The ambitious scale of Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark animation “Akira” is staggering. Although the film’s events barely span a few days, the depth of its myth reaches deep into the past and the future.
The film opens with an apocalyptic explosion that is an obvious nod to Hiroshima, which has served as an inspiration for Japanese science fiction for decades.
The explosion’s namesake, Akira, was a psychic youngster also known as an ESPer whose powers allowed him to reach the level of a God and set in motion a singularity that wiped out the old world and gave birth to a new one.
In Akira, Akira is both a spiritual presence, representing numerous gods, and a real person, buried beneath the streets of Neo-Tokyo.
In “Akira,” the city of Neo-Tokyo is shown as full of neon signs, conspiracy theories, military raids, and anpost-apocalyptic wastelandd biker gangs.
Kaneda and Tetsuo, two best friends, are trying to make their way through this chaotic city. When Tetsuo rides out to show himself, he collides with a little boy named Takashi who is riding his bike on the highway.
Some of Takashi’s ESP abilities are transferred to Tetsuo. Takashi is one of three known ESPers in government detention; the others are Kyoko and Masaru.
Tetsuo begins experiencing terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations of Akira, and they begin to overtake him.
A Power to Great for Us to Understand
When Tetsuo finally confronts the full might of Akira, he undergoes a horrifying metamorphosis into a bloated blob of flesh, cells, and organs, a transformation that symbolizes the complete takeover of his human body by the mighty cosmic power of Akira.
His body “is behaving on its own,” he cries. The three ESPer kids are so awed by Akira’s presence that they immediately begin praying to him, knowing that a new universe must be born and that Tetsuo must be freed from his mortal existence.
Eventually, they aid Kaneda and Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kairo in escaping the exploding city after they’ve rescued Tetsuo, but the city of Neo-Tokyo has been devastated once more.
Tetsuo’s ultimate and possibly predestined union with Akira stems from his need to be viewed as a formidable and significant figure.
In the course of the film, Tetsuo is viewed as Kaneda’s apprentice or sidekick, and this inferiority complex, along with his newly acquired abilities, proves to be a dangerous mix.
Tetsuo is first afraid of his talents, but he eventually learns to control them, at which point his ego took over.
In their final showdown inside the stadium, Tetsuo asks Kaneda “How come I need you to bail me out every time? Sure, I’ve been on the losing end of things before, but that won’t be the case forever, okay?”
This quest for, and eventual acquisition of, power is motivated not only by a need to prove his own value but also by vengeance against those who had doubted him.
Taking Care of Our Own Needs
Otomo develops the picture as a political allegory of the end of times, and the human desire for power and retribution that leads to the disastrous finale is apparent in many characters throughout the film.
Colonel Shikishima uses military force and displays a level of brash confidence reminiscent of General Patton. To prevent Tetsuo’s rise to power, he launches a coup d’état and a heavy military assault.
His haughty anthropocentrism clashes with the otherworldly and extraterrestrial powers he must face.
On the other hand, there are cults who openly celebrate the destruction of this world and the birth of a new one in anticipation of the arrival of Akira, analogizing it to the biblical rapture.
Nonetheless, even they are naively anthropocentric in their belief that Akira’s resurrection is for the betterment of humanity.
This cult follows the lead of one man, who rides a huge throne around the streets of the city.
This is just one example of how Otomo attacks the pretense of individual significance in the face of societal collapse.
A Chance to Break the Cycle
In Akira, the animation walks a fine line between the uplifting and the desolate. The ominous shades of orange, black, and crimson used to paint Neo-Tokyo are a natural fit for a city mired in what appears to be permanent violence.
The city’s inhabitants are perpetually frustrated, anxious, and on edge. It captures the isolation felt by all members of today’s disjointed society.
The climactic impact of the climax, which consists of a sequence of flashing panels, a gigantic explosion, and the blackness of space, is both stunning and deadening, exemplifying this nothingness.
Its decisiveness creates a gaping hole in its wake. Tetsuo and Kaneda spend their dying minutes together in the midst of the blinding brilliance and might of Akira, and in those moments they see memories of various times in their friendship.
The scenes show how Tetsuo’s extraordinary intelligence was present from the start, but how his timid personality and frail body forced him to live under Kaneda’s watchful protection.
Despite the film’s overall sense of tragedy, these sentimental scenes with Akira hint at the potential for growth via reflection on the past.
The light shines down on the ruins of Neo-Tokyo after the bombs have gone off, sending a confusing message in the wake of the city’s destruction.
In the end, the question is whether or not human beings can change their ways and break the cycle.
Tetsuo’s lust for power caused another global catastrophe after Akira; now that humanity is picking up the pieces, Kaneda and the rest of the population have a chance to make this the final one.