Born in 1954 in Miyagi Prefecture, Katsuhiro Otomo grew up on American counter-culture movies such as Easy Rider, Bonnie & Clyde and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. The young Otomo eventually skipped town, and headed for the big city of Tokyo.
He arrived during turbulent times. Intent on keeping bases in Japan to supply forces in Vietnam, the United States had just signed a controversial treaty with the Japanese government. Students were rioting in the streets, colleges were deserted, and the streets of Tokyo were dark with riot gas and smoke bombs. When the unrest died down, a group of die-hards formed the terrorist Red Army group, which was eventually wiped out in a violent gun battle with police at the Karuizawa holiday resort in 1972.
While the older generation shook their heads and lamented the motorcycle-riding, pill-popping youth of the day, others talked of the shinjinrui, a putative “new breed” who were taller, smarter, and tougher than their forebears. Science fiction writers were already toying with the idea that Japan’s post-war youth weren’t just attitudinally distinct, but had different minds.
In search of a way to make ends meet in Tokyo, Otomo began working in comics, drawing humour, fantasy and modern drama, but steering clear of science fiction. His comics debut was “Gun Report” (1973) in Manga Action magazine, based on Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée. For the next ten years, Otomo juggled manga short stories in several genres, including Bible pastiches and mundane drama, as a weekly contributor to Manga Action throughout the 1970s, and then increasingly for its rival Young Magazine in the 1980s.
Otomo only moved into SF at the urging of his editor at Young Magazine, when he wrote the 1979 epic Fireball. Depicting a conflict between scientists and terrorists over the mastery of a supreme energy source, Fireball was left unfinished – had Otomo completed it, he might never have returned to similar material in Akira. It also featured a supercomputer named Atom, in homage to Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, better known in the West as Astro Boy.
Many of Otomo’s works are cunningly recursive science fiction, refashioning the plots of cartoon shows and comics from his childhood with an adult sensibility. In particular, he favoured protagonists drawn from the underclass, in reaction to the clean-cut heroes of the golden age of SF. His breakout work was Domu: A Child’s Dream, depicting the duelling psychic powers of an old man and a young girl in a run-down Tokyo apartment complex. Despite its grungy, modern trappings, it had its distant origins in Otomo’s desire to retell the plot of Sarutobi Etchan, an obscure 1971 girls’ cartoon show based on a manga by Shotaro Ishinomori.
Similarly, Otomo drew on plot elements and character names from Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28 (a.k.a. Gigantor) for his long-running Akira (1983-1990 Young Magazine). Tetsujin 28 was the tale of a WW2 robot-warrior project, resurrected in the 1960s by a master-criminal. The only thing that can stop it is the son of the original inventor, who has an even more powerful weapon at his disposal. Little of Tetsujin 28 remains in the final story of Akira, though sharp-eyed viewers might notice a weapon that survives the Third World War, that the Colonel is the son of one of the original Akira Project scientists, that Akira’s code number is “28”, and that the protagonist’s full name, like that of the boy-hero of Tetsujin 28, is Shotaro Kaneda.
Inevitably, Otomo was drawn into the anime world. His distinctive anime look first appeared in a 1983 commercial on Japanese television for the Canon T70 camera; in just a few cels, we see the first stirrings of his Akira bikers. He was strongly dissatisfied with working conditions as an animator on an adaptation of Kazumasa Hirai’s Harmagedon (1983), but contributed strong work to two anime anthologies, Robot Carnival and Neo-Tokyo (both 1987). It was these apprentice pieces, delivered at the height of his accolades and acclaim, which led to him to be commissioned to make an animated adaptation of his then-unfinished comic, Akira.
Otomo filled 2000 pages of notebooks with ideas and designs for the movie, though he was eventually persuaded to reduce his vision to a mere 738 pages of storyboards. An artist and writer given full control of a story he had created himself, Otomo pushed his production team to the limit. Over 170,000 separate animation cels were created for the production, pushing the budget far above that of the average Japanese animated movie. Otomo also broke several cardinal rules of cel animation, particularly the maxim that night-scenes should be avoided wherever possible – not a problem today with computer animation, but a huge issue when working with cels. Despite this, large parts of Akira occur after the hours of darkness, causing immense difficulty for the crew in lighting, halation effects, shadow and simple colouring. Instead of the bright, primary hues found in children’s cartoons, the quest for adult, photographic realism in Akira led to the use of 327 different colours, causing further production nightmares in tracking which paint was supposed to go where.
Although it ran far over budget, Akira eventually recouped its costs in foreign editions, inadvertently igniting a boom in Japanese animation abroad, and dominating popular perceptions of the medium until the translation of Studio Ghibli’s films in the late 1990s. Akira’s cyberpunk sensibilities made it as definitive of the 1980s genre in Japan as were Blade Runner and Neuromancer in the Anglophone world; it was even lovingly pastiched by Production IG in a commercial for Murphy’s Irish Stout, directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo.
Its later manga volumes depict yet another disaster, followed by a prolonged exercise in survivalist fiction in which the inhabitants of a ruined Tokyo stand up to an invasion by American “peacekeepers”. However, Otomo never hid his recursive inspirations, and pointedly ended the Akira comic with a dedication to Osamu Tezuka, darker elements of whose Astro Boy can also be seen beneath the glossy surface. Most notable among these is the opening sequence – both Astro Boy and Akira begin with a tragic road accident, leading to the resurrection of a tearaway child with new and awesome powers.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. Akira is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment on 27th June 2011.