experiments, specifically on Kaneda’s friend Tetsuo, and he quickly acquires powers of his own that start to compromise his mental and physical stability. The Olympic stadium is literally covering up the bad thing that destroyed the city and could easily destroy it again, which means the basic desire to go back to how things used to be is metaphorically covering up the real danger.
This works out disastrously in the movie. Tetsuo loses control of his powers and expands into a disgusting blob of flesh, the civil unrest is met with increasingly violent opposition, and weird quasi-religious factions are formed (this is given a little more room to breathe in the original manga, where Akira plays a more active role), all while the military uses high-tech weaponry to try and destroy Tetsuo—a plan that, naturally, backfires. Tons of people die, the city is almost entirely destroyed again, and the only thing that manages to get through to Tetsuo is a reminder of his friendship with Kaneda. A human solution, in other words, rather than one of brutal force.
Whatever our equivalent of a psychic teenager triggering an extinction event would be, we’re not quite there in the real world. For as weirdly prescient as Akira appears to be about the real 2020, we have yet to cross the point seen in the movie where our only hope is to outrun the wave of destruction like the people of Neo-Tokyo do when Tetsuo explodes. That’s because Akira isn’t really a metaphorical prophecy of 2020. It’s a warning about what could happen if we ignore real threats and injustices. Again, we’re not at that point yet. We’re moving closer to it every day, especially as states rush through their reopening plans and Black Lives Matter posts fall from our timelines. But as long as we recognize the danger and continue to push back against it, hope can still be found in our own ongoing apocalypse.