For most of us, it’s Akira the anime, not Akira the manga. Some of that can be chalked up to logistics and finances: Wouldn’t you rather rent a two-hour movie, instead of spending upwards of $125 for six volumes of manga which have not been all that reliably available in the first place? Yeah, so would I — especially if it means getting substantially the same story and being just as confused (boggled, mind-blown) by it.
Well, you now have one less excuse. The rights to Akira in English have reverted from Dark Horse back to Kodansha, and the Big K has since set up its own publishing arm in the U.S. Ghost in the Shell and several other Masamune Shirow titles are among the first titles in the new catalog. And, of course, Akira — since a world of manga and anime without Akira is a little like a diner that doesn’t serve hamburgers or milkshakes.
For a lot of fans in my (over-30) generation, whether or not we liked it, Akira was the gateway drug to that crazy Japanese cartoon stuff. In movie form more than the comic, but either one did the duty. We got dosed with it, we hallucinated like whoooa maaan, and we didn’t understand a damn thing about it except that a) we wanted more and b) where did we need to go to get some? (Before Dark Horse tried to get us all stoned, there was an earlier Epic Comics / Marvel printing — way out of print, and which can only now be found, appropriately enough, in glassine bags.)
It became all the more intimidating when you did the digging and realized this was only the pointiest top end part of a cultural iceberg that had broken loose from Japan. Trebly intimidating when you set that against the bland cultural landscape of the 1980-somethings, where the most daring thing around for visual-culture fans was Heavy Metal (both the mag and the movie). Akira was, like any other brain-bending chemical, an escape route from boredom.
Easy to forget there was, gasp, a story in there. Like Blade Runner before it, most people were so gobsmacked by the sheer visual overload of the thing that they had to go back again (and again, lather-rinse-repeat as needed) to dig out all of the nihilistic political and cultural commentary festering inside. It’s a little easier to do that with the manga: you can read at your own pace, digest every panel as long as needed, and linger where in a movie you would be hustled along mercilessly from one story beat to the next. And as with Ghost in the Shell, if your only exposure to the big A has been the movie, the comic will come off as both more nuanced and more protracted. If you thought the scenes of destruction in the movie were over-the-top, the comic is over-the-mountain-and-into-the-ocean. But there’s also characters, plot details, insights and incidents that never made it into the film, and make the manga that much more of a deep dive to the film’s surface skim.
Most of us know the story, even if we don’t know the story. Decades ago, most of Tokyo was leveled by a cataclysm of unknown origin. In the two decades since, the city’s rebuilt itself — but in many ways, things have just gotten worse. It’s a fairly tidy allegory for Japan’s destruction and rebound during and after WWII, from the hunger and wreckage and black-market criminality of the Forties to the materialism, decadence and soullessness of the following years. Fortunately Katsuhiro Ōtomo has a lot more in mind than just allegory: in his foreword to the story he claims that Akira “reflects the essence of my views towards life and death”, and by the time you’ve made it to the end of the series he’s sweated his story hard enough to earn that level of pretension.
The book opens with the disaster itself, then flashes forward twenty years to its first clutch of characters: the Capsules, a juvie-delinquent biker gang. They live to ride, to fight rival gangs, to get high and to bunk off school. One night they’re out tearing up the highway near the giant crater where Tokyo was leveled, and they almost run over a dwarflike, terrified little man with the number 26 emblazoned on his hand. Tetsuo, the kid who almost runs him over, is thrown off his bike and nearly killed. Then men in uniforms — men who aren’t cops and aren’t part of the ambulance corps — show up and hustle the rest of them out of there.
A less smartly-written story would have the protagonists spontaneously growing a sense of responsibility and trying to get to the bottom of it all like good little detectives. Ōtomo wisely doesn’t do this: everyone in Akira operates entirely out of a sense of what they want and how they’re going to get it, even the so-called idealists. The biggest and most obvious case in point is Kaneda, the gang’s de facto leader. He’s worried about his friend Tetsuo, to be sure, but most of his behavior’s hormonal, reckless thrill-seeking — and it makes sense, given that he’s a young, stupid kid with a penchant for gobbling the wrong pills.
