Released in 1988, Akira is a Japanese animated film set in
the post-war dystopia of Neo Tokyo in the year 2019, 31
years after WWIII, which saw the destruction of Tokyo
byway of an atomic explosion. The film greatly condenses
the source material, altering the story to focus on the
struggle between the protagonists, Shotaro Kaneda and
Tetsuo Shima, childhood friends and members of a biker
gang called the Capsules.
Neo Tokyo is in a state of social unrest, the government is
privately conducting human experimentation. The story
begins with the Capsules provoking a rival gang into a
biker brawl, at which Tetsuo comes in contact with an
Esper, Takashi, causing him to crash his bike. Seriously
injured, Tetsuo, along with Takashi, is abducted into the
government program where scientists discover Tetsuo’s
powers resemble Akira’s in potential.
Kaneda attempts to save his best friend from the corrupt
government, eventually joining a group of revolutionaries
intent on breaking into the Esper’s compound. Meanwhile,
Tetsuo’s abilities continue to grow and he escapes from the
compound intent on meeting Akira, the powerful Esper
that led to Tokyo’s destruction 31 years earlier. The film
comes to an unforgettable climax in which Tetsuo’s total
loss of control leads to the destruction of Neo Tokyo.
In Akira, misused science causes the complete collapse of
Tokyo. Twice. This cause is a government funded, top secret
program experimenting on children to create “Espers,”
powerful individuals who can read thoughts, see events
miles away, or move items with their mind. Even more
disturbing, the program is operated by an unscrupulous
scientist named Dr. Onishi, and overseen by a ruthless army
colonel named Shikishima.
The Esper program demonstrates a brazen lack of ethical
regard for human life. Tetsuo is kidnapped due to his
potential as an Esper. It is clear Dr. Onishi and Col.
Shikishima plan to weaponize him just like the others. No
mention is ever made of the Espers as children with human
needs—they are tools to be used. In one telling moment,
Masaru, an Esper, tells the escaping Takashi, “You can’t run
away… we aren’t meant to exist in the outside world.”
Akira presents a grim solution to the overreaching of
humanity: societal collapse. In the end, Tokyo’s grand
restructuring failed catastrophically at the hands of its
greatest experiment, Tetsuo. If its leaders had veered away
from their acts of hubris, would this crisis have been
averted? The dangers of unchecked ambition exist in our
world as well, shown in what we see daily of corporate greed,
unethical science, and general disregard for human life.
Neo Tokyo is no utopian future. During the opening scenes
of the film we see rows of police in riot gear against the
crowd while a news anchor reports that the student
protest has descended into violence. Later, a religious
demonstration is dispersed by paramilitaries. Those that
stand against the regime are detained, beaten, or worse.
The film warns of a future where Japanese cultural ideals
of honor and harmony have given way to fascism.
The situation in Neo Tokyo has gotten so bad that at least
one resistance group seeks to topple the entire system.
Furthermore, in the wake of Tetsuo’s telekinetic rampage,
the religious cult grows in audacity as they celebrate the
coming of Akira. The struggle between the people of Neo
Tokyo and their authoritarian government grounds the
film’s sci-fi themes in a world the audience can recognize,
a world that resembles our own. This could be us.
Few characters in the film fall into the traditional hero/
villain archetypes. Kaneda, the ‘hero’, is a bosozoku biker
leader willing to kill other bikers that mess with his crew.
Col. Shikishima, the antagonist, questions the very program
he oversees and deplores the chaos his government has
created telling the Council, “Open your eyes and look at
the big picture. You’re all puppets of corrupt politicians
and capitalists… it’s utterly pointless to fight each other.”
Tetsuo, after a life of being the underdog, becomes
psychotic when he obtains power, though he eventually
loses the ability to control this power which results in
untold destruction. Still he idolizes and envies Kaneda:
“You’ve always been a pain in the ass, y’know. You’ve been
telling me what to do since we were kids. You always treat
me like a kid. You always show up and start bossing me
around, and don’t you deny it!”
The result of such complex characters is that no single
person feels “in the right.” Dr. Onishi lacks ethics in his
research, Col. Shikishima abuses his power, the government
evacuates at the first sign of disaster, even Kaneda can’t
escape the conflict without blood on his hands. When it’s
all over there is no winner in the struggle for the future of
Neo Tokyo. There are plenty of losers, most notably the
countless civilian casualties resulting from the struggle.
At the time of Akira's creation, Japan is still reeling from
the trauma of the nuclear end to WWII. This apocalyptic
backdrop of the monstrous extremes of human progress
and striving colors the cynical projections of humanities’
near future. At the same time, Japan is engaged in a
haphazard evolution from the 'classical' Japanese culture
of honor and tradition to a more 'modernized' culture of
business and economic status.
The film’s depiction of the schizophrenic nature of Neo
Tokyo’s leadership and social unrest acts as commentary on
this cultural confusion. From the bureaucratic mess of the
Council to the strife between the Colonel and Dr. Onishi,
leadership and authority are neither cogent nor effective.
This struggle for power and control engenders a society
where violence and dereliction are normative. The
Capsules exemplify much of this through their experiences.
Throughout Akira we see a questioning of the validity of
'modern progress' at the cost of humanities integrity. The
Esper program's experimentation on children to realize
human potential manifests Akira's 'transcendental
awakening' and destruction of Tokyo. The influx of
'western' business ethos corrupts the political/civic process.
Even the advanced technology present is used to exploit
and destroy rather than support and create.
The Akira cult in the film is itself a play on the apocalyptic
Aum cult of that time that fomented the unrest of the
youth into a terrorist prone cult. The cult of ‘Lord Akira’ as
harbinger of moral cleansing and the Esper program’s
grasp at ‘the power of God’ are equally disillusion in goal
though dubiously prophetic in result. In our striving for the
'next stage' or 'the answer' the film suggests that we can
lose ourselves, and each other along the way.
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