I found Akira, a landmark animated film which introduced the Japanese animated films to the Western audience, to be an eclectic mess. During the first and even the second watching of the film it seemed that way. Later, as I managed to put the pieces together (and some parts of the film are fragments of something that seems to be an important element of a much larger narrative) I developed a considerably different understanding of the film. Akira was based on a manga made by the director of the film Katsuhiro Otomo, and only the first part of the manga series and the final part of it, were included in the film.
This explains the almost fast-forwarding nature of the middle part; some characters and important aspects of the story are introduced briefly and then vanish, only to return later for a moment. The word “mess” that I used to describe Akira in the first sentence of this essay does not imply a negative value judgment of the film. I wanted to pinpoint to its nature in terms of the narrative and the field of ideas. If one looks close enough, one can find such a stunning amount of topics treated in the film, that the viewer may feel he is presented with a test subject, similar to the one presented in the film, which may explode at any minute and contains so much energy and material that it is bound to burst at some point. And it does.
Akira begins with the date of the destruction of Tokyo, the 16th of July 1988. 33 years earlier, the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had taken place, and the plot of the film takes place 31 years later after 1988, in our present time, 2019. It is known that the third target for the nuclear bombing, in case the Japanese refused to surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was Tokyo. The reference to the nuclear bombings is quite obvious, and is an important part of the Japanese popular culture (Godzilla). The differences lie in the presentation of the destruction’s aftermath and the way the characters react to the annihilation. They fight to survive, or they accept the inevitable, but in either way they move on. Neo-Tokyo in Akira is a stark place, it shows the corruption of a society in its final stages. The street gangs murder and beat each other on bikes, the riots are commonplace, the government is corrupt and detached from the people. Unemployment is skyrocketing, in sharp contrast to the actual state of the Japanese economy in 1980s, which experienced a boom and a great economic upsurge. This may be one of the many reasons why the Japanese did not value Akira nearly as much as did the Westerners.
In the time of the increasing wealth and power one does not want to watch post-apocalyptic scenery, beset by unemployment and riots. At the start of the film we see the reporter speaking about the riots on television and the tax reforms which caused them. This is interesting since today Japan is experiencing the aftermath of the economic depression and the situation in 2019 is much closer to the one in the film than it was in 1988. The words on the door of a bar where young punk enters read: “die punks”. Holograms show pop stars, beautiful young women, and they seem like a premature version of the holograms in Blade Runner 2049.
Members of the gangs destroy cars, fight among each other in a particularly brutal way; we see one of the gang members decapitated with a pipe. This raw anger is the driving force behind the characters’ motivations in the film. When the members of the gang are apprehended, we see the guard in a correctional institution beating the kids and shouting “Discipline!”. It is known that during the Shōwa era, the time when Akira was filmed, juvenile training schools and juvenile prisons (it may be assumed that the characters were put in one of these two correctional institutions) were no different than regular prisons in the way the juvenile delinquents were treated. All of this shows the lack of discipline in the society and that the disciplinary instututions are failing at making the younger population docile, and resort to desperate measures. When the rates of Japan’s juvenile penal code offenders are observed, we can see the sharp rise in juvenile delinquency in the 80s in Japan, and a slow decline at the end of the 1980s.
In other words, Otomo is describing a problem which plagued the Japanese society at the time when the film was made. A small-sized psychic mutant with an aged face appears, and Tetsuo, one of the gang members, develops psychic powers in the encounter with him. Both Tetsuo and the mutant are taken into custody again and at this point the narrative rapidly develops. A mad scientist, mad because he doesn’t seem to have ethical constraints, or any constraints whatsoever when it comes to acquiring knowledge about his subjects and enhancing their powers during his scientific research, works closely with the military. At this moment Otomo’s critique of modern science as the tool of domination and the acquirement of knowledge about human beings and nature as a project of self-detruction is obvious. The police and the military work together against anti-government groups, and science obviously works side by side with the rulling powers and what we see is a system which uses all techniques available to dominate the population.
In the Japanese popular culture of the 80s and the 90s the critique of technology is prominent; it is seen as a tool of destruction and as something dangerous. The West saw the technology as the means of conquering the universe, but the Japanese experience with the atomic bombs obviously made them sceptical about the good nature of technology. The scientist in the film says that humans ought to “grasp and control” the psychic powers of their subjects, while working closely with the military. Tetsuo escapes the facility where he is held, and once again we see the brutality of gangs. He is walking around in torn hospital clothes, saying that they are messing with is head. Thus, cold scientific reason is shown no less brutal than the raw brutality of street punks. The former attack the body, while the latter aims to make the soul docile. Tetsuo feels confused, angry, and as if someone is playing with his mind. He is treated as a “subject”, but is in fact an object of the enquiry and his subjectivity is thus erased. The scientist needs to acquire knowledge about him, so that he can be disciplined more effeciently.
Tetsuo has hallucinations of giant teddy bears, symbols of childhood, which were cruelly taken away from him. He hallucinates about falling down through the concrete, he sees his intestines falling out of him; these hallucinations show the nature of his feelings, he feels utterly lost and beside himself. At one point, he even wonders if his powers are real, or just hallucinations as well. Later in the film Tetsuo says that he will not return to the facility since he will be destroyed by medication they give him; a politician who tries to escape his predicament is shown with dozens of pills in his mouth, spitting them out. The other reading which seems relevant is a comparison with David Cronenberg’s Scanners. In this film, some men possess psychic powers, as Tetsuo does, but one of them uses them for destruction, blowing up heads for instance, while the other main character uses them productively, by trying to stop the former. Cronenberg’s characters’ abilities are metaphors for the creative powers the mentally ill possess, and it seems to me that Akira walks a similar line.
