AKIRA – A FILM BY Katsuhiro Otomo

Tommy Zhang

Edited by Cristina Dodson Castillon, Toby Sharpe, and Rianna Walcott

Art by Iara Silva https://www.instagram.com/iiaraz_/

In July 1988, AKIRA’s release shook Japan. The ruinous violence, and brutal realism of the animation shocked moviegoers, and the film’s budget of ¥ 1.1 trillion was unheard at that time for an animated picture. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the story is set after World War III in Neo-Tokyo. The film revolves around Kaneda and Tetsuo, members of a youth biker gang. After an accident, Tetsuo gains psychic powers and seeks retribution against all those who have wronged him. The Neo-Tokyo government, Kaneda, and his fellow psychics try to stop him before he finds his way to the imprisoned Akira, the source of his psychic powers and the catalyst of World War 3. The success and popularity set AKIRA as the ceiling of storytelling in all future Japanese animation; it was accepted by many that no animation would take its new throne.

Although a short essay like this does little justice to the colossal framework of AKIRA, I hope I can give an impression on why AKIRA is a vital, and often overlooked, example of Eastern literature with regards to post-colonial theory.

AKIRA’s grand narrative is testament to the success and ambition of Otomo’s storytelling and the film’s ability to mirror the struggles and history of Japan itself. In Tokyo Cyberpunk, Stephen T. Brown notes that “Akira consistently eludes (and even seems to actively resist) the hermeneutic impulse to settle on a definite interpretation or grand metanarrative.” The emergence of several interwoven metanarratives is a common feature of Eastern narratives. Unlike many Western narratives, where the story arcs of individualistic protagonists end up illuminating divisions across society caused by religion, politics, or class, many non-Western narratives attempt to unite characters across those supposed boundaries.  

Parallel narratives in AKIRA demonstrate how in post-colonial societies there is no single narrative that can account for the complexities of post-colonial society. Colonization involves the imposing of a metanarrative onto a people. This imperial metanarrative tries to dominate and subjugate all other native, competing narratives through the use of systemic violence or social division. Japanese history consists of many imperial nations such as China and Portugal influencing its course, while Japan in turn forged its own legacy of empire and colonialism. When the United States dictated the terms of peace after World War II, it turned Japan from an imperialist nation to a parliamentary democracy. The post-colonial Japan came after the country was forced to reject its past as an empire and embrace democracy. AKIRA’s many narratives illustrate the society after colonization and colonizing, as a place where sometimes contradictory metanarratives exist alongside each other.

An example of a metanarrative in AKIRA lies in the setting of Neo-Tokyo. One of the earliest scenes in AKIRA foregrounds the skyscrapers and neon signs that pollute the cityscape. The juxtaposition of these symbols of westernization with the decay and decrepitude of the city indicts the conquering of Japan by the West, a reflection on the empty promise of grandeur by colonization. The destruction of old Tokyo and then Neo-Tokyo – symbolizing the birth of modern Japan by the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima – in the beginning and the end of the movie emphasize the need for Japan to find an identity beyond westernization. In one of the last scenes of the film, Neo-Tokyo is completely destroyed by Akira and flooded by tsunami waves and darkened clouds. At AKIRA’s resolution, beams of light have penetrated through the clouds and the floods calm, symbolizing a return to the natural and cosmic order; along with the finally crumbled skyscrapers, Japan’s past now coexists with its contemporary state. These two competing narratives indicates that beneath Western colonial influence, native history and culture still thrives and seeks a return to dominance.

As an animated film, AKIRA has never gotten much attention outside of the animation community due to Japanese animation’s status as either commercial garbage or a children’s art form. Regardless, I believe that works such as this one should not be ignored. Otomo’s insightful inclusion of metanarratives in AKIRA showcases the rich and heterogeneous story (or, indeed, stories) of Japan’s struggle for identity. The addition of AKIRA into Eastern literature courses and post-colonial literature and film studies can give a better understanding on post-colonial Japanese society.

Every viewing of AKIRA is a fresh one for me, as I feel the movie helps me discover myself. Perhaps it can help other non-white westerners find their own hidden narrative brewing under the structures of the current dominant one. Like Akira, we must knock the structures down to see what comes up.

Works Cited:

Ôtomo, Katsuhiro. “AKIRA”. Akira Committee Company Ltd., 1988.

Brown, Steven T. Tokyo Cyberpunk. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Watanabe, Akira, and Fred G. Notehelfer. “Japan – The Bakuhan System”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/The-bakuhan-system.

About the author:

Tommy Zhang is a 3rd year undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in post-colonial theory and literary theory. Besides studying philosophy, he enjoys watching movies and exploring.

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