1988: It is World War III. Tokyo is decimated by a mysterious black explosion, unmatched in magnitude.
2019: Fast forward 31 years. Neo-Tokyo, hastily built on the ruins of old Tokyo, is a sprawling cityscape of neon extravaganza. It is a fusion of towering skyscrapers and cutting-edge technology that is permeated through and through with an explosive, hyper-violent cocktail of biker gangs, poverty, and revolutionaries. In this derelict metropolis live Tetsuo Shima and Shoutarou Kaneda, two bikers who are the best of friends and the fiercest of rivals, despite being affiliated with the same gang. Desperate to prove himself as Kaneda's equal, Tetsuo unwittingly pulls a stunt that culminates in the awakening of a cryptic existence that threatens to change both the face of Neo-Tokyo and the lives of those who call the city their home—the awakening of a government secret simply known as Akira.
Akira won the 8th Kodansha Manga Award in general category in 1984, the Harvey Award for Best American Edition of Foreign Material in 1993, and was nominated for the Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work in 2002.
The series was first published in English by Marvel Comics under the Epic Comics imprint and was one of the first manga to be translated in its entirety. Marvel's version was fully colorized and released in 38 trade paperback volumes from 1988 to 1996 (and later incompletely collected into 10 volumes). Dark Horse Comics republished Akira in its original 6-volume format from December 13, 2000 to March 27, 2002. Kodansha Comics USA currently holds the license and republished the series from October 13, 2009 to April 12, 2011. They rereleased the series in a 35th anniversary box set on October 31, 2017. The set contained 6 hardcover volumes in the original right-to-left reading format for the first time, as well as the artbook Akira Club. The manga has also been published in Brazilian Portuguese by JBC since 2016.
I almost feel bad that, upon re-assessment, I found the classic "Akira" to be so flawed. The source material for the first anime I ever saw, I remembered pouring through these volumes the first time Dark Horse re-released them in their giant phone books. While my maturation of taste has definitely not rendered "Akira" unreadable by any means, I can't help but feel that there is just so much potential for this to be something that it ultimately failed to be.
Let's get started with the good:
The art for this entire series is impeccable. The character designs are spot-on, but what most impresses me are the
background renderings. Painstaking detail is put into every last crack, stain, dent, shattered window, decimated tenement, obliterated office tower, speck of rubble of this world which starts as a mere dystopia before turning full on post-apocalyptic. I cannot imagine this scale of desolation or destruction rendered in live action. The framing of every shot is well-done and concise, and the action is always understandable and fluid. From a visual perspective, this is still a landmark of manga.
Now the not-so-good:
The story is a sci-fi story, extremely graphic in content, which also touches on common adolescent fiction or adult themes. At times, it's not too unlike a Japanese sci-fi S.E. Hinton. It straddles cyber-punk by virtue of its cast of drug-addled biker malcontents, but where it fails that level of "hard" sci-fi is also a major downfall of the narrative. Make no mistake, it's definitely about psychic powers. But the way these powers are explained and how they manifest honestly just seems more like "magic." Otomo was clearly not a science buff. "Energy" is supposed to explain away a lot of things, like why a human with psychic powers can fly into space and start carving up the moon.
The extent of Akira and Tetsuo's powers is absurd and never explained well at all. This would be fine if there was some metaphysical subtext that made this seem like a surreal exposition or magical realism, but there isn't. It becomes page after page after page of psychic blasts and things falling around people and that's all it feels like. Re-reading the books, I gave up about halfway through 5. I'd just had enough. It stops telling any sort of meaningful story and almost becomes a Shonen. The point of the story stops being about government intrigue or youth rebellion and shifts to "Tetsuo is really powerful, look at this powerful display of power, man, the good guys better get him."
Further, while the character designs themselves were good, their story arcs and character development left a lot to be desired.
Let's start with main character Kaneda. He is a bad ass biker boy who tries to feel your tits and steals your gun and doesn't get killed because he's a bad ass, end of story, and oh yeah, he can't stop finding reasons why "this time Tetsuo's gone too far," hilariously even well after Tetsuo has obliterated the entire city.
