“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.
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”.
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).
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.
I 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.
From 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?”
What 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.
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.