More than thirty years after its release, Katsuhiro Otomo’s adaptation of his own manga Akira has rightfully taken its place as a 20th Century classic, a fantastical and hypnotic flight of imagination serving both as a two-hour journey of escapism and as a portal into the then-booming world of anime based storytelling. By bridging the gap between Japanese spiritualism inspired thematic imagery and plotting familiar to a Western audience – as well as the unmistakable style of animation – it introduced a niche genre to a huge new market across the world, paving the way for universal success enjoyed by the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and the late Osamu Dezaki. Already a cult success abroad, Otomo made anime a globetrotting dynasty. Finding the reason for Akira’s resonance with all manner of audiences is not particularly difficult, since it is the zenith of great narrative-meets-dreamlike philosophical reality-bending. However, perhaps what struck the heartiest chord was it’s adherence to one theme that anybody, regardless of locale or culture, could appreciate. For all that it blurs the lines of established faux-reality and fantasy, science-fiction, and existentialism, Akira is ultimately a film about the fatal danger posed by one’s own anger.
This theme may seem a small piece in the whole, but when viewing the film with a set pattern in mind and in your sights it takes on a much greater meaning, existing on many forms that sources not just from the characters and the story but from its creator and his inspirations. There is an underlying feeling permeating from actions and motivations that rage, feelings of helplessness, and injustice at one’s own plight and past pain, define the carnage and despair swirling around the screen. That something so simplistic is transplanted to a hellish near-future dystopia and represented by world-changing telekinetic psychics, near God-like in their powers, only serves to reinforce and highlight the message; the most destructive thing a human being can face isn’t an atomic bomb or a bullet, it’s the unquenchable fire of their destructive anger which consumes all. It would churlish to suggest that the film is simply a stylized portrayal of one young man’s fiery mental meltdown and consequent killing spree, but it’s not too far from the truth.
Of course, history, both in-universe and in-fact, plays a part in setting up the groundwork for this; the incredibly evocative opening shot of the film shows Tokyo struck by the death-bringing mushroom cloud and shockwave of a nuclear blast, played over a skin-crawling silence and using simplistic artwork. The parallels are clear, Japan of course still being the only nation on earth to be targeted by such a concentrated nuclear strike. It is a haunting deployment of real history into a false future, tying a genuine outrage to this universe. While setting up a back story, it uses a very true background to make sure we are in the right frame of mind. War, the greatest expression of said anger, is a specter hanging over the tentative, troubled peace we are quickly introduced to. A fascist regime of governance has taken control following the end of an unseen third world war, pitting Japan back into the miserable dark recesses felt half a century ago. Neo-Tokyo is an impressive antennae of skyscrapers and neon that towers over the decay that is left of the old city, a constant reminder of past loss, and also acts as a juxtaposition between the haves and the have nots, who we meet dwelling amongst sleazy lower level neighborhoods and underground recesses. This is far from a fair set up, and it shows; within minutes, we meet a large proportion of the population mounting violent riots against the state, feeling the wrath of military might but still screaming and fighting against their oppression. One man even attempts to suicide-bomb a massive, suspect packed police station in the aftermath. This is a collective who are not merely unhappy, they are positively furious. The city is a whirlpool of simmering hostility and resentment, entirely mutual.
And this is merely the backdrop, the setting for the real story. Amidst this suffering and attrition, we meet our protagonists, childhood friends Tetsuo and Kaneda. They fit into a time-old archetype for the troubled cinematic anti-hero; the abandoned. Whiling away their mostly empty lives with violent clashes with rival bike gangs, they survive by a sparkling but familiarly lop-sided camaraderie. In a suitably symbolic choice, they are both orphaned, raised without parents, and without wisdom. The James Dean factor means they enjoy a great deal of popularity and attention from women, but there is clearly a void for both of them. The differences that separate the pair, however, define proceedings and in many ways act as a catalyst. In a classic Alpha-Gamma male dichotomy, Kaneda is clearly the dominant male and in many ways isn’t just the big brother but the boss. His easy-going casualness and self-assurance, clearly a well-adapted tool of coping as revealed by flashbacks, means that not only does he dominate the group, he dominates himself. It does not give him time to think back or to think truly at all. This, unfortunately, creates an imbalance in his friendship with Tetsuo, who is under his thumb. Clearly more prone to his emotions, Tetsuo naturally falls foul of the plot and, in turn, his rage.
