D. Bethel looks at the first volume of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira manga and finds in its pages much more than a commentary on nuclear war.
Akira, as an anime and manga series, is arguably better known for being a groundbreaking work than for the story it tells (variable as that may be, depending on the medium). From presentation to content to technology and themes, Akira has earned a place in the cultural discourse of not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.
As I mentioned on the podcast, I have come to Katsuhiro Otomo‘s manga after having seen the anime, which I’m sure is the course most westerners took since the movie was such a significant event, especially in the nerd world. Now three volumes into the story, I have already seen a significant diversion in narrative between the manga and anime, to the point that the movie feels less like an adaptation and like a new story using the same players. This difference intrigues me to the point that I found myself down the hole of an academic database search for any criticism about Akira.
Not surprisingly, the discourse around both the anime and manga nearly unanimously focuses around its use of imagery related to nuclear weapons and Japan’s historical tie to them. While not wrong nor an insignificant approach to the work, I feel that using a small lens on such a large work misses out on a lot of fantastic critical angles. Also, when conversations around Akira happen in person (with friends or fellow fans) and the group wants to take it to serious territory, it seems the only road to travel is the one that leads to nuclear warfare and its relation to Japanese history as well.
One of the most crucial tenets of literary analysis and critique is that texts don’t have a single meaning or purpose. Moreover, meaning can change over time because the needs of the cultures that consume literature change as well, and texts that don’t maintain some sort of relevance, I would argue, fall away. It’s sad, perhaps, and some hold onto, teach, and love texts only for their historical relevance. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the relevant applicability of texts that makes them still feel important and impactful to an audience and culture, which is a much stronger response than just reverence for it. Part of the fun of literary analysis comes from devising a thesis and seeing if any sustaining evidence rests inside the text. When it comes to Akira, it seems that only one thesis is pursued, if not allowed, and everyone takes part in the Easter egg hunt. Like any other text, analysis should be less like an Easter egg hunt and more like a scavenger hunt, but everyone has their own goal and their own list and all hunts are happening in the same place.
Perhaps because I had always heard the nuclear conversation around Akira, and drew the same conclusion on my first viewing––it was probably the first movie that really presented the allegory to me before ever seeing things like Godzilla or more art house fare like Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams––it wasn’t on my mind when I cracked open the first volume of the manga so many years later. I had no desire to find more evidence about Otomo’s commentary on post-nuclear Japan because, perhaps, I was sure it was there, dripping off of every line. In a sense, that hunt was over because, in a finite work, all the eggs had been found.
It put me in a wonderful space when approaching a text: free of expectations.
What I came away from volume 1 pondering––and what drives me through subsequent volumes––is a theme I should have expected but didn’t think would be so fully developed. Before going into it, let me just present a single image that, I think, summarizes what Akira is about to me on this read-through:
What sticks out in this story from the beginning (from the first page, though you don’t know it yet) is that its characters are teenagers. These youths have grown up in a post-apocalyptic world as the book starts with what looks like a nuclear event detonating in the heart of “the metropolitan area of Japan,“ which ignited World War III. The story picks up nearly forty years later. Those who were in the war are middle-aged and the teenagers have never known a country without a big hole in the middle of it. World War III isn’t even a part of their memory; it’s just another chapter in their education (if they pay attention).
Though it’s not a Mad Max desert-scape––Neo-Tokyo has familiar sky-scrapers and cool future technology as well as the expected slums and people doing their best to make their way––its society is in just as much turmoil. It’s just beneath the surface and bubbling to the top through these kids.
In a post-nuclear and post-World War society, Neo-Tokyo exists in the static created by a paranoid and strictly regulated government and a generation that has no living memory of what created that paranoia in the first place.
Teenagers in Akira are nihilistic and quick-tempered and angry. (I can already hear you saying, “Oh, so you mean a normal teenager?” I get it.) But––to connect it with the more traditional reading of this book––in a post-nuclear and post-World War society (and for Japan, this has now happened twice by the events within the book), Neo-Tokyo exists in the static created by a paranoid and strictly regulated government and a generation that has no living memory of what created that paranoia in the first place.