Kei, his sidepiece; She's a nonentity. Like, literally, at one point. She lacks so much characterization that the little psychic kids possess her body in a last ditch effort to do battle with Tetsuo. Unlike Kaneda, she is presumably intelligent and cunning enough to be a pivotal member of some underground terrorist cell (whose aims are never really explained, by the way). Despite this, she ends up helpless and useless in just about every key moment of the story. Brash biker badass powers mean more than all the womanly cunning you can muster in Neo Tokyo.
Tetsuo: Your basic school shooter type. He's actually the only character anyone would bother remembering from this book, because there are moments early on when his instability and anger are actually kinda scary. His psychic powers are grotesque and so follows his own mind. In the real origin story of Kaori, who in the film is a meaningless plot device, she is the lone survivor of a drug orgy he conducts, a scene that is honestly really chilling. At the same time, you find him somewhat sympathetic, so obviously unable to control his power. Once again, the Shonenesque final chapters of the saga squander this on psychic blasts and whatnot.
The rest of the cast are the typical ensemble of people who exist to help these main characters get through the story. They have flashes of being interesting; Ryu and the Biker Clown alone have more dynamic story lines, downfalls and revelations than any of the aforementioned. But the story isn't about them. The story is using them for things. Not much more.
So I just trashed the all-immortal "Akira." Why a rating of 7? Because of the ambition, no matter how misguided, and the detail of the artwork. With proper writing (which is actually hinted at early on in the series, like say, the first couple books), "Akira" could have had a story up to par with its amazing visuals. As it stands, it's just a kinetic jumble of great imagery that doesn't withstand much scrutiny as a whole.
At time of release Akira was possibly regarded as the greatest manga yet written (and certainly clearer to understand than Evangelion). With the modern focus on dialogue as an engine of plot and character, Akira was a strange reading experience, with its static characters, repeated quarter-volume fight scenes against armies of gunmen, and unashamed focus on spectacle over exploring the intricacies of its own plot. The movie of Akira probably distils the vital themes and character dynamics much more sharply, with some more brilliant exchanges and creative images than anything in the source; the manga has nothing quite like that giant milk-bleeding teddy bear.
What it does have, however, almost nothing else does.
The art of Akira is great; the atmospheric sense of place is without peer. The feeling of ruin and desperation lies over every rag and pile of rubble. Every bizarre, wasted psychic is undeniably a child of nuclear apocalypse. The action rattles along at a frantic pace (Dark Horse's release of the series without chapter divisions was genius), with ominous forces of politics, science or the supernatural a constant presence. Those quarter-volume cinematic running battles? You won't find better. Some shonen manga constantly introduce new character dramas and plot devices like fairground gewgaws. Nothing in Akira feels contrived; everything is the natural movement of a master's artwork, action and atmospheric roller-coaster, on as grand a scale as the titanic powers of Akira himself.
The characters of Akira are not principally developed or expounded by drama or dialogue; with their world in constant collapse, there is scarcely time for such things. Their characters are expounded through action. Every line and act of Tetsuo, Kandeda and the Colonel expresses their character with utter consistency and charisma. And every character is real. Hopeless revolutionaries like Ryuusaku pervade history. Rebels, rivals and friends, Kaneda and Tetsuo live on in every city of Earth. And men exactly like the Colonel, my favourite character, actually hijacked Japan into WWII. Manga such as Naruto or Aldnoah Zero end up describing nothing but the playground squabble of two boys. Akira's themes of power, social collapse and rebellion (teenage, militant, military and supernatural) are real, and they are big; hence a manga filled with good old-fashioned gun battles has been impossible to ignore in any period. Personal struggles, such as Kaneda and Tetsuo's conflict, are overshadowed by cataclysmic events, and gain vitally in sympathy because of it.
Before covering a few flaws I must mention Chiyoko, the machine-gun wielding wonder-woman who will be new to movie watchers, and that her character could be considered a test-run for the heroine of 'Legend of Mother Sarah'. That is a great manga; if you can track down some copies legally, do so. For all the roaring bluster of Akira's cast, however, their characters and fates perhaps lack the detail or originality that would move them from archetypes to beloved household names. As mentioned, the manga also often gets too caught up in grand disasters and continuous action to explore its characters and plot in more original or explicitly thoughtful ways. As also mentioned, the movie absolutely solves this latter problem. And the manga remains a brilliant spectacle of power, rebellion, and social collapse.
