Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.

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