Akira & Japan: Anime & Technology

In April 2005, while studying at university I submitted a dissertation revolving around the anime Akira and how it comments on Japan’s relationship to technology, and having modernity thrust upon it. If you’re a fan of anime, Akira and Japan, you may find it interesting. It’s incredibly long though, so I’ve separated the chapters into separate articles, all linked below. I figured that having it online for posterity would be nice, rather than have all those words forgotten in the sands of time.
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Akira & Japan (Bibliography)

Bibliography

Books

Napier, J Susan (1996) The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity London: Routledge.

Napier, J Susan (2001) Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke New York: Palgrave.

McKee, Alan (2003) Textual Analysis: A Beginners Guide London: Sage Publications.

Ruh, Brian (2004) Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii New York: Palgrave.

Lacey, Nick (1998) Image & Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies New York: Palgrave.

Lacey, Nick (2000) Narrative & Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies New York: Palgrave.

Hane, Mikiso (2000) Japan: A Short History London: Oneworld Publications.

Clarke, J J. (1997) Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian & Western Thought London: Routledge.

Smith, B Dennis (1995) Japan Since 1945: The Rise of an Economic Superpower London: Macmillan Press.

Ozawa, Tadashi (2001) How to Draw Anime & Game Characters, Vol1: Basics for Beginners & Beyond Japan Publications.

McCarthy, Helen & Clements, Jonathan (2001) The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 Stone Bridge Press.

Poitras, Gilles (1999) The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation Stone Bridge Press.

Orwell, George (1948) 1984 Signet Book [Reissue edition]

Gibson, William (1984) Neuromancer London: Voyager [Reissue edition]

Yokoyama, Mitsuteru (2005) Gigantor Antarctic Press [Reissue edition]

Films/Anime

Akira Katsuhiro Ôtomo. Japan. 1988.

His & Her Circumstances Hideaki Anno. Japan. 1998.

Rurouni Kenshin Nobuhiro Watsuki. Japan. 1996 – 1999.

Astroboy Osamu Tezuka. Japan. 1963 – 1966.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Hayao Miyazaki. Japan. 1984.

Princess Mononoke Hayao Miyazaki. Japan. 1997.

Neon Genesis Evangelion Hideaki Anno. Japan. 1995 – 1996.

Ghost in the Shell Mamoru Oshii. Japan. 1995.

Serial Experiments Lain Ryutaro Nakamura. Japan. 1998.

Blade Runner Ridley Scott. USA. 1982.

The Fifth Element Luc Besson. USA. 1997.

Godzilla Ishiro Honda. Japan. 1954.

Metropolis Rintaro. Japan. 2001.

‘Production Report’. Supplemental Disc. Akira: Special Edition DVD Directed by Yuichi Shintani. Pioneer Entertainment, 1988.

‘Sound Clip’. Supplemental Disc. Akira: Special Edition DVD Directed by Takaaki Maruyama. Pioneer Entertainment, 1988.

‘Directors Interview’. Supplemental Disc. Akira: Special Edition DVD Pioneer Entertainment, 1988.

Web

Science Fiction Weekly (1996) ‘Even the New York Times gets wired with Ghosthttp://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue25/press.html Date Accessed: 25 May 2005.

BBC (2005) ‘Sarin attack remembered in Tokyo’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4365417.stm Date Accessed: 25 March 2005.

McCarter, Charles. ‘Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga’ http://www.ex.org/1.3/25-dreamland.html Date Accessed: 25 March 2005.

Carpenter, Novella. ‘Avant-Prof: An interview with Steve Shaviro’ http://www.altx.com/int2/steven.shaviro.html Date Accessed: 12 March 2005.

Napier, J Susan. ‘The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature’ http://inic.utexas.edu/asnic/countries/japan/susanfantasyjapan.html Date Accessed March 15 2005.

Jones, E Todd (2003) ‘Five Deez: Getting kinky & nasty in the 5th dimension’ http://www.hiphop-elements.com/article/read/6/5818/1/ Date Accessed: 15 March 2005.

Brainy Quote (2005) ‘Bill Gullickson Quotes’ http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/billgullic128929.html Date Accessed 20 March 2005.

Akira & Japan (chapter 5: Conclusion)

Chapter Five

Conclusion

Tokyo, the megalopolis that has swallowed up all sorts of people. Its chaotic vitality never rests, and it multiplies itself, growing ever larger. It is said that creator Katsuhiro Ôtomo used the wondrous vitality of Tokyo as the catalyst to crystallize his vision of Neo Tokyo.

–   [Akira Production Report; Shintani 1988]

The observations and conclusions reached by previous studies into anime and its representations of technology are well founded, and although Napier and Ruh manage to include a variety of anime into their study, it is still clear from just my limited analysis of Akira that there is some truth to their observations.  There are clear codes imbedded in the feature length anime which although is set in the future, points to the past and its repercussions, and so effectively that the anime became very popular worldwide and seemed to predict the feeling of the next decade.  The affect of modernisation since the Meiji period has affected media and brought us new dystopic visions of society, most especially seen in the sci-fi genre of anime and manga.  So effective is this occurrence that Napier states ‘a deeply pessimistic view of modernity has been part of Japanese culture almost since the inception of modernization’ (Napier 1996: 217), and providing more weight to my initial question:

“This post-modern state is not unambiguously celebratory, however.  It is as if the very success of modern Japan seems to beg its own demise, as the citizenry becomes more and more enervated by a plethora of material goods and technology which does not take the place of a lost community or history.  Written throughout the 1980s, Akira seems both to emblematise these problems and to forecast some of the social and political problems that became more apparent in the 1990s.  The harmonious façade that still constitutes modern Japan seems increasingly to be cracking.” (Napier 1996: 219)

So the ways in which Akira explores the relationship between Japan and technology is tied with modernity, and the speed of which it occurred, beginning with Commodore Matthew Perry, continuing with World War 2, leading up to the economically troubled latter half of the 20th century.

Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s views

So far the main source of text analysed is Akira the anime itself, but looking at the director’s comments, the study can gain more weight, after all as Alan McKee states earlier in this dissertation, one must gauge the context of a text, and what better way to back up my observations than to learn what the director has to say?

First of all it must be acknowledged that Akira was meant to contain coded meaning, that it wasn’t simply a row of scenes put together merely to mindlessly entertain, Ôtomo states

“I wanted to put together something more along the lines of idle ramblings on Neo Tokyo itself.  I hope people can sense that” (Shintani, 1988)

On discussing the characters, Ôtomo admits that ‘any of the characters could be the star of the film, there really isn’t a main character’ (Shintani, 1988), giving more credence to Akira being more than just a boy, but the city itself, and that the Colonel and Doctor are more than characters, but concepts or lines of thought.

“You could talk about technique of theme or whatever…it’d be kind of pointless for me to talk about things like that.” (Shintani, 1988)

These excerpts are from an interview conducted shortly after the film’s release in Japan, and the director appears to not want to delve into the meanings too much, he wants the viewer to read the text for themselves, he states that he could talk about Kaneda and Tetsuo’s friendship, but:

“Its more than that, lots of things are in it.  There are things about the Colonel and other characters, and there are technical elements.  Each one is something I wanted to do or something I wanted to say.  I made it hoping that people will sense that.” (Shintani, 1988)

As for its intended audience, as was mentioned earlier in this dissertation, the vast majority of anime, if not all anime is created in Japan, and for Japan, the fact that Akira became a global success was a total surprise to Ôtomo who ‘didn’t make it with the overseas market in mind’ (Director’s Interview, 1988), again giving more weight to the question of this dissertation, the intended audience are the Japanese, therefore the derived meanings are about Japan’s past, present and future.

