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Akira (1982-1990) – Comic Review

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo is a comic of about 2000 pages in length, published in six large volumes. It was originally published in Japan between 1982 and 1990. Most people in the west who know about it are probably familiar with it due to the 1988 animated movie adaptation, also directed by Otomo. It was probably the first anime feature film that was widely popular outside Japan.

For people around my age, the movie of Akira, with its ultra violence, amazing visuals and complex, mature-themed (if somewhat confusing) story was welcome. We were just coming into adulthood, and the conventional wisdom was that it was coming time to put the childish things aside and move onto the adult things. But here was a childish thing – a cartoon – that was for adults. Thus Akira interfered with the established certainties of growing up. At the time, that idea seemed great. Looking back I think it just made the task of growing up more confusing.

We had all known the film was based on a comic book. In the late 80s when this film hit, the first big wave of adult comics were being published in the west, led by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Comics too were providing a midway point between what kids were allowed to do, and what adults were expected to do. However, at the time the comic of Akira was not widely available in English, and besides, at 2000 pages, was always a pretty steep investment.

When the comic was originally published in Japan, it was in a periodical magazine over the course of 9 years or so. I read the whole thing over a couple of days in about 7 hours. It’s quite an experience, possibly too much, and I’d only recommend it by way of saying, “Don’t do it.”

The plot would take a while to sum up so I will only outline the basics here. It involves military research on the use of drugs to accelerate psychic powers. It’s set in Neo-Tokyo, a bleak wasteland of both shallow materialism and existential meaninglessness, rebuilt on the wreckage of a doomsday weapon, a ‘new kind of bomb’ which went off 38 years previously. Midway through the story, another doomsday weapon goes off and the city becomes a shocking mess of rubble, collapsed skyscrapers, drug abuse, ultra-violence, sickening barbarism, vengeance, totalitarianism, and destruction. You could imagine what seven hours of that will do to a body!

Reading it, several things stood out. First of all was the pace of the story. It feels relentless, and it can be wearying. Chasing, fighting, action, explosions, betrayal, anger and more, with seldom a pause. As is usually the case in any story, the author quite often has several plots going on at once. In a novel, we might get a break in the text to signify the sudden change of scenery and characters, like so:

In a comic, to make things nice and clear, we often don’t change the scene till the next page, or if we do, put in some kind of establishing shot to show that the action is now taking place somewhere else. Otomo does put in an establishing shot sometimes, but just as often or more often he’ll change scenes without warning, in the middle of a page, and plunge the reader into some knuckle-whitening fray happening elsewhere. It can be disconcerting, an effect I don’t think would have displeased the author, as he was describing a chaos-plagued nightmare world in which there was no stability or security.

I think he was attempting to be filmic in his choice to cut between scenes like that. Movies can change scenes a little more freely than we can in novels or comics, but they are helped by the fact that we are looking at real environments, in colour, with sound. It’s much easier to follow those type of settings. In Akira, though, the backgrounds are all drawn, all in black and white, and all of a similar kind of environment, i.e. drab urban settings, or rubble-strewn apocalyptic wastelands. Otomo’s characters look ‘normal’, too. Many comics artists use distinctive designs of characters with unique shapes, noses, hairstyles, colours (if available) etc. One could describe such characters as ‘cartoony.’ However the majority of the characters in Akira look like normal Japanese people, with black hair, ordinary clothes. It’s a commendable commitment to verisimilitude, but doesn’t make reading the comic any easier.

The backgrounds stood out. It boggles the mind to think how someone could draw such bleakness and waste, with such detail, over so many pages and years! (I don’t know how much of it was drawn by assistants, but nevertheless, it’s mind-boggling.) It’s so bleak and there’s no break from it until the end. Broken buildings, cracked concrete, mess, waste, graffiti, sterile corridors, bullet holes, and forget about seeing much in the way of foliage! (I saw one or two trees on a couple of pages, but blink and you’d miss them!) Such coldness and bleakness, one might say, drives its way into the reader’s heart. It doesn’t feel great. And yet we read on.

Of particular note are the skyscrapers. Many of them look ridiculously gargantuan, i.e. much bigger than a real skyscraper would be, but they also seem to be just right for this comic. Half way through the story, an apocalypse (one of three, of course not including the nuclear bomb that went off above the ocean, or the lunar apocalypse) ravages the city. From then on, about 1200 pages, we readers will see page after page after page, panel after panel of cityscapes where none of the buildings are standing upright. All of them are askew. The effect, over those all those hundreds of pages, is disconcerting, slightly dizzying, and possibly even nauseating. It’s so very wrong to see the world looking like that, though I daresay only a comic book could have caused precisely this feeling in its audience. I definitely didn’t get such a feeling from the film adaptation. There is a panel of these askew buildings below, but it doesn’t really capture what I’m getting at. Try to imagine looking at images like this over and over for hours:

Interestingly, Otomo very seldom used bleeds, only on one or two pages throughout the whole comic. A ‘bleed’ is when the illustration goes all the way to the edge of the page, and is often used in manga to give a more expansive feeling to the scene. I am not sure of the reason Otomo chose to avoid bleeds. It may be due to the influence of French science fiction comics such as those of Moebius. Bleeds are less common in French comics.

