The first time I saw Akira, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Post-apocalyptic society, politics, high-school kids riding around on bikes, psychic powers—it was a bit much for me, but I made it to the end. Over the next few years, I would have a few more viewings, leading to a final research paper on the film in college. I’ve adapted that piece to commemorate last week’s release of the Akira 25th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is essential to providing a closer look into Asian cinema and Japanese culture in particular. Akira, adapted from a series of graphic novels spanning over 2,100 pages, was both written and directed by Otomo and released in Japanese theaters in 1988. It is an anime film that contains elements of science fiction, horror, surrealism, action, disaster, drama in teen romance and rebellion, suspense, spiritualism, and social criticism. It follows main characters Kaneda and Tetsuo and the experiences they encounter throughout the film.
Tetsuo comes into contact with a scientifically mutated child with psychic powers. This encounter leads to Tetsuo’s eventual realization of his own powers. He becomes infatuated with learning what or who Akira is and in the meantime uses his powers for destruction. Conversely, Kaneda is Tetsuo’s opposite. Even though they have been close friends since childhood, Kaneda believes he must put a stop to Tetsuo’s reign of unnecessary destruction and tries to kill him in doing so.
History depicts Japan as having gone through periods of rebuilding. In peering into Japan’s culture, this seems to be true in terms of its layered past and representations of new media. In 1945, near the end of World War II, nuclear bombs leveled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suffering thousands and thousands of casualties, Japan lost the war and was occupied by America. These events would change and shape the nation over time.
Japan has not simply forgotten its past, but the dropping of the atomic bombs seems to have taken some sort of new meaning with the newer generations of today. The closest analogue I can think of is how the American youth of today do not truly know of a time called World War II. This doesn’t stop filmmakers or game developers from creating their own versions of history for entertainment purposes. But one must ask—do these producers of art actually understand what World War II was like?
This is why, in terms of Japanese animation, the concept of death and rebirth is a common theme. It’s so common and used throughout that one would believe it’s part of Japan’s acknowledgement and handling of the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bombs dropped, the nation changed forever. Japan is and always will be marked by such events.
With a culture imbued with such a past, creative forces are surely going to create their own representations of familiarity. In the countless anime I have seen, cities, planets, and people have all been destroyed, but this doesn’t stop human beings from giving up. People are reborn, and societies are rebuilt. In these essences, Japanese cinema provides an avenue for looking into the past and sifting through the pieces of anxiety on a postnuclear, national scale.
Japanese animation usually includes imagery of some form of a worldly rebirth, but this is simply not the case in Otomo’s Akira. Akira takes place 31 years after World War III, with Tokyo’s destruction by Akira’s incredible force as the opening scene of the film. In 2019, Tokyo has been rebuilt into “Neo-Tokyo,” where the city went through a period of vibrant reconstruction and a booming economy. Otomo leads us to believe the people had a purpose in working and going to their jobs every day: to create a new society and rebuild from the ashes.
Neo-Tokyo is presented to us as a glowing city of neon lights bursting with technology. One may argue that Akira is in the genre of tech noir, which, according to John Treat, is a “paradoxical genre that excoriates technology at the same times as its sophisticated special effects are implicit celebrations of technological achievement” (Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture 245). This theory is related to Akira in that technology sure can look pretty, but it also makes society lazier in certain aspects. Scenes of Neo-Tokyo are very similar to what Tokyo looks like in modern-day Japan. Was this intentional on Katsuhiro Otomo’s part? I believe it is.
Otomo purposefully highlights some of the most obvious problems of contemporary Japan in Akira, if you consider it was made 25 years ago. Teenagers walk the streets doing whatever they want, and characters such as Kaneda and Tetsuo recklessly ride in a bike gang. As Freda Freiberg points out, Akira is a piece of social criticism in that “all figures of authority – teachers, policemen, military men, and politicians are represented as oppressive tyrants” (Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime, Hibakusha Cinema 97).
This is certainly true, as Otomo shows us an education system that is boring and brutal. In one instance, Kaneda and his classmates skipped school, and the principal allowed a teacher to slap them all as punishment. Doesn’t violence just encourage more violence? Social control seems to occur without input from citizens, and people are in an uproar of political rebellion. The state responds with military force and by firing upon its own citizens, while people either run for their lives or fight back.
As pointed out by Freiberg, Kaneda and Tetsuo are both orphans without a home structure. Naturally, being boys, they take on adult roles and fight for power and leadership. “Akira is a postnuclear, post modern fantasy of liberation and empowerment for Japanese youth” (Broderick, Freiberg 7). Tetsuo’s condition can be read as an allegory for this youth:
…caught between impotent rage at the social straitjacket imposed on their lives and powerful feelings of aggression unleashed by liberal access to the toys and games of technology and consumerism, between masochistic feelings of victimhood and sadistic urges to dominate and destroy…
How does Otomo use Akira as a way to handle the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In a way, he doesn’t quite show the immediate effects; rather, he theorizes and presents the long-term effects. With Otomo’s guidance, we need to understand that he is crafting a statement on society and its youth in contemporary Japan. In this context, a particular word has formed in the real world for those affected by the atomic bombs: hibakusha (被爆者). Technically, “hibakusha” means to be directly affected by the bombings, meaning being in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the bombs went off or getting radiation sickness over time. I personally believe anyone can be a hibakusha, figuratively speaking, but Japan specifically holds the right to declare themselves as such.