Lastly, to address the validity of scrutinising anime in the same manner as live action films, to hold them up to film theory, the director makes clear he sees no distinction between Akira and other feature length stories told in the medium of cinema.

“I thought of it more as a visual work than as an animation” (Director’s Interview, 1988)

America’s influence on Japan in terms of modernity and technology is easily apparent, and even in the birth of manga as was charted in chapter two, but even Ôtomo’s early inspirations were from Hollywood films from the 1970s such as Bonnie & Clyde, and Easy Rider, both revolutionary films from an evolutionary era in the world of filmmaking.

“The way we saw movies and read comics changed, the way we looked at the world changed.  But I guess movies from America definitely influenced me” (Director’s Interview, 1988)

And finally an admission that the work he created, that many manga artists from the 1970s created in light of the events surrounding them, was well thought out and intentional at attempting to tell a message to the reader.

“In that era, you weren’t drawing something for entertainment.  You were putting the life you were leading into comic book form” (Director’s Interview, 1988)

In the case of Ôtomo’s Akira, the Japan leading up to the millennium was full of sudden success, and a wary fear of the future, an itch in the back of people’s minds that the success story was a facade that would dissolve before their eyes at any moment.

Conclusion

I feel I have presented sufficient evidence of the ways in which Akira explores Japan and technology, and the validity of scrutinizing anime to such a high level of textual analysis.  Because of the limits of word space and time I was not able to delve deeper into the three remaining sci-fi anime that was released during the 1990s (Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain respectively), I would have tied all four together thematically and shown a progression of themes from each work, tying them all to the effects of modernisation on Japan.  However, I feel with this limited case study, there is enough evidence to suggest that of the anime I chose there is a common thread linking them all together leading up to the millennium.

Akira & Japan (chapter 4: Akira)

Chapter Four

AKIRA

“Maybe we shouldn’t touch that power”

– The Colonel [Akira]

Akira is a feature length anime that was released in 1988 in Japan, adapted from his own manga of the same name, director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s film was a major success in his homeland as well as globally.  It preceded the economic slump that was to hit Japan a year later, and is considered a prophetic piece of fiction, labelled as a Cyberpunk tale.  Below is a brief synopsis of Akira before a textual analysis of its themes and meanings on the relationship it portrays between Japan and technology.

akira1Synopsis

The movie begins in the year 1988, in Tokyo, Japan.  A nuclear explosion is set off and the film shifts to the year 2019, Neo Tokyo, a city of great tension, with political riots and disenchantment everywhere, the viewer is introduced to two characters; Kaneda and Tetsuo, both friends and members of a bike gang.  We see them race through the sprawling megalopolis of Neo Tokyo, in gang activities, before Tetsuo suddenly crashes into a deformed little boy who is on the run from the authorities (deformed because of unnatural aging brought about through many experiments).

The army soon show up and reclaim the boy, returning him back to his two other deformed companions who are in effect the property of the government, and take Tetsuo with them for testing.  We are introduced to two more characters, the Colonel, and the Doctor.  They discuss Tetsuo’s ‘pattern’ during his testing and debate whether he has the ability to act like Akira and whether they can control him.

Tetsuo soon escapes his captors but is weak from the testing, he begins to suffer constant headaches and experiences disturbing hallucinations; he comes into conflict with Kaneda, stealing his bike, as Tetsuo is tired of always being looked after by his friend and takes off with his girlfriend.  After a fight with another bike gang, Kaneda saves Tetsuo which makes him even more frustrated.

Tetsuo is eventually captured again by the Colonel, and undergoes more testing, though he escapes his quarters again, this time with elevated powers of telekinesis, he feels the presence of the kids and Akira and goes to them for answers, wrecking havoc along the way.

Meanwhile Kaneda having met an anti-government girl helps her group break into the government facility and bumps into Tetsuo again, though this time Tetsuo is powerful and mocking of Kaneda, he reads the kids’ minds and discovers the whereabouts of Akira and takes off.

The Colonel orders the army to pursue him, though they are no match for Tetsuo’s massive powers, he destroys half of Tokyo to get to the secret underground facility where Akira is kept.  He opens a sealed chamber and discovers the remains of a little boy’s organs, a boy named Akira.  The Colonel reveals to him that the explosion in 1998 that set of World War 3 was due to the boy’s extraordinary powers, and his remains were buried for study by future generations.  This bemuses and angers Tetsuo who’s personality is changing by a rapid rate, he begins to destroy more of Tokyo around him, and as Kaneda appears again they fight brutally, Tetsuo sustaining damage to his arm, yet he rebuilds it with metal parts.

Eventually the kids arrive to the scene and help reawaken Akira to prevent Tetsuo from destroying everything, Tetsuo eventually explodes in the form of a nuclear explosion, Kaneda is caught in it; the kids decide to sacrifice themselves by using their powers to save his life.  While inside, Kaneda sees Tetsuo’s dreams and memories, the viewer also sees the past history of Akira and the three kids, who were subjected to government testing as children, eventually the explosion turns to an implosion and all that’s left is a devastated city, Kaneda is left with a small white ball of light, the remains of Tetsuo, which falls into his hands and disappears.

After a final montage the viewer sees a hypnotic animation that looks like a birth of a universe, and Tetsuo’s voice over saying “I am…Tetsuo”.

akira2Analysis

A camera pans above a large megalopolis.  “1988.7.16 Tokyo” appears on the screen.  All that can be heard is the dull wailing of the wind, the camera stops panning up when it reaches the horizon, with the iconic Mount Fuji in the background, and tall buildings in the foreground.  A black ball suddenly appears behind the buildings, it gets bigger and turns white, lighting everything, casting long shadows of the skyscrapers, it eats up the entire city in complete silence, the screen is then filled with nothing but white and the credits show “Written and Directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo”.  The white fizzles away like TV static, revealing the remains of Tokyo from many miles up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the scene begins in blood red (a colour theme prevalent in the film that may be a signifier for ‘Akira’) but soon the scene returns to its true colour.  The first non-diagetic sound occurs, a striking clap of a type of drum, the credits appear again:

“31 years after World War III.  AD 2019 NEO TOKYO”

The music begins, a harsh echoing clap, and we see the impact crater.  ‘Akira’ appears in bright red font over the image and the film begins.