Tetsuo’s rapid increase of his power comes from the trauma of imprisonment and treatment he is subjected to, but also from the fact that he was abandoned as a child. He was treated as someone not worthy of respect by his friend Kaneda, he was never recognized as a worthy invididual, did not receive acknowledgment we all seek for, he claimed for thymos, fruitlessly. As it is explained in the manga, Akira’s destroying of Tokyo was triggered by a trauma, and it is similar with Tetsuo. The moral of Akira is that one can tolerate a certain amount of neglect, pain and trauma, especially while young, but that in one way or another, “the subject” acts out due to the incapability to process all he has experienced.
Another theme the film deals with is that of decadence. The colonel in charge of the military says: “Scientists are a bunch of romantics. Military men, on the other hand, always consider the risks first. Over 30 years it’s taken. We’ve come so far crawling up from the rubble. We can’t just trade one for the other.” The scientist says that he always thought that the colonel held resentment or even hatred toward the city. He replies: The passion to build has cooled and the joy of reconstruction forgotten. Now… Now it’s just a garbage heap made up of a bunch of hedonistic fools. The scientist says: “But in spite of that you are trying to save the city.” The colonel, again, replies: “I am not a scientist [i.e. a romantic]. I am a soldier.” This colonel’s line feels like he is speaking about Japan of the 80s. The joy of reconstruction happened during the Korean War (roughly) and now, all that’s left, according to him, is a bunch of hedonistic fools.
Later, a government official who is himself corrupt, says: “Neo-Tokyo is going to change soon.” [While he speaks, a young couple is making out on the bench half-naked] In all respects this city is saturated. It’s like an overriped fruit. Buried within it is a new seed. We need only to wait for the wind which will make it fall to frutition. In these words, an allusion to kamikaze is made, a divine wind, the sacrifice needed to win the war against decadence, and the city itself is bound to be sacrificed. He is speaking about Akira, which is in the film called “god”, or kami and wind or kaze. The cult is shown in the next frame, chanting about Akira. Later in the film, we hear them chanting about corruption, which needs to be purged by Akira and finally, the rebirth [of Tokyo]. This could be a direct allusion to Aum Shinrikiyo, the Japanese doomsday cult founded in 1984, which prophesized the end of the world, in fact, a nuclear armageddon, and is in fact a strange mixture of Buddhism, Christianity and wild conspiracy theories.
The executive council is shown in one scene debating whether the financial resources should be allocated to one place or another. They seem to show complete ignorance about the urgent crisis and the needs of the people they govern. Running a state for them is like running a corporation and their “discussion” is in fact a fruitless squabble between power hungry old men. When the crisis with Tetsuo breaks out, the executive council orders Colonel Shikishima’s arrest. He responds with the execution of the police officers who try to arrest him and declares martial law. He says that the state was in the hands of corrupt politicians and capitalists. It is interesting that he mentions capitalists, since this kind of talk usually fits into the leftist discourse, and the Colonel as a member of the military who has a rightist discourse about decadence cannot be characterized as the former. For a moment, he can remind us of Yukio Mishima, a righist novelist famous both in Japan and the West, who advocated the belief that capitalism has corrupted the spirit of the Japanese nation.
Kei, a girl used as a vessel by one of the mutants says: “Humans do all kinds of things during their lifetime, right? Discover things… build things… Things like houses, motorcycles, bridges, cities, rockets… So what do you suppose all that knowledge and energy comes from? Humans were once like monkeys, right? And before that, like reptiles and fish and even before that plankton and amoebas. Even little creatures like those have incredible amount of energy inside them… Maybe there was genetic material in the air and water… even in the particles of dust in space. And if that’s the truth what sort of memories are hidden within them? The beginning of the universe? Or maybe even before that… And what if everyone shares those ancient memories? What if there were some mistakes in the progression? Then something goes wrong, like amoeba is suddenly given the higher powers than a human has.” Kaneda responds: “Akira is an amoeba then?”
She says: “Amoebas don’t build their own houses and bridges do they? They just devour all the food they can find around them.” In other words, Tetsuo’s powers are such energy. The lenghty quote above sounds like Spinoza and Darwin got really, really drunk together. Nevertheless, it is interesting how the stream of thought progresses until we find out that Tetsuo’s power is similar to the power “an amoeba” is mistakenly given. Amoeba is a reference to the process of the spliting of the nucleus of an atom in the process of nuclear fission and a sudden creation of an enormous amount of energy. In other words, Tetsuo’s power is equated with the energy released when the nuclear bomb is dropped and its symbolism becomes manifold. It is certainly destructive, but both the psychological explanation and the one which alludes to the destructive power created by science are sensible.
The final battle between Tetsuo and Kaneda needs to be watched to be fully experienced, but two moments were most interesting to me. The one is when Tetsuo’s arm is ripped of by a laser beam and he makes another arm with scrap metal scattered around, in other words, his very flesh which was ripped off is replaced with improvised technology. The alliance between technology and man results in the destruction of other men and nature. The other moment is when Tetsuo becomes a giant mutant made of slime and it seems that all the garbage around becomes a part of him. This alludes to the mindless consumption of goods in the capitalist society; we are devouring everything that comes in our path and we become some kind of a grotesque figure living on accumulated garbage. Finally, when the destruction occurs, in an impressive scene in which the crumbling city is juxtaposed to the childhood memories, we can see a new cosmos coming into being from a single particle. The title of Sabina Spielrein’s essay Destruction as the Cause of Becoming is materialized in Akira’s final frames.