“Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History, provides Mike with some much-needed background on Japanese animation while co-hosts El Goro and Chris Cummins describe their love of Otomo’s groundbreaking film.” I feature on the acclaimed Projection Booth podcast, as the team tackle anime.
It always began on the day after tomorrow. In the original manga, in its translations, and even in the film itself, the opening sequence of “a new type of bomb” wrecking central Tokyo was assigned the date at which the audience was supposedly sitting down to watch it. And then it would leap ahead a generation. The kids have run wild on the streets. The government is secretly funding the terrorists. New religious cults have sprung to life. There are riots, and in a gang fight out in the old town, a bunch of rude boy-racers accidentally run into an escaped guinea pig from a secret military project.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira came heavily loaded with local allusions which flew over the heads of many English-speaking fans. The very words “new type of bomb” recalled those of Emperor Hirohito in his infamous surrender speech from 1945. But Akira’s Japan was most strongly rooted in Otomo’s youth, when the wide-eyed country boy came to the big city of Tokyo to earn his fortune. He found a city struggling to recover from the aftermath of an apocalyptic war yet still mired in scandals, war-crime revelations and revolutionary fervour. A giant crater sits at the heart of Otomo’s Tokyo, like the suppurating cesspool that forms the structuring absence of Akira Kurosawa’s break-out movie Drunken Angel (1948). The children of Otomo’s Japan have been transformed by the war’s aftermath – brash, irresolute and feckless, cruising the city on motorbikes and spouting an unintelligible argot thick with ze’s and zo’s, two emphatic particles unknown outside Tokyo gangs. I fondly remember showing Akira to a Japanese class at Leeds University in 1991, and Dr Penny Francks sticking her head around the door, listening for a few moments, and observing: “I can’t understand a word!”
The anti-hero Kaneda is all mouth and trousers, a street thug whose passing interest in revolution is soon deconstructed as merely an excuse to pick up girls. But it’s he and his outlaw bikers who inadvertently stumble upon (in fact, crash into) a secret plot to restore pre-war weapons programmes and human experimentation – the Akira project that attempts to harness and release the creative energy of the universe. In Japanese, it is written with katakana, a writing system that makes it sound like a foreign acronym – A.K.I.R.A.
Behind the scenes, Akira was an awful albatross of a movie project, with spiralling budgets and onscreen experimentation that left its producers panicking about the likelihood of it ever earning its money back. But the result was an apprentice piece of enduring power – a post-holocaust sci-fi epic that featured discordant gamelan music and Noh-influenced chanting, a cartoon that featured biker gangs throwing hand grenades and arguing about the origin of the universe, an animation that featured naturalist afterimages from passing headlights, and realistically curling smoke from cigarettes. To put matters in perspective, in 1989, the Hugo Award shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation included Willow, Big and Alien Nation, and the winner was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? For a substantial subset of avant-garde science fiction fandom, Akira was a harbinger of a radical new sub-genre. For an audience that luxuriated in the “Japanesquerie” of the cyberpunk movement, the arrival of science fiction from Japan itself had a markedly alien frisson.
One of the unsung heroes in bringing Akira to the West was the curator and producer Carl Macek, who persuaded the Japanese to hand over all their art materials. An entire shipping container of cels and backgrounds, regarded by the film-makers as industrial waste, was sent to America, where Macek turned it into an asset. He framed iconic moments to sell as art, and headed off video pirates by offering a free piece of the original film to anyone who bought a legitimate copy.
As the film approaches its 30th anniversary, and indeed, the year in which both it and Blade Runner were set, it has become a standard bearer for Japanese animation. It may be difficult to remember in an age where Hayao Miyazaki dominates so much of the discourse of animation, but there was a time when Akira was the benchmark for everything that made anime cool. 28 years after its premiere, shined up for Blu-ray, it’s still pretty damn good-looking.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Akira is released on Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment/Animatsu. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #15, 2016.
Although the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is only partly complete, interested readers can access the working text now at the website. I warn you now, with 3.2 million words up online already, it is a time-wasting machine. I’ve been writing entries on a number of Asian subjects, including a new contender for Japan’s first science fiction anime, a forgotten master of pre-manga art, and an ongoing effort to write entries for everybody who’s won a Seiun Award. Plus entries on all sorts of fun things, from Korean costume dramas to Chinese feminists, the science fiction of Yukio Mishima and the steampunk of Hitoshi Yoshioka. Since the Encyclopedia focusses on authorship, there are entries on the original creators of Sky Crawlers and Akira, 2001 Nights and Star Blazers. There are details of the Japanese variants of Flowers for Algernon and the translation of Neuromancer, Japanese experts on Jack the Ripper and the big names in yaoi.
And how much does this all cost you? Nothing. It’s all free. It won’t be finished for a year or so, but it’s being hosted and paid for by Gollancz as part of their SF Gateway. But I’m warning you: it’s a time hoover. Do not click on any of the above links if you haven’t got an hour or so to spare getting lost in the labyrinth.
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.
WW2 has become a stripped-down fable of Star Wars proportions – a few brave heroes, taking on a force of terrifying evil against impossible odds. On the Good Side, the rag-tag hard-pressed Alliance. On the Bad Side, the dark empire, with its storm troopers and its nice uniforms. The good guys win, and the good guys are us.
This doesn’t work in Japan.
In the early 1980s, five sisters took Japan by storm. The Nolans sold 9 million records, and appeared on TV, singing in Japanese. Their biggest hit was “Dancing Sister,” which we know better as the Christmas party floor-filler “I’m in the Mood for Dancing”.
Anime producers fell in love. Some shows already had five-man teams modelled on Thunderbirds, but the video market favoured all-girl action. Soon the Nolans’ media-friendly archetypes, expressed in their costumes and made-up Japanese puff articles, were incorporated into the Five Ideal Anime Women…