Japan is the only country that has been subjected to nuclear bombs, and so any image that resembles such a powerful explosion on Japanese soil will be reminiscent of that fact.  The beginning of this movie begins with such a scene and is a direct reference to the end of World War 2, only this time it summons the beginning of World War 3, bringing forth the concept of cycles in the film.  The cycle of violence and entropy that the world experiences, is highlighted in the politically charged Neo Tokyo.  A version of Tokyo that is set in the near future that could appear at any moment, a future where people still ride bikes and fire bullets, and technology is only advanced peripherally, there are many holograms advertising brands.  Kaneda’s bike has technological features which makes Tetsuo envious, this makes Napier’s citing of film scholar Jon Lewis in his description of the motor cycle being a ‘phallic’ symbol of power and authority more relevant (Napier 2001: 41).  The bike itself is red and has stickers of the American flag, the corporation ‘Canon’, ‘Citizen’, and ‘Auto’.  This metaphorical symbol of power is intrinsically tied with American society, a pervading presence on Japanese modernity.  There are industrial sectors everywhere; giant metal cables decorate the urban landscape.  During the bike chase in the beginning of the film we see a montage of the city, with tribal choral music playing.  We see low angle shots looking up at skyscrapers, panning shots of rows of buildings with even bigger skyscrapers behind them, and industrial sections made of metal.  After the bike chase comes to its abrupt end with Tetsuo crashing into the deformed kid, we see more of the city as the Colonel’s helicopter hovers above it, taking the child and Tetsuo away, below we see a wide shot of a construction sight, most specifically a half-built stadium preparing for the Olympics.  Later on we see Kaneda’s gang lounging in a broken down school, and getting scolded by the violent teachers, and afterwards wandering aimlessly in the city, lights are everywhere, holographics, stuttering neon lights, shopping plazas that are on top of buildings, an elevated level of living, a staple of the sci-fi genre, more recently seen in Hollywood live action films such as Blade Runner (Scott, 1982, USA) and The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997, USA).

akira3 During the opening bike chase, we also see the tensions running in the city, student protestors rioting in TV screens, a juxtaposition of an advert for pet food showing slobbering dogs, cut with scenes of police dogs barking for their prey, cut with their suspect who runs amid a major traffic jam, which is another image seen many times in the film.  Rows and rows of cars at a stand still, containing frustrated drivers, and most of the jams are because of the constant riots and protests.  “Repeal the tax reforms!” is shouted numerous times on loud speakers.  Random terrorist attacks pepper the city throughout the film; religious cults amass on the plazas chanting:

“That which is called science perverts providence!  That which is called progress encourages extravagance!  That which is called civilisation devastates the spirit of man!  The time of atonement is on us!”

The cult sells pamphlets for 500 yen and burn TVs at the same time.  Masses of frustrated people are everywhere, crowds baying, burnt out cars (usually ahead of traffic jams), the police and army trying to maintain authority.  There is tellingly graffiti on walls and signs, and writing on flags and protestors helmets that reads “Oppose Imperialism”.  The riot police are brutal in their nonchalance to turn to violence; these scenes seem to echo a line from George Orwell’s dystopic 1984; “If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

This view of a future (or new, to derive meaning out of the Greek word ‘neo’) Tokyo is depressing.  It is tied to war through codes (iconic imagery) and connotation, and tied thematically to cycles.  This is the aftermath of a super power used in the wrong way, the references to Japan of the 1960’s is not lost, as the student rebellion of 1968 is recreated on the streets of Neo Tokyo, and the Olympic games held in 1964 as a triumph for Japan’s economic success and return to world prominence is again repeated with the images of the incomplete stadium in ‘Old Tokyo’ which the camera cuts to repeatedly throughout the film.  This future representation of Tokyo is something the citizens have to live with, and corrupt politicians that we see midway through the film do not help matters, they continually blame the previous prime minister for his ‘historic tax reform blunder’, and refuse to believe the Colonel’s warning that the city is predicted (by one of the psychic deformed kids) to be destroyed, they deny him any more funding, too busy trying to suppress anti-government activity and terrorism, they decide to put him before an enquiry committee, forcing the Colonel to eventually bring about a coup d’état.

“We can’t dance to the tune of corrupt politicians and capitalists!  Announce a state of emergency, arrest all members of the executive council and remove them from the chain of command”

At the point where this takes place, and Tetsuo begins to destroy the city in his attempt to go to Akira who is being kept in a facility underneath the Olympic stadium in Old Tokyo, the film begins to take on a much darker tone of apocalyptic feeling, as one of the corrupt politicians, Nezu, attempts to flee, he murders his own assistants, the camera pans as he packs so much money into his briefcase it barely fits in his greed, we see a bathroom door creaking open to reveal a trail of blood leading to a bath with the corpses of two politicians inside.  The genre traits of horror begin to be more emphasised from this point onwards.  As Nezu stumbles through alleyways afterwards dishevelled, sweating, his weak heart brings him to a halt, his case drops from his grip, money scatters everywhere, he drops his medication, and falls into a corner, a pathetic sight he dies alone.  Outside the alleyway there are masses of people running around in panic, some away from the devastation wrecked by Tetsuo, and some towards it, believing him to be ‘Akira the messiah’, Akira is painted everywhere in red, as is ‘Anti-Imperialism Revolution’.  As was mentioned before, the colour red seems to be a code for Akira, though this symbol can be taken further, and be applied to Neo Tokyo itself, Akira is the city, Akira is Japan, Akira is Japan’s identity, or soul.  The more we look at Tetsuo’s behaviour, or Akira’s presence, the more fitting it becomes for Akira to represent these things, given Japan’s history, its relationship to technology and modernity.

Akira4I believe the film can be separated into two halves, the first half is the more generic form of sci-fi (in general and in anime up to the time this film was released); the futuristic landscape, paranormal powers and testing are staples of the genre.  The second half, from when Tetsuo begins to destroy the city like Godzilla (Honda, 1954, Japan), which itself was a metaphor for American Imperialism, is the more horror tinged side, and especially once Tetsuo begins to mutate near the end, the sub-genre of Body Horror can be seen evident.  But before that occurs, the science aspect of the story gives way slightly to spiritual aspects.  There appears to be a three-way fracture of attitudes represented by three characters; the Colonel continually tells the Doctor that he wants to control Akira’s power, the Doctor continually experiments on Tetsuo and withholds vital information from the Colonel for fear of his experiment being taken from him, and Kei becomes a speaker for the psychic kids to give a spiritual explanation for Akira’s destiny.

In the calm before the storm, Kaneda listens to the anti-government girl, Kei, explain the concept behind Akira:

“Ryu told me once; he said that Akira is absolute energy.  Humans do all kinds of things during their lifetime, right?  Discovering things, building things, things like houses, motorcycles, bridges, cities, and rockets.  All that knowledge and energy, where do you suppose it comes from?  Humans were like monkeys once, right?  And before that, like reptiles and fish, and before that plankton, and amoebas.  Even creatures like those have incredible energy inside them.  And even before that, maybe there were genes in the water and air.  Even in space dust, too, I bet.  If that’s true, what memories are hidden in it?  The beginning of the universe, maybe.  Or maybe even before that.  Maybe everyone has those memories.  What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba were given power like a humans?  Amoebas don’t build houses and bridges; they just devour all the food around them.  A long time ago, there were people who tried to control that power.  At the government’s request, you see.  They failed and it triggered the fall of Tokyo.”

Kei realises at the end of her speech, that at some point she was not herself and that one of the deformed kids was speaking through her.  Interestingly, the music group responsible for the soundtrack to the film believes in the concepts in that quote.  Shoji Yamashiro of the Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi brought his own vision and beliefs to the soundtrack, given free reign on conducting the soundtrack; he used ethnic instruments from countries such as Indonesia as representing the human spirit (Maruyama, 1988, Japan), and juxtaposed it with the high technology seen in the visuals of Akira.

