Chris from Blog of the Darned hosts The Blogathon From Another World, April 9–10, 2016 a celebration of science fiction cinema.
Darling readers, if you follow me regularly, then you know there’s a crazy dichotomy here at Serendipitous Anachronisms. There are only two types of media I like jolly fluff and movies that require annotation by several opposing branches of philosophic academia, and an intense four-hour post-viewing discussion preferably with bottomless cups of tea.
Well, it’s time to put on our thinking caps and sexy professor glasses, kiddos, today we are exploring Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 film AKIRA.
AKIRA is a ground-breaking film with a huge following, it is the first anime feature film intended for an adult audience shown in the US. While a financial failure in Japan, AKIRA became immediately successful with international audiences and remains one the seminal works of anime. AKIRA saved the anime industry single-handedly, per JETRO Japanese External Trade Organization, Japan is the world’s largest exporter of comics and animation, with an annual rate of over $375 million of sales of anime DVDs in the U.S. & Canada alone. Before AKIRA, American audiences had little exposure to anime.
AKIRA features amazing artistry and details. Remember, this film pre-dates computer animation, according to IMDB:
The movie consists of 2,212 shots and 160,000 single pictures, 2-3 times more than usual, using 327 different colors (another record in animation film), 50 of which were exclusively created for the film.
But what makes AKIRA special is not its stunning visual impact, the narrative is both complex and thought-provoking.
There are excellent AKIRA posts, so I will forego the longer description here. AKIRA‘s plot is simple. During the late 1980s, the Japanese government conducted psychic experiments on children to create super weapons. An experiment with a child named Akira went dangerously awry. The Japanese government dropped an atomic bomb on Tokyo to protect itself. Thirty years later, the rebuilt city Neo-Tokyo struggles in the way that most post-apocalyptic communities survive, street gangs, drug dealers, martial law, anti-government activists, and shady governmental officials with secrets, oh so many secrets, throw into the mix racing motorcycles, and superannuated children with extreme psychic capabilities. In AKIRA, Tetsuo a young boy with hidden psychic powers becomes controlled by a powerful and violent non-corporeal child-like entity Akira. Tetsuo is abducted and held under military control, Tetsuo’s friend Kaneda tries to rescue him.
But like much great anime, AKIRA‘ s plot is secondary to its message.
The Shadow of Hiroshima
According to scholar Chris Goto-Jones, Japanese science fiction narrative differs from Western science fiction. Whereas Western science fiction often focuses on exploration, Japanese science fiction is “masochistic …reinforcing the psychological damage of the defeat and the apocalyptic nature of the defeat” (15). In AKIRA, dangerous technological advances and weaponry force Japan to destroy its city in another atomic blast. AKIRA’s post-apocalyptic environments exhibit obvious parallels to scars from World War II. During WWII the U.S. dropped 20,000 Napalm bombs on Japan, Nagasaki and Hiroshima are the only sites ever to be a victim of atomic weapons. Following World War II, as part of Japan’s peace treaty, they were no longer allowed to have a military. The demilitarization resulted in an emasculation of the Japanese people. Artist Takahashi Murakami writes:
Our society and hierarchies were dismantled. We were forced into a system that does not produce adults. -Superflat
A kawaii culture replaced the removed military power. Kawaii is a “cuteness mingled with pity”, but it also represents soft power. Emperor Hirohito exhibits military kawaii. Hirohito appeared diminutive alongside General MacArthur and referred to as a little boy, but Hirohito had great military power.
If we look at Japanese cultural artifacts, it is evident that Japan as a country clings to the “little boy” image resulting from the post-World War II treaties.
The world of AKIRA is similar to Japan in many ways, but the most obvious similarity is the period of recovery after an atomic blast. Placing AKIRA in the future after World War III allows its filmmakers enough distance to comment on Japan in the 1980s without making an obvious connection.
AKIRA shows a militarized Japan 30 years after a deadly atomic blast, the film’s weapons are “Kawaii”, children with dangerous psychic abilities. The film also demonstrates soft-power with “Tetsuo”. He is the runt of the litter, the little guy, the bullied one even within his social circle. Within Tetsuo is a dormant and intense destructive force.
AKIRA in literal terms demonstrates the harsh and violent transition between childhood and adulthood.
If we consider Japan a country with a child-like identity, then we should consider what AKIRA might represent. It is a story about growth and change. As Tetsuo becomes powerful, he becomes corrupted. His power becomes his destruction.
In this context, AKIRA can be interpreted as a warning.
In the 20th century, Japan’s economy progressed at an astonishing rate, a parallel society to AKIRA‘s superannuated children, who have gained much wisdom and power, yet in many ways unable to control the power at their fingertips.
By 1988, Japan experienced the tale-end of the Bubble Economy, a 30-year economic growth spurt and headed direct for an economic crash, this crash would have devastating consequences for the Japanese people, the grossly inflated housing market left homeowners with homes worth 1% of their original sale prices.
While the crash would not occur until 1991, hindsight is 20-20, and one cannot help but sense a warning of too much power in AKIRA.
SPOILERS: “I am Tetsuo”
Sorry but we cannot talk about AKIRA without talking about the end! But I promise, knowing the end will not spoil the film. One of the film’s most puzzling aspects is its ending. Tetsuo becomes engorged and monstrous ultimately consumed and dissolved by Akira. While it appears that Akira has won the battle the film ends with a disembodied voice saying “I am Tetsuo”. In Anime and Philosophy, Benjamin Stevens uses a Cartesian lens to explore disembodied sentient beings.
For 17th Century Philosopher René Descartes, the proof of the undeniable truth of existence is determined by thinking. Despite all other doubts of his existence, in order to think, he is “a thinking thing” (Descartes, 109). This concept Cogito Ergo Sum or “I think, therefore I am” is shorthanded as the “Cartesian Cogito”: human identity is defined by thought action.
Therefore, by stating “I am Tetsuo” Tetsuo survives. But who or what is saying it?
Stevens identifies the Akira/Tetsuo as a posthuman entity. Tetsuo is absorbed by Akira, yet at the end Akira says, “I am Tetsuo”; thus a being that thinks, yet it is not Tetsuo though it thinks it is Tetsuo. AKIRA challenges this modality, justification of existence via thinking.
So what the heck does this film mean?
Existence moves beyond humanity. Though the physical body experiences destruction, something survives. Perhaps AKIRA offers its audience hope. Devestation and destruction is not the end, but a new beginning. If you have the time, watch AKIRA, I would love to know what my darling readers make of this great film.
If you love science fiction, check out all the other great posts at #BlogathonFromAnotherWorld!
In the meantime, enjoy AKIRA!
Ciao for Now, dearies!
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009. Print.
Descartes, Rene. The Method, Meditations, and Selections from the Principles of Descartes. (Trans. John Veitch).7th Edition. London: William Blackwood and Sons. 1880. Google Books. Web. 10 June 2010.
Goto-Jones, Chris “Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human.” AsiaScape.Net. 2007. Web. 19 Mar 2010.
Matsui, Takeshi. “The Diffusion of Foreign Cultural Products: The Case Analysis of Japanese Comics (Manga) Market in the US.” Princeton University Working Paper Series. 37 (2009) 1-28. Web. 17 June 2010.
Murakami, Takashi. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. New York: Japan Society, 2005. Print.
Stevens, Benjamin. “I am Tetsuo.” Anime and Philosophy: Wide Eyed Wonder. Ed. Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2010. Print.
“Trivia.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2016.
Watanabe, Morio. “Imagery and War in Japan.” Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Ed. Takashi Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001. Print.