The ultra-violence is also noteworthy. Constantly, unceasingly we see bullets ripping through flesh, severe head injuries, explosions, psychic murders (where the psychic blows up the opponent’s head), bodies being shattered, or turned into red mist, black stains on the cracked pavement. One day some crazy fool is going to count all the murders in Akira. (Whoever you are, please don’t, I think you might hurt yourself.) I’ve been reading comics for a while now and I can’t say I’ve seen any that is more violent than this one. And, like the bleakness of the backgrounds, it too just doesn’t stop. Other comics have nasty, shocking violence, but it is often ‘cartoony’, and doesn’t register as much as it does in Akira, and even if it is more realistic, it never goes on for as long as it does in Akira. Otomo was committed to verisimilitude. There is no cartooniness. This violence is as real, as sickening, and as painful as he can make it. He probably spends too much time on it, ‘lovingly’ (if I can use that word) showing it from many different angles, but on the other hand I think that was his intention. I do wonder how much of the violence is from his artistic decisions, and how much was from the common inspiration for a lot of young male comics artists, acting out our inner, unresolved aggression on the comics page.

The psychic powers in Akira are a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars. In the comic, there is some kind of ultrapowerful omnipresent energy in the universe which can be tapped into to do things like telekinesis and other miraculous actions. Star Wars had a lot more optimism than Akira, though. Akira seems almost bereft of all hope. In Star Wars, one gets access to the Force by training and discipline. In Akira you can do that too, but to get the really high-level powers, it’s better to take special drugs and be experimented on by military scientists. There is a love story in Akira, between protagonists Kei and Kaneda but it’s quite downplayed, and their love doesn’t really inspire anything aside from itself. No one has any family in this comic, at least none we see. We catch a glimpse of the villain’s mother in on panel in a flashback right at the end, and she’s murmuring, “It’s not like he’s mine, anyway.” Contrast this with Star Wars, which is all about family. As for humour, there’s a few jokes, but they are so rare they seem almost out of place when they arrive. You want the good guys to win, but mainly because the villain is so utterly nasty, dangerous and out of control.

The ending of the comic is not traditional. I was not expecting it. But at the very least, it does end on a note of hope. It’s an almost backwards kind of hope on the face of it, in rejecting civilisation for a pessimistic yet optimistic primal barbarism. But a note of hope nonetheless.

It is a marvel that this comic was made. What kind of energy, what kind of discipline, what kind of personal resources are needed to make something like this, over so many years. One almost can’t imagine having this kind of imagery and story being in one’s head for so long. That alone speaks of Otomo’s uniqueness as a comics artist.

We can catch a glimpse of what inspired Otomo by thinking back to the 80s, when this story was made. The threat of nuclear annihilation was real. I think, looking back, that even though nothing happened, the real threat of Armageddon caused a horrible, traumatising kind of fear. The kind of fear that one can’t really act on or escape from in any meaningful way. I think it seeped inside us insidiously. Artists at least could do something about it and express themselves, as hopeless as it might seem to do that in a world which could end tomorrow. Even I did, at the age of ten in 1984 when I and a friend wrote a play called The World’s Disaster, based on our morbid fascination with nuclear destruction, inspired by Threads, The Day After and When the Wind Blows, articles on nuclear winter, statistics on payloads of MX missiles and SS-20s, and plenty of other things. (We performed that play, and won a prize. Wonder what our teachers thought!) Looming apocalypse and hopelessness was influencing other comics artists at the time. The above-mentioned Watchmen and When the Wind Blows were both terribly bleak, and both themed on the end of the world. They were also both hugely influential on western comics.

In Japan in the 1980s, they had already experienced nuclear holocaust, and yet at the same time, were living in an era of unparalleled prosperity. But there are limits to what materialism can give us, and plenty of artists in Japan must have seen all those skyscrapers being built and all the money flooding in, and thought the same thing. Just as the story of Akira starts 38 years after World War 3 and a ‘new type of bomb’, Otomo started his story about the same amount of time after World War 2, with its new type of bomb.

Otomo had also explored the seeming dehumanisation caused by the giant buildings he was seeing spring up everywhere in his earlier comic, Domu. It’s as good as Akira and about as violent, but because it is so much shorter, is somewhat more hopeful and normal (i.e. is set in the real world, not the future post-apocalyptic world), it is a lot less taxing to read!

Despite its genuinely unpalatable bleakness, the truth is that Akira, or at least the movie which was made from it, was highly influential to a huge number of people outside Japan in my generation, me included. The highest levels of skill are on display and there is no doubt that reading this comic, especially all at once as I did, has a remarkable effect on a reader, one which I can’t say I’ve had from any other work of fiction. But it is really, very, literally horrible.

J Marc Schmidt

About J Marc Schmidt


Sydney-born J Marc Schmidt is the creator of three graphic novels published by SLG Publishing, Egg Story, Eating Steve, and The Sixsmiths; the webcomic 3rd Blade, and a book of essays, Secrets of Popular Culture. J Marc currently lives in Japan. Email J Marc – jmarc@vividscribe.com

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