Rather like The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent, the true darkness within is best shown post-transformation, but exists from the start, below the surface but still felt. Tetsuo’s angst can be seen from his first appearance, and the dynamic that exists between he and Kaneda is similarly established this early as the latter calls the shots. Beneath the bravado is resentment, and within the scene is a noticeable trend; Tetsuo seems keen to be left to his devices, alone playing arcade machines in a sleazy bar before being summoned by his friend. Similarly, the contrast is clear in two sequences within the film that display their differences; namely how the pair respectively act towards women. Despite being on the run from the law after killing a police officer, Kaneda is far more interested in trying to woo urban-terrorist Kei, not even giving up the ghost when he is accosted by her dangerous colleagues. A similar scenario involving a recently escaped Tetsuo and sort-of-girlfriend Kaori works out far differently; although Tetsuo seeks her out, he is focused on his own troubled situation and behaves dismissively towards her, even when attempts to reach out are made. While Kaneda has clearly worked hard to release his past and his hurt sufficiently to live what could be considered a normal life, one where he chooses to prioritize the potential in his future. Tetsuo simply cannot overcome his grief and as such misses out on the glaringly ironic fact that somebody he cares about is willing to accept him even as he rages about not being accepted. When he breaks down, both emotionally and psychically, soon after she and Kaneda bear the brunt of his all-engulfing emotional state. The anger we saw stewing finally pours out as he loses his mind. The fury is so encompassing that it makes enemies of his allies.
This is probably the most revelatory side-effect of his pervasive, self-harming psyche. Since he has been abandoned and left in the shadows of a cruel world, he chooses to perceive all around him in the negative even when they are not. The image of Kaneda’s red superbike, an iconic visual for the anime and the manga, is not just one of style but of thematic substance too. It represents everything that Tetsuo’s festering anger has made him hate about his friend; the cool bike is Kaneda being better, stronger, and more impressive than he. His fury at constantly being ordered around, treated like a child, leads him to believe that Kaneda is only his friend because the latter knows he can play top dog without fear of reprisal. In fact, Kaneda asserts himself on Tetsuo because he knows he has to. It is not just a dynamic that comes naturally and works well, it is a deliberate effort to ensure Tetsuo’s safety. It is done not out of exploitation and self-aggrandizement, but out of deep-lying care and necessity, since Tetsuo clearly cannot take care of himself alone as it will see him fall into a cycle of masochistic self-punishment and, ultimately, self-destruction. Tetsuo cannot see this because, frankly, he is too centered on his own rage.
Akira keeps its place in cinema history as a benchmark for fused genres and styles…
This all comes to a head when he is transformed by the Colonel’s experiments into the next earth-shattering telekinetic psychic. Had Kaneda befallen the same fate, the outcome would have been completely different, likely creating a Dr Manhattan-esque figure. The combination of limitless power and unrestrained hatred makes Tetsuo a monster. His apocalyptic travail across Neo-Tokyo in search of the mysterious Akira, ending countless lives in the process, is the culmination. It even leads to a showdown with Kaneda, who has followed him through the rubble in a desperate effort to somehow save him for his greatest danger; himself. It doesn’t work, of course, because by now it is far too late. When Tetsuo learns the truth about Akira, his predecessor, it is yet another defeat for him; he sees it as a signal that he is nothing to anyone, and that his newfound powers merely make him a scientific subject of research, organs to be harvested and buried underground. It is fitting that, after breaking foundations with his battle against the authorities, he chooses to use his abilities…to sit alone in the Olympic Stadium, self-exiled and isolated.
Tetsuo chooses this life, this solitude, because of the angst and pain that has brought him to this point, not because of some noble desire to protect others. The thing that makes him so dangerous, his inability to fully control his abilities, is the very same thing that makes him so hateful to all, even those that care. Kaori approaches him at the stadium, looking for the hurt boy under the maelstrom, but finds only reproach. Kaneda, still convinced he can save his best friend, is likewise spurned as a foe. In a great show of symbolism, his state is at a complete polar opposite to the previously sinister ‘kids’, the trio of similarly strong psychics who have more reason to be angry than Tetsuo but instead adopt their childish innocence and ultimately selfless morality. While the Colonel talks in terms of destroying Tetsuo, the kids see it as saving him. This, of course, comes to fruition when Tetsuo is finally pushed far enough to completely slip over the edge and combust in an astonishing and disturbing explosion of physical metamorphosis. Naturally, Kaori is caught up in this mutation, the final and most profound expression of his rage, and dies horribly. His anger, quite simply, is too much and kills her. In finality, it kills him too, his soul perhaps the only thing to be salvaged by a sacrifice from the Zen-like kids. It may all defy the laws of physics, but is hauntingly familiar to therapists and survivors of troubled pasts.
It’s a well-worn platitude that the trick to storytelling is combining fictional scenarios with genuine emotion, and this is likely the gambit that has ensured Akira keeps its place in cinema history as a benchmark for fused genres and styles. While embarking on an unforgettable and visceral rollercoaster ride of imagination and spirit, it also retains a beating and brave human heart in order to convey a simpler, purer story everyone should listen to. Inspired from the ruins of history both world and personal and by the pen of an artist comes fable one part escapism, two parts cautionary tale, a simple story of anger and release. And a masterpiece at that…
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.