I didn't like it at all and found it a bit overrated. And even though the artwork is pretty good, the story is just meh. Main characters appeared to be one sided and no character development at all. Kaneda and Tetsuo started off as annoying and ended the same throughout the whole manga, but I liked some characters like Kei, the Colonel and Chiyako even Ryu. Even the title character Akira is boring and he just exist as a plot device, other children are more interesting. Maybe I'm just expecting a lot more considering it is called one of the best. It may be influential
and even nostalgic for most people but reading it now late in the game just didn't worked for me. If you like post apocalyptic cyberpunk artwork with lame story then this is for you.
It is quite common to see how the impact of the two atomic bombs profoundly influenced Japanese fiction, generating icons like Godzilla and the other kaijus, as well as planting the seeds of dystopian narratives that would take over the second half of the 1980s and 1990s. Royale and, of course, Akira, like some of those works that took the profound changes generated by the end of World War II as the basis for their universes. It was that of Otomo, however, who, along with Blade Runner, deeply influenced the style to be followed by cyberpunk in Japanese productions, as in Ghost in the Shell.
Here we see the height of the conflict of generations that marks the Japanese culture, establishing existentialism as the great question lived by the country's youth.
From early the manga establishes this conflict between the old and the new, through the destruction of the old capital, through a new bomb, that gives rise to Neo Tokyo. Nevertheless, the old one still remains there, as a reminder of the past, with its wreckage still being able to be visited. In this scenario we have Kaneda and his gang, young people seen as delinquents who roam the streets of cities with their motorcycles, with the lights of the great new metropolis hovering like a terrifying giant, which suppresses the individuality of all. During one of these days, Tetsuo, a member of the gang, ends up suffering an accident and awakens his telekinetic powers - his inferiority complex against Kaneda, then, makes him go against his old companion, which would escalate into a war involving the groups of bikers of the city.
Akira constantly deals with the lack of perspective felt by young people, something that can be clearly observed by the portrayal of the school that the protagonist and his friends attend. Packed with graffiti, poorly maintained and with classrooms that denote that the last thing they do there is to receive some learning, the place establishes itself as hostile, reflecting the Japanese culture in eternal conflict. On the one hand we have the honor, the bushido of the samurai era, with family values above all, see the importance of surnames in this society, while on the other we have rebellion, technological advances, the need for liberation, so present in fashion and other artistic manifestations.
It is not by chance that Kaneda and his group are orphans, they symbolize the rupture with the old and, above all, abandonment, with the adults seeing them as being marginalized in a world in which the collective supplants the individual. One of the biggest shocks we see in Akira's pages comes in the early chapters, when students are beaten by the physical education teacher at the behest of the school principal - so the figure of the system is vilified, something that only increases when we see the control exercised by the government and the large corporations, all deeply corrupt. The anti-hero who leads the story, therefore, becomes a symbol of liberation, of fighting for his own dreams, in order to establish the "I" as something more than just part of a whole.
Although working on supernatural issues, something recurring in the works of Otomo, the manga has as its main focus the growth of its characters. We are clearly witnessing the evolution of their personalities, with old grievances being brought to the fore as the alienation of young people from the whole system becomes more evident. The author, then, gradually inserts the struggle against this government, putting in its pages rebel movements, demonstrations and more, which dialogues perfectly with our current situation, more and more disappointed with the direction that the rulers take us. That said, although it was written between 1982 and 1990, Akira is a work that remains current, enabling us to identify immediately with his narrative.
This factor, however, is only made possible by Katsuhiro's feature-filled trait. Fleeing from the usual Japanese comic art of the time, the artist relies on the realism of his characters, portraying them with physiology closest to the Japanese population. The large eyes and slender forms give way to more rounded forms, which bring with it a great content of expressiveness, to such an extent that we can clearly see the emotion of each of the characters. It is curious to observe how the author can differentiate each individual from history without relying on hair that is very different from one another or from physical characteristics that escape reality. This factor proves to be essential to building our closeness to art, even though everything is embedded in a cyberpunk context.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why Akira has reached his position in the popular imagination, establishing himself as one of the most important manga ever produced. Dialoging with the relevant conflicts not only to Japanese society, but also to those around the world, we are talking about a timeless work that deals deeply with the struggle for individuality as it explores the eternal struggle between the old world and the new. Having influenced hundreds of works, both Eastern and Western, the manga truly deserves to be read, while dialoging perfectly with our current situation.