The film’s foray with science and superior powers is an example of eastern philosophy melding with western science in a manner not seen often in films (this theme is however another a staple of the genre of anime, the ‘alternate history’ type: see Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984) & Princess Mononoke (1997)), this is partly due to Japan’s own spiritual identity, which is tinged with Buddhism, Taoism and the Shinto religion; beliefs that attempt to align humans with nature.  In contrast to the age old conflict between science and religion (such as Christianities debates over evolution theory), westerners have through various ages ‘turned to the east as a way of reconciling religious outlooks with that of modern science’ (Clarke 1997: 166).  One of the important aspects of Taoism, is the concept of nature being one, ‘a model of the universe which is organic rather than mechanical and which sees natural phenomena as if they are parts of a living organism rather than as parts of cause-and-effect chains or a mechanical process’ (Clarke 1997 169).  In light of this, the method in which Tetsuo evolves during the last half of Akira can make more sense, it is the destructive mechanical/atomic powers of western science clashing with the naturalistic oneness of eastern philosophy, crashing together in disharmony caused by negative influence, and even in the soundtrack as the Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi, with their extremely unique instruments, contrast the revolutionary images to make their mark on the film.

akira5From the moment Tetsuo begins his rampage against Neo Tokyo to his eventual demise in the form of a nuclear explosion, the horror tinged visuals assault the viewer in various forms.  Before he begins his forced metamorphosis however, Tetsuo battles the Japanese Self Defence Force and at one point he faces off against a tank which has “Samurai Spirit” scrawled on it, a remarkable pointer to the Meiji era battle for and against modernity.  The samurai were against the outside influences, most notably Americans forcing Japan to open up to other countries and trade, the samurai inevitably failed in their rebellion, and it is ironic that Tetsuo, a youth searching for his own identity in a dystopic society, battles a symbolic samurai.  After he destroys it, he walks away wearing a red piece of cloth from a nearby store, wearing it like a cape.  The onlookers call him ‘Lord Akira’ in hope, and follow him to the Olympic stadium where he eventually implodes.

The genre of Body Horror, as Kelly Hurley defines, is:

“A hybrid genre that recombines the narrative and cinematic conventions of the science fiction, horror and suspense film in order to stage a spectacle of the human body defamiliarized, rendered other.  Body horror seeks to inspire revulsion – and in its own way pleasure – through representations of quasi-human figures whose effect/affect is produced by their abjection, their ambiguation, their impossible embodiment of multiple, incompatible forms.” (Napier 2001: 43)

Through his abjection, (a word that finishes every chapter of film theorist Steve Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, who explains ‘I was trying to write in an abstract way that a lot of our pleasures are kind of abject and difficult to admit to’ (altx.com) that Tetsuo has brought about via his frustration at his lack of power in the beginning of the story.  He spirals out of control when he finally gains it, too much too soon, filled with arrogance, the power grows beyond his control, he loses his initial form and eats up everything around him; parallels to pre-war Japan can be seen in this instance.  Could Tetsuo’s character arc be representing Japan’s dive into modernity and eventual defeat in World War 2?  It is interesting to note that the director Otomo reveals in an interview conducted after the film’s completion, that the main inspiration for Akira was a previous sci-fi manga called Tetsujin 28 (also known in English as either Ironman 28 or Gigantor), a story about ‘a secret weapon, made by the military before the Pacific War being reawakened in modern times.  From that stand point, Akira is a retelling of Tetsujin 28, so Tetsujin was the initial image” (Akira DVD: Director’s Interview).  Before Tetsuo’s monstrous metamorphosis, he loses an arm, and rebuilds it using metal parts, cables and wiring, he melds with technology smoothly, but soon after, the arm seemingly rots, it pulsates like a vein, and wires lick the air randomly.

On Tetsuo’s forehead are a few wires that are aligned as if on a microchip, this is a signifier to computer technology (the microchip during the 80’s was almost another iconic signifier to Japan, images of them being churned out of labs was common place on the news) and seeing it so melded onto Tetsuo’s skin completes his transformation of part man, part machine.  Once the Colonel appears to talk sense into Tetsuo, telling him to go back to the lab to take his medication, the arm acts of its own accord, Tetsuo now has no control over it, as it attacks the Colonel, growing many feet long like a tentacle, Tetsuo’s body soon after inflates to mammoth size, each of his fingers the size of a grown man, the ground gives way underneath Kaneda and he is flung into the fleshy mass, almost suffocating, at this point Tetsuo and Kaneda do not even want to kill each other anymore, Tetsuo begs him for help:

“My body’s not doing what I tell it to!”

At the same time, the Doctor observes Tetsuo’s pattern amazed, saying “I can’t believe it…” and once Tetsuo explodes in the form of a conventional nuclear bomb, the Doctor, before he is crushed in the mobile truck he is stationed in, exclaims “It’s almost as if…Is this the birth of a universe?”

Akira6What Ôtomo may be saying here is, coupled along with many other clues throughout the film, most notably Kei’s long speech, is that the power to create and destroy is within us all, and what matters is what we do with that power.  It comes down to responsibility, something human beings seem to lack when faced with such terrifying power, power already seen in the last World War which devastated Japan.  On screen, Neo Tokyo is destroyed in the most spectacular fashion, giant tsunamis rush through the carcasses of the megalopolis, skyscrapers (again can be seen as phallic symbols of power) topple over like dominos, organ music plays as if this is the Christian notion of the apocalypse before Judgement Day.  Eventually the clouds part, allowing a clear blue sky to shine down on the devastation, dead buildings sprawled out for miles in each direction.  Kaneda in the centre of the impact area, on his knees, observes a tiny white ball of light, cups it in his hands, whispering Tetsuo’s name goodbye.

The ending montage shows Kaneda and Kei reuniting, and the Colonel walking amid the devastation of the silent city. The last images we see are a hypnotic animation of black and white patterns, vaguely resembling the explosion from before.  It turns red and we hear Tetsuo say “I am…Tetsuo”.  It appears as if he didn’t simply die but create another universe entirely, possibly in another dimension of some sort, this line of thought is aided by the end credits which show galaxies in space, shooting by.

After Akira

Anime that followed Akira’s trend of dealing with Japan’s relationship to science and technology in animation were numerous, the most effective however, and critically acclaimed were:

  • Ghost in the Shell (1995) Masamune Shirow’s manga, adapted into a feature length anime, directed by auteur Mamoru Oshii.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 – 1996) 26 episode TV series, written and directed by Hideaki Anno.
  • Serial Experiments Lain (1998) 13 episode TV series, written by Chiaki Konoka, directed by Ryutaro Nakamura.

Genre traits shared by all these anime are:

  • Dystopic near future landscapes.
  • Transformation/Melding of human and machine.
  • Dependence on high technology, all purveying in society.
  • Conclusion based around the main character becoming liberated in some fashion.

High technology is generally not portrayed in a positive light, the anime show it misused and it’s after affects.  Ghost in the Shell does have a functioning society that does not appear to be falling apart, technology is used to prevent and solve crime, however criminals always figure out new ways to use technology to their advantage, to the point of ‘dubbing’ people’s souls and selling them in new bodies as a form of body trafficking.

Modernisation tends to be shown as something that is a double edged sword, and society/people that are eager for it usually suffer the penalty in some manner, only characters that become one with nature and technology find a manner of escaping the cycle of violence and entropy.  The last episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion finds the main character take part in a surreal metaphysical debate with his own ego, arguing for his purpose in life and comes away with a satisfied answer, and the main character of Serial Experiments Lain (who was born in a future version of the Internet and exists in the real world) escapes her fear of the unknown and becomes so powerful that she can control the fabric of reality itself (due to society being so ingrained with the Internet), only through acknowledging their own flaws and fears and accepting a form of responsibility do these characters find a way out of entropy.

