It is July 16, 1988 and Tokyo is about to explode. Quite literally. World War III, it would seem, has just erupted. So begins Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which just happened to be released that very day. After this initial explosion, Akira leaps ahead to 2019, one year after the thirtieth anniversary of this animation milestone, which just happens to be this year. While Tokyo may not have physically exploded upon the film’s release, Akira is still unsettlingly powerful and prescient in its view of today’s society.
In many ways, Akira is just another in a long line of dystopian science fiction films. The world is over-run and full of smog. Huge holograms project advertisements, and citizenry has regressed to biker gangs wielding primitive weapons over turf wars. Your typical gutter future world; the cops always arrive too late, the violence already complete. It is a world where one teenaged biker gang is about to grow up real fast when their paths cross that of an escaped experimental subject with powers that could bring about nuclear destruction.
Otomo is particularly smart in delivering us a future that has aged remarkably well (a compact disc jukebox stands out as the lone sore thumb of a reality that has surpassed Otomo's imagination). Part of this is the immediacy of the story. There is no need for telecommunication and Akira does not suffer from the Hollywood blockbuster wanderlust that insists every story be a transcontinental journey requiring navigating changing landscapes. Otomo realizes that, at times, simplicity is best. Many of his interiors, the hospital in particular, are rendered sparse, blocky, and orderly. There is an almost abstract effect in the line-drawn geometry of much of Akira’s settings that have not dated, and are not likely to. The construction of computer technology itself, while perhaps large, is also of an abstract and foreign design too detailed for us to understand; too intricate for us to question.
The music, too, encapsulates us, and is as profound today as thirty years prior. Geino Yamashirogumi’s score is beyond aging—an intense chorus of breaths both caught and lost, with percussion that rumbles like buildings rattling from destruction; it escalates the tension and raises the stakes.
In 1988, the animation was monumental, the effects and visuals grandiose, and the budget enormous. But in 2018, where the world (or at least New York) gets completely obliterated with every new action movie release, this is less impressive. It is the politics and subtexts, it is the “lived-in” world of Akira that may strike the modern viewer as more than a little uncomfortable. From Japan in 1988, it hits too close to home stateside in 2018.
It should be stated that Akira is very much a Japanese picture, with its sensibilities, hopes, and fears. The threat of the nuclear bomb has never been far from mind since that threat became reality on August 6, 1945. As a country decimated and forced to rebuild after the destruction and nuclear fallout, Japan has long lived with the knowledge that the bombings and immediate loss of life was only the beginning. While citizens struggled to cope with the reality of this situation—this new world forever changed—cinema examined these fears in works such as Godzilla (1954) and Rodan (1956), where creatures re-awakened by nuclear force brought forth even more destruction, never letting the Japanese rest, forever imparting further fear and potential destruction.
In Akira, no prehistoric creature reawakens, but the nuclear destruction has long-lasting and devastating consequences. Violence intensifies so that standards of normalcy mutate: “They seem to be an ordinary biker gang, sir.” Cops are quick to shoot and terrorists quick to detonate. Akira is full of rampant graphic violence, even more unsettling in 2018, due to the number of protestor casualties at the hands of the squadron-like police force. Disturbing is how close the events of Akira’s 2019 are to our 2018. Otomo was wrong—we did not need a third World War to get us here. For our world is always at war. It is a world where power controls, and the strongest triumph.
But at what cost? The story follows Tetsuo, the youngest of the film's biker gang, as he descends into madness after this “ultimate power” transfers to him on the fateful night he encounters the experimental subject. The titular Akira, so powerful as to perhaps have been the catalyst of World War III, is revealed to be nothing more than tubes and plasma—destroyed, presumably, by the great weight of his own power. Otomo is illustrating that power corrupts and poisons, and while this is an age-old message, it seems especially chilling in a global political climate of egos bullying each other in public to determine who can and cannot hold the bombs.
