Photo by Vlada Stark
An unfortunate misconception plagues the science fiction genre. The over-saturated YA dystopias of the early 2010s were shallow copies of the same bleak dystopia inhabited by bland prototype characters. Science fiction, at least good science fiction, simply exaggerates the perplexities of the human experience. Which is why the horrifying circumstances in classics such as The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 are disturbingly plausible even decades after their release. Now, in a time of great wealth inequality, hi-tech militarization, religious fanaticism, and violent political tensions following a deadly pandemic, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 film, Akira, has become much more unsettling.
Akira, based on the 1982 manga also created by Otomo, shares much more similarity to present circumstances than just a coincidental failed 2020 Tokyo Olympics (thankfully, mass-destruction from an all-powerful telekinetic teenager was also not a proven prediction from Otomo). In Akira, violence and corruption plague the city of Neo-Tokyo, and the escalating chaos throughout the film stems from a deeply divided society. Behind the imaginative cyberpunk and superb animation, Otomo warns of impending destruction from human division and greed.
Demolition and Division
Akira begins and ends with a cosmic explosion. Otomo wastes no time drawing connections from the USA’s demolition of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The complete annihilation of Tokyo, the end of World War 3, and Neo-Tokyo, Tokyo’s successor after its destruction, are the background of Akira’s universe. These events are deliberate parallels to Otomo’s experiences in post World War 2 Japan. In the latter half of the 20th century, Japan was rapidly industrializing and absorbing tremendous amounts of Western influence through the United States’ occupation, reformed government, and pop culture. The sudden forced influx of Western counterculture after the political power vacuum that appeared from the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left Japan with its own “Lost Generation.” The historical events and Otomo’s personal experiences during this period of cultural conversion constitute most of the inspiration for Akira.
The beginning sequence of the film is a beautifully directed biker gang confrontation through the colossal futuristic landscape of Neo-Tokyo. Japan, although a technologically advanced world power after WW3, is shallowly impressive with a rotting foundation ready to crumble. The extreme violence from the gangs, especially considering both gangs are composed of mere teenagers, is a microcosm of Neo-Tokyo’s division. The immensely wealthy expand their power at the expense of the poor. The military disregards all principles and fires at protesting civilians. Modern Western ideals clash with traditional Japanese beliefs, which have even radicalized into cults. Fogged by the smoke of these conflicts, Neo-Tokyo’s youth are forgotten and left to either die as collateral damage or to deteriorate from the brutality that surrounds them.
Originating from this generation of lost misfits, Tetsuo, shows great potential in becoming a formidable weapon after it is discovered his telekinetic powers closely mirror a deceased prodigy, Akira, whose uncontrollable nature is the actual cause of Tokyo’s explosion. Experimented on by the military without his consent, Tetsuo begins to go mad as he is consumed by his other-worldly powers which mutate at a terrifying rate. In the wake of his destruction of Neo-Tokyo, Tetsuo’s “God-like” nature is desired by those who wish to gain even more power. The military occupies Neo-Tokyo with a coup of the previous ruling oligarchs to seize Tetsuo. Religious cults view Tetsuo’s madness similarly to Armageddon and follow his path of annihilation, even at the expense of their own deaths. It is only Tetsuo’s friends, the delinquents of Neo-Tokyo, who genuinely wish to save Tetsuo from his impending doom.
“But we have no choice, but to grasp that power. Grasp that power, and learn to control it.” This quote from the Colonel encapsulates the innate human obsession with obtaining power that consumes almost every character in Akira. It is not until Tetsuo has destroyed and taken hostage the Tokyo Olympic stadium, a symbol of Japan’s international reputation, does the Colonel finally accept that humanity cannot control infinite power. As a metaphor for humanity’s limits, Tetsuo’s body metamorphoses into a monstrous being as his power evolves into inconceivable Lovecraftian horror. Unable to control himself, Tetsuo’s transformation crushes his girlfriend and the Colonel before his power finally erupts and consumes Neo-Tokyo in a cosmic explosion.
Once again, humanity’s attempt at harnessing God’s power ends in ruins.
Rebirth and Unity
Akira ends with Neo-Tokyo completely demolished from Tetsuo’s explosion, just as it was 30 years ago from Akira’s eruption of power. The magnificent hi-tech of Japan is completely decimated, and water floods the cavity left in the earth from the impact. Yet, even in a scene of complete devastation, there is an aura of natural beauty that was once covered by Neo-Tokyo’s harsh architecture. Any trace of corruption and brutality has been erased, and a “pure” era has arisen from the death of Neo-Tokyo.
However, Otomo only presents the new beginning and allows the viewer to wonder about the future fates of Tetsuo’s friends who were depicted as the only survivors. As much as the thought of a united world built upon the tragic lessons of both Tetsuo’s and Akira’s deaths is captivating, it is, unfortunately, more plausible the cycle of greed repeats itself yet again.
Returning to the historic influence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s destruction on Otomo’s works, this “branch point” Akira ends on can be paralleled to the escalation of nuclear weapons. Instead of seeing the horrific destruction of the atomic bomb and taking measures to limit any advancements of nuclear weapons, powerful governments raced to invent the most catastrophic weapon in all of human history in order to expand their global power and influence. Now the nuclear weapons in existence today are hundreds, if not thousands, times more destructive than the bombs that landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although there are treaties to ban the use of these weapons, Akira reminds us that the lust for power destroys any legal and moral boundaries in its path.
We are once again at a critical “branch point” in modern history. The end of a deadly pandemic has left the world with 4 million dead, an impending economic crisis, and an escalation of societal tensions. The past year’s events have exposed the cracks within our society’s foundation, and many are left in a state of despair and uncertainty for the unstable future. The following years present an opportunity of rebirth of society in which the systemic issues are mended and true unity is achieved. However, there is also the path of escalating division and corruption which will inevitably collapse on itself and send shock waves of hardship throughout society. As an extraordinary work of science fiction, Akira warns of the devastating possibilities if we do not learn from history’s tragedies.