Kaneda is the closest thing the story has to a protagonist — but not because he’s a particularly good person or even because he tries to do the right thing. Most of the time he isn’t and doesn’t, and there are no bones about that. At the bar where he hangs out and gets stoned, he runs into Kei, a young woman who’s part of an anti-government underground also interested in “#26”. He’s more interested in getting into her pants than learning about the various factions now chasing both of them around. When Kaneda blunders back into the middle of another conflict between everyone involved, he makes off with a pill intended for #26 and has his chemist buddy analyze it. Not because he’s trying to get to the bottom of a mystery, but because he’s trying to figure out whether or not the drug has street value. (A lot of the action in the series is actually played for its slapstick value; the laughs help offset the growing sense of dread and ominousness that builds throughout the story, without outright deflating it.)
All of this is interlaced with a bevy of other plotlines. There’s the nameless government agency, run by the hulking, buzzcut-sporting Colonel. #26 is their project and their property, and they have spawned a whole family of such creatures sporting diverse paranormal powers, like the psychic kids (and grandpa) in Ōtomo’s one-shot manga Domu. When they find out Tetsuo may be experiencing his own awakening of power, they become doubly interested in keeping and training him. Tetsuo himself, after escaping from the Colonel’s lab, suffers from one headache after another that gets worse, not better — and develops a penchant for transferring that pain to others by making their heads explode. Neat trick.
The story’s not a simple good-vs.-evil setup, so Ōtomo doesn’t take sides — if anything, he seems to do his best to find everyone just as flawed, power-hungry, blindly ambitious or just plain stupid in their own ways. My own take is that he sides with the kids most of all, not because they’re right but because they’re young and dumb, and might have half a chance of outgrowing their foolishness if they live long enough. The adults, both the ones running the broken system and the ones trying to smash it even further, are too mired down in their respective ideologies and counter-ideologies to do anything really daring. Small wonder the one character out of that whole bunch that Kaneda or any of that lot connects with is Kei: she’s young enough (and maybe also hormonal enough) to not quite have married her entire future to something that narrow.
I haven’t yet talked about Akira as a work of comic art. Part of me wants to assume that goes without saying, but that might be a mistake — there may well be a whole generation of readers (or at least a fair portion of that generation) who have never seen Akira in its print version. The amount of detail on every single page is astonishing, even in panels that would nominally be transitional or throwaway moments. Ōtomo is especially good at making us feel the scale of what’s going on — right from the stunning opening dozen or so pages, where Kaneda’s biker gang roar up to the edge of a crater that looks like a hole torn in the very fabric of reality (and that’s not far from the truth, as it turns out).
Ōtomo also makes sure the realism of the environments and backgrounds is matched by the characters — his people look a lot closer to the kinds of designs featured in European comics at the time (the mid-Eighties). They’re almost old-fashioned compared to the compulsively youthful character designs that seem to be currently in use across the board. But old-fashioned in a good way, as a reminder of what else can be possible in manga art. He’s willing to make his adult characters look adult and not simply like either overgrown adolescents or withered grandpas, and that adds a gravity of its own that might not even be palpable at first.
Akira was first published in English at a time when the idea of a right-to-left printing of any comic was unheard of. The original Epic Comics version was flopped and retouched, as was Dark Horse’s reissue. Likewise, Kodansha’s re-reprint is also flopped, albeit freshly retranslated and retouched, looking much cleaner and more readable than any previous edition. The first few color plates have also been reprinted in their full glory; if memory serves they were a blurry mess in the original English versions. And while I’ve always been iffy on the idea of left-to-right presentation for manga, it’s executed here with finesse and expertise. Blade of the Immortal was also reprinted in that fashion with the author’s explicit permission, so I can only assume Ōtomo said yes as well — especially since that alone guarantees broader distribution and accessibility to a population that still has trouble getting used to reading books “backwards”.
Words like “essential” and “influential” just don’t cut it, but they’re the ones that come to mind for a title like Akira. For many people, this is manga; it’s an encapsulation of everything manga aspired to be, and most likely all that it could become, after the Eighties. Everyone else owes it to themselves to find out why, even if they don’t want to go along for the whole ride.