Japanese society itself after the release of Akira went through an economic recession due to many factors ranging from various scandals in business and government to the after effects of the oil shock of the late 1970’s, citizens had debts to pay, and Japan’s relationship with America became strained as America wanted more reforms and changes in Japan’s economy (Smith 1995: 161).  A dark mood understandably fell on Japanese society, and the fears and worries can be in a sense, read from various media text such as anime, especially from the science fiction genre which is so used to looking into the future and creating visions that are inspired in the present.

One of the foreshadowing aspects of Akira is the brief representations of religious cults, walking the streets of Neo Tokyo.  They are a result and a trigger for paranoia and a search for spiritual meaning in dark times.  One of Japan’s most striking and memorable incidents to do with religious cults was the infamous subway gas attack, carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  This took place in 1995 by five members who burst bags filled with sarin gas, killing 12 people, and injuring 5,000.  The cult was under the belief that ‘the world was about to be plunged into an apocalyptic war’ (BBC.co.uk: 2005), and this becomes more relevant to this dissertation when it is revealed that the cult spread out their ideas in the form of anime and manga (ex.org).  Serial Experiments Lain, which ran on TV in 1998, also has a cult featured in the story, who attempts to control the main character.

Science, religion, technology; all meld together in the boiling pot of Japanese society, represented effectively in anime in many forms, but most usually in the dystopic cyberpunk, sci-fi genre of anime and manga.

Akira & Japan (chapter 3: Literature review & methodology)

Chapter Three

Literature review & methodology

In fact, I found Japanese fantasy to be very serious stuff, exploring issues such as the dark side of modernization, the increasing tension between the sexes, and the nightmare of technological apocalypse, in ways that were often much more vivid and memorable than anything in ‘serious’ fiction.

–   Susan J. Napier [Professor of Japanese literature and culture; http://inic.utexas.edu%5D

Outside of Japan, in English speaking countries, there are few studies on anime and manga.  The academic literature on the medium and its derived meanings are sparse, compared to the attention paid on conventional cinema or literature for example, but what serious literature there is on the topic of anime is full of valuable information and insight, albeit from a non-Japanese point of view, as the following literature review will hopefully show.

The literature focused on in this chapter will be grouped into two sections, one for film theory, and one for anime specifically, as these two areas will be prevalent to my study, and grouping them apart will make it easier to understand what literature from each section makes a significant contribution to its specified field.

FILM

Alan McKee’s Textual Analysis: A Beginners Guide (2003) is a good starting point to base the literature review off of.  As I will be undertaking a textual analysis of various anime to come to various conclusions, it would be wise to acknowledge the concepts involved in my methodology, and such concepts are touched upon by McKee as he explains to the reader what textual analysis means, the ways in which we perform textual analysis and how we ‘make an educated guess at some of the most likely interpretations that might be made of that text’ (McKee 2003: 1).  His most important comment in the early chapters is the understanding that there is not necessarily a ‘correct’ manner to obtain a ‘truth’ from a text, ‘different methodologies will produce different kinds of information, even if they are used for analysing similar questions’ (McKee 2003: 2).

More relevant to my own attempts at textual analysis is McKee’s comments on interpretation and cultures, considering that I am tackling a media text from a country different to the one I live in, it is important to understand that different cultures make sense of the world in very different ways (McKee 2003: 4).  He lists three different responses to judging how other cultures see the world, realist, structuralist, and post-structuralist, I see my own analysis falling into the group of structuralist, which McKee defines as:

All these cultures seem to be making sense of the world differently; but really, underneath, they have common structures.  They’re not all that different; people across the world are basically the same. (McKee 2003: 9)

Whether this is true or not will be up for debate, it is a question of subjectivity versus objectivity, though McKee goes along with the thought that everything is subjective, ‘every description of a text is an interpretation’ (McKee (2003: 64), and uses an example of a European and an indigenous Australian (Warlpiri) observing the same text and gaining different meanings from it, warning that:

‘If you don’t know those texts, and instead interpret the Warlpiri videos through your knowledge of Western entertainment videos then they appear to be completely different texts – empty of possible meaning’

McKee arrives to his important point:  That you must know the context of a text, and not just apply your own description of it, ‘in short – don’t just describe elements of a text.  Textual analysis is not just textual description’ (McKee 2003: 66).

I will be attempting to treat Japanese anime and its representations of reality, or more specifically the relationship between Japan and technology, in the same way film theorists treat western films in their film studies.  The reason for this is that I see anime as falling under the category of film text, for reasons of form and content, in that film and anime share the same traits and qualities.  My methodology will be to analyse genre and image representation, which the next two books cover.

Nick Lacey’s Image & Representation (1998) and Narrative & Genre (2000) cover the themes of my methodology that I will apply to anime.

Image & Representation begins with a basic model to read a text by, using Roman Jackobson’s model for analysing speech, Lacey applies it to images, breaking down the act of communication into six factors:

  • The addressor  [i.e. – anime, or anime director]
  • The addressee  [i.e. – me, or the viewer]
  • Context  [i.e. – Japanese society, history or culture]
  • Message  [i.e. – content of anime, the story]
  • Contact  [i.e. – visual communication]
  • Code  [i.e. – derived meanings, connotations]

This can be applied to my methodology as I analyse anime, it covers all the areas of image analysis, understanding the meaning of a text.  Lacey builds on the model throughout the book citing Barthes, Saussure, developing Jackobson’s table further, and exploring other facets of analysis, looking at the importance of connotation, codes as objects or symbols that have a consensual meaning, the mise-en-scene of film scenes, ‘assuming everything in the picture has been put there for a reason’ (Lacey 1998: 20), and it leads to his point that to decipher a code, the context is essential (Lacy 1998: 24).  This is key to my dissertation, the importance of context to my studies, the meanings derived from specific sci-fi anime have to be read in light of recent Japanese history, taken alone they could be considered random ideas thrown on a storyboard, but decoded while examining the social background at the time of filming, more meanings can be discovered.

Lacy’s Narrative & Genre defines the concepts in its title.  Importance is stressed on logical structure in narrative (Tzvetan Todorov and Vladimir Propp are cited for their causal framework for narrative), and identifying genre defined as a ‘ready-made framework with which to understand the text’ (Lacy 2000: 10).  It is genre that concerns me more in this reading, as I will be studying anime from sci-fi in particular.  The chapters on genre and conventions detail in simple terms the concepts that will pop up in my textual analysis, such factors as setting, iconography and themes will need to be addressed, tying in the Japanese anime sci-fi genre to its western counterpart and observing any contrasts will be useful to my decoding of the text.  Lacy comments shrewdly; ‘the fact a genre is popular is likely to suggest something about society at the time of this popularity just as…certain themes predominate in different eras’ (Lacy 2000: 168), although recognising the difficulty in deriving any information from media texts about society, Lacy also recognises that it is easy to fall into the trap of drawing trite conclusions, but there is still some worth in speculating what the relationship between media and society is (Lacy 2000: 168).

