‘Akira’ Is Afraid of Nukes
And so is Japan
Looking up from a highway toward Tokyo on a clear, sunny day, a half globe of light appears. It grows larger and larger until it consumes the city. A blast like a nuclear explosion.
Thirty-one years later, the city has rebuilt itself. Neo Tokyo is a bustling metropolis. The crater of Old Tokyo is nearby, a harrowing reminder of the events three decades earlier.
These are the opening shots in Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal film Akira.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. With its themes of corrupting power, political machinations and social isolation, Akira is perhaps the most important movie about Japan’s post-nuclear identity.
Today Akira feels like a warning. Japan pursuing its own nuclear arsenal has a become a topic of serious discussion. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has spoken nostalgically about Japan’s former militarist rulers and moved away from Japan’s pacifist constitution.
All this as Japan eyes the threat of a nuclear North Korea and an American president who regularly insults its traditional allies including Japan. Not coincidentally, Japan has begun to rejoin the arms trade.
Akira details the state of Neo Tokyo 31 years after the explosion that kicked off World War III. Social order has deteriorated. Parentless youth roam the streets. Biker gangs terrorize each other. Shotaru Kaneda leads one of these gangs. During a brawl, his best friend Tetsuo Shima crashes into Takashi, a child with telekinetic powers. Shima begins developing powers of his own. The government then whisks away Tetsuo, leaving Kaneda and his accomplice Kei, a resistance fighter, to save him.
Otomo agreed to make Akira, an adaptation of his own manga, on the condition that he retain full creative control. Several studios combined to form The Akira Committee and pull together the $8.2-million budget. Akira remains the most expensive anime film to date, and with its highly detailed animation and pre-scored dialogue, it clearly shows.
But Akira’s legacy isn’t only an aesthetic one.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the calamitous end of the war, the Japanese reconsidered their position in the world. The U.S. occupation stripped the once mighty empire of its autonomy. Japan’s transition to a Western-style democracy happened quickly. The country underwent an industrial renaissance.
For some Japanese, these changes were jarring — and opened a generational gap between those who’d lived through the war years and those who had not.
Thematically, Tetsuo’s story closely parallels Japan’s development. With his new abilities, Tetsuo becomes egomaniacal and unstable. He’s desperate to emulate and surpass Kaneda in strength and intellect.
By the end of the film, Tetsuo’s powers have grown beyond his control. He becomes a mass of mutated flesh and machine reminiscent of the deformities suffered by atom-bomb victims. When Tetsuo’s abilities reach their apex, Akira — the esper responsible for the initial blast that destroyed Old Tokyo — reawakens and, in the process of destroying New Tokyo, assimilates Tetsuo.
Despite its high production value, Akira performed poorly upon its initial release in Japan, grossing just $5.6 million dollars. It became a cult classic, and helped to define the cyberpunk genre. Its influence is still felt today. And with atomic warfare again a real danger to Japan and the world, Akira is more relevant than ever.