This is tempered in the way adults and youths interact. Most of the time it’s polemical adults exploding in hyperbole (or sometimes physical violence) without any respect to or awareness of the kids’ intelligence. This is probably unintentional on the part of the adults; they’re stuck in the tautology of thinking the kids don’t understand because they weren’t there, so they can’t understand, so they must be told––but they won’t understand! The kids, in turn, are frustrated because despite the fact that they live in a world they are bound to inherit, the shadow of the explosion and the war looms over everything in their culture. Because the adults are so tetchy and repressed (because that is how they keep the world from falling apart again), the kids never really learned how “to articulate any meaningful relation between themselves” and the world they live in (Lamarre 138). It reminds me a bit of Victorian manners in their treatment of children––the whole “seen but not heard” ethos that leads to severe problems down the line.
Such treatment and behavior, of course, doesn’t pacify the youth; in fact, it weaponizes them, which is literally what Akira is about in terms of plot. But even in terms of plot, it is the teenagers in the story that activate every movement forward; they are the only ones that have any narrative agency. All the adults do (so far from what I’ve seen) is stand and watch the kids disassemble what structure adult society has been trying to hold together and yell at them as they do so. The titular Akira (and a few others like him) is a mere boy who can do city-wide destruction by just being. It’s almost as if the momentous destruction previous generations had to build and fall victim to has become a natural, unconscious part of the new generation (albeit Akira and his crew have been subjected to horrific experiments). It’s a powerful statement on youth culture striving to not only survive but learn in a society that goes through the motions of trying to educate and instruct, but is actively pursuing the opposite.
I think this divide is perfectly illustrated in a scene from the beginning of volume three. Because stuff happened, the city is placed under a “Code Seven Alert” which enacts a complete lockdown of all residents with severe punishments for those who break the edict. Military/police hybrids patrol the streets along with military-grade machinery––automated robots called “Caretakers.” Only two types of civilians interact with the military/police in these scenes––adults looting and children playing. But it’s the latter that is most interesting:
Previously, we saw the Caretaker robots “pacifying” the adult looters by gunning them all down with ordnance so powerful it annihilated not only the looters but also the storefront they were stopped at. In the scene with the children, they relay the fact that they know these things mean business, but they play anyway. They only leave because they don’t want to deal with the soldiers/police, probably because in this Code Seven environment, they might end up on the wrong end of sanctioned lethal force. They don’t leave because they are scared; that much is clear on the faces of the children on the last panel of page 26. Running from the military/police is part of the fun they’re having. If they were scared, they wouldn’t yell the derogatory insults as they left (panel 1 of page 27).
Just as the adults are using the tools they have at their disposal to create a sewn-up, paranoid, and violent society to keep it safe, so are the kids using the tools at their disposal to have a childhood in spite of it. Climbing all over a death robot while playing with friends isn’t dangerous––it is to the adults who see them doing it. To the kids, that’s normal. In that sense, it reminds of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome where the ways the residents of Bartertown repurpose “old world” items into new things differ vastly from how the Child Tribe repurposes items; they are doing the same thing but what they do with them is disparate from the other. The way the world is defined for both parties is extremely and intrinsically different.
So, yes, the devastation of World War II strongly grips this book, but such discussion exists on a macro, holistic scale. It diminishes the struggle these kids are going through. They don’t want to have that conversation because it’s been the only conversation that’s ever been had throughout their entire lives, which is a handy metaphor for the discussion around Akira itself.
Lamarre, Thomas. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction.” positions: east asia cultures critiques, 2008, vol. 16, p. 131-156.
Bolton, Christopher. “From Ground Zero to Degree Zero: Akira from Origin to Oblivion.” Mechademia, 2014, vol. 9, p. 295-315.
Nelson, Lindsay. “Embracing the Demon: The Monstrous Child in Japanese Literature and Cinema: 1946-2008.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2012. Web.