Regarding Japanese cinema, Broderick questions if there has ever been “adequate and appropriate responses” as a result of the atomic bombings (Hibakusha Cinema 1). In what has been presented, “the films provide a reinterpretation of the past that allows Japan to examine repressed anxieties within a historical context” (7). He further states that “the monster surfaces only when – as in the case of the rapid postwar industrialization and the new cold war – the lessons of the past are overlooked in writing the future” (7). This statement can be directly related to Akira: only when major political leaders of Neo-Tokyo decide that Akira is no longer a threat does the threat come back, and the city is partially destroyed once more.
According to author Roland Kelts, anime with atomic bomb themes is something Americans will not understand because we tend to view the event as a positive thing (Japanamerica 84). What Kelts means is that dropping the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki aided in concluding World War II—and led to an American victory. Conversely, Donald Richie states that Hiroshima and Nagasaki have come to mean something else to the Japanese (Hibakusha 20). If we were to bring this into communication theory and the structuralist critical perspective, we would note how language is built on codes encompassing signs and signifiers. Thus, while Hiroshima and Nagasaki are symbols of winning and defeating the Japanese to Americans, they have become symbols of rebirth and reconstruction to the Japanese.
Akira himself is a symbol in Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo. For most of the film, Otomo does not reveal exactly what Akira is. I found myself asking, “Is he human? Is he still a boy? Is he power? A bomb? Destruction?” My belief is that Otomo has taken Akira and crafted him into a symbol of the change in the younger generation’s perception of rebirth and forgetting one’s past within the film’s world.
“Akira’s power exists within everyone,” and “Akira is absolute energy,” states one of the psychic girls subjected to testing similar to Akira’s. These two lines from the film help define Otomo’s intention of creating a statement about Japanese society. They are all a part of the hibakusha, as the atomic bombs have in one way or another affected everyone in Japan. How the bombings have been perceived and become symbols over the years are the sole responsibility of Japanese society.
It’s almost as if Otomo is trying to say, “Do not forget what happened to us in the past,” but he certainly wouldn’t be the first to try. Back in the 1950s, the first Godzilla movie came out in Japan. Godzilla is one of the first symbols of the bombs to come from Japan. A large lizard-like beast tramples through Tokyo and leaves a path of destruction in its wake. Compared to Akira, who is to say that Godzilla is not the same concept as Akira? What helped make Akira a significant success among English-speaking audiences in the United States is Otomo’s concept that Akira is within everyone instead of just one villainous entity. This is what separates Akira from Godzilla, thus creating an audience of people who want to know what Akira is on a more human level.
In searching for a possible answer to why Japan revels in its reborn past, it may be that “Japan is a nation prohibited by Article IX of its Constitution from possession or deployment of any military force” (Hibakusha 80). So what does this imply? The Japanese cannot maintain a military or nuclear arms, but there is no law prohibiting works that hypothesize and fantasize the opposite of such realities, is there? It’s almost as if Japan has a romanticized image of war (Hibakusha 80). These themes can be seen throughout not only Japanese cinema, but also in Japanese television, animation, consumer products, etc. Giant robots are almost a staple of the anime genre, specializing in large destructive machines with the power to destroy cities and fight wars.
It’s always interesting to see Japan produce a film or animated feature that has a hypothetical modern-day Japanese military built into it. Akira does the same thing—its fictional Japanese military does its best to put out the fires of rebellion throughout Neo-Tokyo. Their objectives shift to putting a stop to Tetsuo’s new reign of destruction, but their efforts prove futile against a power that represents a society’s culmination of forgetting its own past.
I believe it’s safe to say that Japan is the first post-nuclear and post-apocalyptic society. “Akira is a product of the apocalyptic imagination, a particularly interesting version because, being made in Japan, it is a post nuclear version of the apocalypse rather than a prefigurement of the End of the World” (Broderick, Freiberg 95). Katsuhiro Otomo may not technically be a hibakusha, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to express his opinions on a society that has been formed by the hibakusha.
Akira was finished in 1988 “by and for a generation of Japanese who have no personal memory of Hiroshima or Nagasaki” (Broderick, Freiberg 92). Otomo, and all the people he worked with on Akira, came together to create a window into Japanese culture for the world to see. Expressing elements of human nature, Akira was able to speak a universal language anyone could understand, even if they weren’t alive during the atomic bombings of World War II. While Akira may purely be a creation of fantasy, it’s safe to say that it builds on the reality of what Japan had experienced in the past.
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Broderick, Mick, Donald Richie, Freda Freiberg, and Ben Crawford. Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film. London: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Print.
Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Treat, John Whittier., and Susan J. Napier. Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1996. Print.