ANIME

Of the various studies in the English language of anime and manga, there are only a few selected for substantial review under this section.  This is because the majority of books and articles in the media (most notably British and American) tend to only scratch the surface of anime and concentrate on more trivial aspects or are part of an attempt to defend the mediums of anime and manga against stereotyping by western media by showing them in a more positive light.  A quick glance on amazon.com will show books such as How to Draw Anime & Game Characters (Ozawa, 2001), or The Anime Encyclopaedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 (Clements & McCarthy, 2001), that pop up as some of the first results of a search for anime related books; these type of books provide fans of the medium or people new to anime, a way of breaking them into the world of Japanese animation or giving them statistical knowledge.  There is an attempt to teach western viewers some of the meanings behind anime conventions, books like The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation (Poitras, 1999) attempt to decode Japanese mannerisms and cultural quirks for the western reader, but none of these books, or articles that resemble them, contribute to the understanding of anime at the level I would like to pursue, they do not analyse the medium at a significant textual level.

The following books and articles do successfully immerse themselves into a textual study of the medium, in a sense raising anime and manga from mere ‘cartoons’ and ‘comics’ of ‘popular’ culture to the lofty heights of ‘high’ culture, through analysis of genre and narrative they look at the relationship of anime and events occurring in reality, such as the impact of modernization and technology on Japan, and come to various conclusions which I will critically evaluate.  Importantly, they were all written within the last ten years which is a period that I will be concentrating on, in anime and Japanese history, tying in the themes of technology.

Professor Susan J. Napier teaches in the United States, at the University of Texas, Austin.  She is the leading western academic voice on Japanese animation, and has written many articles concerning anime and Japan, and in particular two books that delve into these topics more deeply.  The first of these is The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (Napier, 1996), a book focused more on novels and film, in Japan, than anime in particular.  The book description explains:

Modern Japan’s repressed anxieties, fears and hopes come to the surface in the fantastic.  A close analysis of fantasy fiction, film and comics reveals the ambivalence felt by many Japanese toward the success story of the nation in the twentieth century. (Napier 1996)

Napier begins her study of Japan’s repressed thoughts in media form, by looking at an early Japanese writer by the name of Natsume Soseki, who’s fantasy story Yume Juya (1908) translated as Ten Nights of Dream, seems to be yearning for a purer, richer past, which was disappearing in the midst of the Meiji Restoration period (Napier, 1996: 1), and it is this feeling of modern anxiety that Napier examines in this book, that is reflected in Japanese fantasy, and is also according to her, ‘highly culturally specific to modern Japan’ (Napier, 1996: 2).  She does not provide adequate evidence for this, though it may have bogged down her studies if she had, it is however clear in such successful anime, such as Miyazaki’s mentioned in the previous chapter, that there is a form of retro nostalgia displayed, especially in the sci-fi genre (see also: Metropolis (2001) written in manga form by Osamu Tezuka, adaptated to the screen by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, and directed by Rintaro).

Napier then looks at western fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to observe representations of futuristic Japan, though it should be asked whether the citing of western media is merely used as a frame of reference for the reader or if Napier believes the Japanese are subconsciously led by the west in the genre of sci-fi.  Both sides are influenced from each other regularly, though only the west views Japan as something exotic and strange, whereas it would be hard to find any representation of America in Japanese science fiction.  The cities in anime and manga are either Japanese, fictional or nameless.

Napier surmises in the beginning of her first chapter that the Japanese eagerly embraced the science fiction genre, and have continually used it to create scenarios of their future, and they have for the most part been bleak, ‘dystopian visions of technology run amok and social and psychological collapse have been a consistent thread’ (Napier, 1996: 3).  She then uses her first (and most used) anime example, Akira, to highlight this; shrewdly observing that soon after the dystopic epic was released, Japan’s economic success story came to an abrupt end and the country was in a recession.  Akira had become a major cult hit worldwide, its themes and portrayal of a future that could be appearing at any moment had touched a cord with the post modern public, or as Napier would say ‘due both to its exuberant post-modern celebrations of vivid metamorphosis and its remarkably well-realised vision of a grim twenty-first century Japan’ (Napier, 1996: 4).

The majority of the book is focused on explaining the definition and examples of the ‘fantastic’, how it is reflected and manifested by various different authors, artists and filmmakers, and how the Japanese contradictorily utilize it to comment on reality, citing such prolific writers as Haruki Murakami alongside manga artists such as Katsuhiro Ôtomo, this is one of the strengths of this book.  The fantastic as Napier investigates, may not be as clear cut as the more popular perception of it, i.e. – David Hartwell’s definition that ‘fantasy promises escape from reality’ (Napier, 1996: 6), but more in line with Rosemary Jackson’s thought that the ‘fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture, that which is silenced, made invisible, covered over and made absent’, or as Napier surmises, a ‘literature of subversion’ (Napier, 1996: 8).  It is Napier’s view that the fantasy genre has explored Japan’s experience with modernity in the most evocative manner, which gives more credence to my dissertation being focused on the sci-fi genre (and all of its fantastic creations) of anime released within the last decade or so.  Napier’s intention of holding up manga and anime to the same criteria as novels or films when critiquing them is unique from an academic in the west, and after the publication of this book other writers began to do the same.

Brian Ruh followed Napier’s lead (incidentally Napier was his mentor while he studied in university), by publishing his auteur study of Mamoru Oshii; Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii.  Published in 2004 the book was a rare addition to the academic field of the study of anime, concentrating on one director and his works of anime and live action films.  Oshii himself directed the anime adaptation of the seminal cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell, written/drawn by Masamune Shirow, an anime as popular as Akira, not least for rejuvenating the interest in Japanese animation in the west, so much that popular American director James Cameron, known for his blockbuster sci-fi films, called it ‘a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence’ (sci-fi.com).

The question is whether anime and manga are valid forms of art to be examined in this manner, Napier and Ruh consistently treat them as such, their popularity worldwide is rarely used as an excuse, it is due more to the way they are constructed, the way they are respected by the people behind anime and manga, and the people who consume them as media in Japan, the country they are created in and aimed for.  Anime itself can be read as a film text, and any critic can find worthwhile meaning derived from them, the same as they could find meaning in a Hollywood film, the only difference is that one is animated, the other is live action.

Napier’s investigation of the fantastic is convincing and contributes to the area I want to pursue by linking Japanese fiction to commentary on real life events, most notably the relationship between Japan and technology, especially when she concentrates on Akira in the latter half of her book, and its representations of a dystopic society in Japan.

Napier builds substantially on her 1996 book and its brief encounter with Akira and dystopic visions, with her next book Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke.  By concentrating solely on anime and providing a detailed textual analysis, geared towards genre and narrative, she explores the links in the relationship between anime and Japan’s experience with technology, or to be more specific Japan’s experience with modernity.

Her hypothesis also leads her to discover the derived meanings behind the way the Japanese portray the body in anime, and not just in romantic comedies as she also focuses on, in relation to gender issues, but also in sci-fi (grouped into the ‘fantastic’ in her last study), once again returning to Akira for examples of metamorphosis and identity.

Conclusion & Methodology

My methodology is based around a textual analysis that factors in genre and image representation, after studying various literature that revolves around the same subject as the one I am undertaking, my method of analysis can be best broken up into four aspects, that are summed up by McKee:

  • Other texts in the series.
  • The genre of the text.
  • Intertexts about the text itself.
  • The wider public context in which a text is circulated.  (McKee 2003: 93)

My methodology takes into account the four point guide of incorporating relevant texts by applying it to anime.  By recognising the traits of the sci-fi genre, referring to other anime and literature in my analysis and taking into account the context with which the anime is imbedded in, I hope to contribute to the field of anime study in my analysis and subsequent observations of the likely interpretations of my chosen text.