“Maybe we weren’t meant to meddle with that ultimate power!” a character yells in Akira. It is a power that can cause untold destruction and chaos. It is also, the film suggests, a power that is within us all. If harnessed, controlled, and educated, perhaps it could be used positively.
The educational system in Akira, however, is not one revealed to foster growth. Scenes set in a school (bold red graffiti have re-labeled it a hotel) seem to consist of loitering children passing time, literally laying down everywhere—in the hallways, in the classrooms. In the only bit of parental advice given to the youthful protagonists, an instructor slaps each kid in the face, shouting “Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!” Hardly a shining beacon of insight, nor a recipe for civility. “This school is your last chance!” an authority figure yells. What chance is that?
Tetsuo, the weakest of the gang, is familiar with such guidance. Kaneda, the leader, truly cares for him, but shows it with a machismo that also puts Tetsuo in his place at the bottom of the pecking order. This subconsciously builds to a resentment. When I am strong enough, when I am powerful enough, Tetsuo thinks, I will show them all. Otomo gives Tetsuo his chance. It is a sad case of utilizing power to settle out personal vendettas and insecurity rather than towards the betterment of society. Sadly, it is all too common.
Power corrupts, destroying first internally so one can destroy externally. And where, in Shakespeare, this internal decay might be emitted through a soliloquy , in Neo-Tokyo, it is an explosion, as the climax features a vengeful Tetsuo literally splitting apart and coming back together, becoming a behemoth of giant proportions, ironically in the shape of a baby à la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The more we are exposed to, the less we know, the younger we realize we truly are. And Testuo is very young.
Not that anybody in Otomo’s world is ready to claim maturity. A running motif through the film has figures in authority snapping back at notions that they are old men. “We’re still young!” a government official declares. Earlier, a police officer is shocked at the notion of being called an old man. A public official nearly comes to blows with another who accuses him of being an “old man.” Conversely, the experimental subjects struggling to control their powers look like ancient versions of children.
This is all consequential. Because the world of Akira is a world where it is suggested all individuals can potentially tap into this power. We are not ready to, however. “Because in the end you will not be able to control it and it will control you,” one of the experiments warns Tetsuo. “My body’s not doing what I tell it to!” Tetsuo yells as his body, full of this power, betrays him.
“We are not ready…yet.” The finale has the three Experimental Children disappear, working collectively to ward off the destruction the ignorant Tetsuo had commenced. This power can be used for good, but only if we work together and only if we have evolved. We haven’t. We are not ready yet.
We live in a world of political ego and greed. In a world of unprecedented spending on war while cities do not have clean drinking water and education is abysmal. “The Olympics is next year and the Post-War period is over!” a bureaucrat shouts during a Supreme Executive Council meeting , its members arranged to form a perfect circle, closed off from the outside world. He shouts because more money is requested to study the experiments. Clutching his chest, another yells, “You must be joking! While straightening out the historic tax reform blunder of our former Prime Minister…” he clearly has no interest in further understanding what could bring about either their salvation or their destruction, if it comes at a cost. “Unless an Akira disaster actually happens…don’t you people understand anything?” pleads the army official as the request is denied. Much like many issues of today, government decides that they will deal with it when it happens. After all, there are the Olympics to consider.
Notice that this is where the finale takes place. At a stadium set to be the location of the future Olympics. Just recently, thirty years after Akira, news been released about smear campaigns and illegal activity to ensure the location of future Olympic games.
Neo-Tokyo might be a fiction, but Otomo is not presenting science fiction. He clearly believes in the power of man. He is just not sure if it is a beneficial power, or a destructive one. Akira seems to suggest that he knew we would not be ready to deal with such issues of power and control in 2019. The track record of 2018 seems to be proving him right. Let us hope whoever revisits this film on its fiftieth anniversary might be able to look at such predictions as dated.
Akira is playing August 29 - September 6, 2018 at New York's Metrograph.