Akira & Japan (chapter 2: Anime)

Chapter Two

ANIME

I like the fact that we are actually living in the times they depict.

–   Fat Jon [American Hip Hop producer who in 2004 collaborated with anime director Shinichi Watanabe for his TV anime ‘Samurai Champloo’, answering why he likes sci-fi so much; http://www.hiphop-elements.com]

Anime is the word to describe Japanese animation, the source of the word is much debated, though most believe that it’s derived from the French word ‘animé’ (‘Animated’).  In Japan there are animated TV series which can run for years, or most usually 26 episodes (usually 30 minutes each), there are feature length anime films that have all the cinematic traits of normal motion pictures, there are anime series that are released straight to DVD also, called ‘OVA’ (Original Video Animation).  Anime is most usually adapted from a story that was created as manga originally, in the case of TV it is usually a straight adaptation, though when adapted to film, there are sometimes changes made depending on who is directing.  Sometimes an anime will be an original creation for TV or film, and will then be drawn into manga volumes; the two mediums are constantly working together and are inextricably linked.  They are in a sense much more than the western perception of ‘cartoons’ and ‘comics’, their importance on Japanese culture is substantial.

Manga is known to people in the west as Japanese comics; the origin for this word was touched upon in the previous chapter, it was derived from an art form beginning in the samurai era, and not developed into manga as it is known today, until the post-war period of World War 2.  A brief history of manga is required first as most anime stem from manga in Japan.

As was mentioned in the previous chapter, the form of woodblock painting known as ukiyo-e was the forerunner to what would later become manga.  It was not until the western influence of the comic strip entered Japan, at the beginning of the 20th century, that a form of manga began to emerge in the country.  The Japanese, inspired and influenced by American comic strips, began to draw their own, mostly used for the political arena as a form of propaganda and satire; artists like Ippei Okamoto were notable figures during this period.

After Japan’s defeat and during the American occupation, various artists (of various mediums of entertainment) were censored, and the development of this art form was halted for a period.  It wasn’t until the occupation ended that manga began to pick up where it left off, and due to mostly one man did it create such a stir, and that man was Osamu Tezuka, popularly regarded as the ‘Godfather of manga’.

Tezuka, inspired by Disney’s output, began to draw his own style of comic, a style not seen in Japan before that seemed to somehow transfer the excitement and energy of motion pictures onto paper; it was a big hit with people and brought him fame and a large following (Napier 2001: 16).  His stories were plucked from every genre imaginable; they were long and involving, like full blown novels, not episodic like the western influence, and told through images and action-packed scenes that hooked girls and boys alike.  His contribution to manga and anime is unparalleled as he practically invented the way manga is created today.

Tezuka would not only draw manga, but create anime as well, his (and Japan’s) first animated TV series was a sci-fi story about a man who loses his son in a car accident; the saddened man builds a robot that looks just like his son, but is disappointed by it and abandons it.  The robot child is eventually found by a scientist and the show follows his adventures as he longs to be treated like a real boy.  The show was called Tetsuwan Atomu (Tezuka, 1963-1966, Japan), also known as Astroboy in the west.

Manga and anime would continue to be popular and the stories told would continue to be creative and marketed to children (kodomo), young boys (shônen), girls (shôjo) and young men (seinen) and women (josei), while animation or comics in the west, most notably America the country that originally influenced Japan in the first place, would mostly continue to market (and be popularly perceived as) cartoons and comics towards children or family audiences/viewers.  Japanese creations for the most part were not rooted in or limited to fantasy and surrealism, like Tom & Jerry’s violent skits, or superhero comics such as Superman that were about crime fighting.

Japan’s manga and anime would not be afraid to tackle other topics like gender issues and sexuality in its shôjo manga (women writers and artists especially, saw a rise in the 60’s) which would include stories with homosexual characters and relationships, and soon every age range, from kids, to teenagers, young adults, for both sexes, would have established series and readerships.  The word that would best describe the difference between anime and manga, and similar art forms in other countries, would be: variety.  Japan had a story for everyone, they were long and involving, and it has come to a point where there is no stigma attached to anyone in Japan who watches animation or reads a graphic novel.  There is however a derogatory term for people who become obsessed with anime and manga, called ‘otaku’, the thought that too much of anything is bad, rings true here, as some fans lose their grip on reality and prefer fictional worlds rather than the one they live in.

The 60’s and 70’s would see a rise in new talent such as Hayao Miyazaki whose Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (Miyazaki, 1984, Japan) and eventually Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997, Japan) would raise him to legendary status around the world like Tezuka.  Interestingly, both of these feature length films were released in periods where Japan’s economy had been established as one of the world’s strongest, and would contain the same themes and concepts: the relationship between man and nature, the effects of destructive technology on our environment and how humanity would have to co-exist with the land to survive.  There is almost a nostalgic feeling throughout his films, longing for a simpler time without rushed modernity pushed on people and society.

The sci-fi genre seems to have predominance in anime and manga, and the stories are not limited to simply ‘sci-fi’ but have sub-genres such as mecha (short for ‘mechanized’; stories about mechanical devices that can hold a human being inside), space faring (set on spaceships), alternate history (set on a planet that resembles Earth but with an alternate history), dystopic (set in futuristic landscapes), and a whole range of styles, from romantic comedy to horror are crisscrossed with each genre, the variety is inevitably immense.

The sci-fi genre (and to an extent anime & manga itself) seemed to reach its first peak with the release of the anime Akira (Ôtomo, 1988, Japan), which was a worldwide hit; (in cinemas in Japan, and on video everywhere else) it captured the world’s attention for its epic vision and aesthetically beautiful execution.  For non-Japanese it was a surprise to see such a dour and mature dystopic story portrayed in animation, but for the Japanese, and especially fans of anime, it may well have been what they were looking for; it may have been a reflection of what they were feeling at the time, just before the catastrophic stock market collapse; a dark mirror reflection of Japan itself.

Akira will be the main anime that will be analysed in this essay; we will begin at the end of the 1980’s and end at the millennium.  The other anime that will briefly be referred to will be Neon Genesis Evangelion (Anno, 1995-1996, Japan), Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995, Japan), and Serial Experiments Lain (Nakamura, 1998, Japan), all popularly and critically regarded as the criterion that must be viewed by anime fans; all that pushed the sci-fi genre forward in some way.

Akira & Japan (chapter 1: Japan)

Chapter One

JAPAN

The only English words I saw in Japan were Sony and Mitsubishi.

– Bill Gullickson [American baseball player; http://www.brainyquote.com]

To understand anime, to even consume it as a media text it is worth knowing, and sometimes imperative that the consumer acknowledge the land it is produced and created in.  Academics in their studies of the media form need to look to Japan and its rich history to provide context to their studies.  Regular consumers may simply be led to the land of the rising sun out of pure curiosity, to find out what certain words mean in the subtitles, or why certain things occur in anime, but never in animated features from other countries.

There are cultural quirks and traits revealed in anime that may seem foreign to western audiences, such as the Japanese school system, portrayed in such anime as His & Her Circumstances (Anno, 1998, Japan), or the samurai way of life depicted in Rurouni Kenshin (Watsuki, 1996-1998, Japan).  To bring the topic more in line with this essay, observing anime from the sci-fi genre, witnessing such creations as mechanized robots, or large megalopolis dotted with skyscrapers, it will be interesting to chart a timeline of the last two hundred years of Japan, to see how Japan has changed over time, both physically in relation to technology and in attitude due to events that have befallen it, most notably the atomic bombings during the end of the second World War.

Part one of this dissertation will briefly chart a timeline of Japanese history and chart the birth of Japanese animation which has at times reflected it.  Details in both timelines need to be known in order to fully comprehend Akira’s depth.

After centuries of clan fighting, Japan settled into some semblance of peace in the 1600’s, with Ieyasu Tokugawa becoming Shogun of Japan.  Japan had been dealing with other countries to a small extent up to this point, most notably the Dutch and Portuguese, taking advantage of western medicine and technology, weapons such as rifles, but after the Tokugawa ascendancy, Japan closed off all relations with the outside world, becoming isolated and introvert from other cultures (Hane 2000: 46).

For two hundred years popular culture flourished in the Edo era (Edo being the old name of the now known Tokyo), art forms such as kabuki (Japanese theatre) and ukiyo-e (paintings) became very popular with people, while at the same time outside forms of culture, from China and Europe began to slowly seep back into the country, and the Tokugawa style government began to slowly decline.  This decline was in part due to the fact that the samurai way of life was built and partly based on conflict and fighting, it was spiritual as well as physical method of existence, and the peacetime may have played a part in the decline, just as natural disasters and frequent riots from farmers did also, people who were quite clearly at the bottom of the social hierarchy set up by the samurai.  In time this social order began to lose its relevance as merchants gained more power and the samurai began to wane.

The way of life the samurai led, called Bushido had many beautiful and at the same time seemingly barbaric qualities (such as ‘seppuki’, ritual suicide), this is one of the many aspects of Japan that have made it stand out from other countries and cultures, in much the same way the cowboy-infused history of America, or the knights of old England, have made them unique cultures.

Interestingly one of the art forms mentioned above, Ukiyo-e (which literally means “Pictures of the Floating World”) can be seen to be the earliest forerunner to manga, and thus anime (Hane 2000: 55).  They were made by the technique of woodblock painting, and instead of following previous conventions by being drawn on temple walls, they were instead used in theatres, teahouses, some were erotic and connected with geishas, some were used for satire.  The most famous example of this art is the woodblock called “The Great Wave” by Hokusai who was incidentally the man who coined the term ‘manga’, which literally means ‘whimsical pictures’, a reference to Hokusai’s own freeform method of drawing landscapes that revolutionized the art form.

The samurai way of life, one of the oldest in the world, survived in Japan for many centuries, though came to its inevitable end in the 19th century when the United States of America came to its shores.  Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan’s shores in his black ships from America, in 1854, and demanded trade, thus forcing Japan to open a limited number of ports (Hane 2000: 60).  It is in this manner that Japan began to open up to the rest of the world, and this act has reverberated throughout the ages ever since, this harsh push into the limelight of the world’s developing economic system, brought on by The United States of America would be echoed again many years later in the aftermath of World War 2.

As more and more western interests came to Japan, anti-government feelings spread, mostly by the samurai class, and Japan entered a civil war yet again, with one faction wanting to defend the Tokugawa government, rejecting the foreign invasion of their land, and another faction seeing the benefits of western society and technology, who wanted to change Japan into a more modern society.  Eventually though, in 1867 the Tokugawa government fell, and power was restored to the emperor Meiji, thus hailing the new era of Japanese history; the Meiji Restoration period.  There was now a sudden rush to catch up with the rest of the world, and reforms took place over the country, class barriers were brought down, with the majority of samurai now reduced to the same level as farmers, and eventually after a few decades there was a strong level of patriotism flowing throughout the land, and this of course led to the rejuvenation of Japan’s military to defend itself and make it stronger in the eyes of the world.

Japan found itself in increasing number of conflicts, with Russia, Korea and China, its patriotism and the quick pace of its modernisation fuelled its desire to conquer other lands and spread its influence, and once the emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan began to look more like its western counterparts, with parliaments and parties controlling the fate of the country.

Japan had only a minor role in World War 1, though leading up to the 1930’s it suffered a great earthquake and depression, and eventually it found itself in World War 2 fighting the allies, and becoming the victim of two nuclear bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that would forever change everything.

After suffering defeat in World War 2, America’s influence returned to Japan, this time in a more beneficial manner as the United States went about helping Japan recover from the devastation wrecked upon it.  The emperor lost all of his power, becoming only a symbol of the country, and a new constitution was written up, a pacifist doctrine was implemented, Japan would only be able to defend itself and contribute to peace-keeping duties, human rights were emphasised.  The American occupation went relatively smoothly, though it wasn’t without its troubles, most notably in the form of press censorship and other miscellaneous issues, though in 1952, the occupation ended and Japan was left alone to walk its own path.

Beginning from the 1960’s, Japan’s economy began to grow at a very fast rate, surprising the world.  There were many factors involved, from the work ethic of the Japanese people, which is notorious for its efficiency and loyalty to corporations, to the trade policies that gave Japan larger shares in western markets.  Japan was undergoing such a positive transformation, that ‘the growing sense of achievement, well-being and optimism had its most spectacular manifestation in the highly successful Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964…symbolically marking Japan’s return to world prominence’ (Smith 1995: 96).  This growth took Japan through the 1970’s and 1980’s, (not without its bumps, such as the student rebellion of 1968, and the ‘oil shock’ of 1973) eventually making Japan the world’s second largest economy, after the United States of America.  In 1989 however Japan suffered a stock market collapse which reverberated through the next decade, both physically and in the form of anime as will be analysed later on in this essay.  The anime Akira it will seem, not only reflected the past, but seemingly predicted the future too.

As is apparent, Japan has gone from various extremes throughout its history, and has twice been affected by America, for economic reasons, and that has in part shaped the Japan we see today.  The country that was humiliatingly defeated in World War 2 due to its fanatic urge to rise above other nations, fuelled from its interaction from the United States ever since Commodore Matthew Perry arrived on its shores decades ago.  Japan, the country that is the only one in the world to have suffered an atomic attack, and yet managed to work away, and become successful with high standards of living, and many opportunities for its citizens.  Japan, the misunderstood country which continues to be viewed as exotic and strange by the west, a land of martial arts, sushi, neon-lit cities, futuristic technology and of course graphic animation.  It is of course not a perfect country, but the effort involved by the people throughout the ages to raise the country to a high level has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Akira & Japan (preface)

Introduction

The aim of this project is to ask: in what ways does the anime Akira explore the relationship between Japan and technology, from the post-war period up to the film’s release in 1988 and even beyond.  Can the anime be textually analysed?  What I attempt in this dissertation is to justify reading this text in the manner of a film, applying conventional film theory to a feature length animation from another country.  To deconstruct it, discover embedded codes and derive meaning from them.

Anime is something unique that belongs to Japan, it has a certain style and is respected as not only entertainment but an important art form in of itself, it will be important for me to gauge why this is in the early chapters, to chart its birth and progress, before textually analysing one of the most praised anime films in history.

How I go about this analysis is covered in chapter three where I outline my methodology, which involves a detailed analysis covering genre and image representation, all the while keeping context in mind, referring to Japan’s history of the last hundred years, and the director’s own words.

The main findings of this dissertation should hopefully show the validity of such an undertaking, that every thing in the anime is put there for a reason, and the medium is used to its full potential to show visions that can’t be shown in live action.  Akira comments on Japan, and its relationship with modernity that was pushed upon it more than a hundred years ago, I hope to explore and show how it does this.