Review – Akira

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Overview

Synopsis Welcome to Neo-Tokyo, built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by a blast of unknown origin that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, making him a target for a shadowy agency that will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like the one that leveled Tokyo. At the core of the agency’s motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable monstrous power known only as Akira.

Author Katsuhiro Otomo

Artist Katsuhiro Otomo
Publisher Kodansha
Genre Cyberpunk

Length 6 volumes, around 400 pages each

Release Date December 20, 1982

Akira is legendary. The anime film has inspired many stories since its release in 1988, and the manga has had its own tremendous impact. It is considered a pioneer of the cyberpunk genre in Japan, predating even William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which is one of the earliest works in the cyberpunk genre. This year is the fortieth anniversary of the manga, so let’s see if it holds up today.

Explosion

Content Guide

Drugs/Alcohol References: A majority of the characters are drug addicts. Pills — usually referred to as capsules — play a major role in the plot. Smoking and alcohol use are also common.

Language: Profanity is constant with f*** and s*** as the most popular words. There are still plenty of uses of almost every other word throughout.

Old person says man can barely see past his nose

Sexual Content/Nudity: Starting in book four, nudity — both sexualized and non-sexualized, male and female — becomes relatively common. A cult engages in sex trafficking for one of their leaders. A semi-graphic sex scene is portrayed over the course of a few pages. There are one or two attempted sexual assaults.

Spiritual Content: The main conflict centers around characters with psychic powers. One character is a natural medium who can channel and be controlled by other psychics. A cult forms around two particularly powerful psychics, and people worship the more powerful one as a god and attribute miracles to him. Meanwhile another character opposed to the cult becomes a spiritual figure for those in need and who reject the cult.

Character is mentioned clinging to god or Buddha only when considering mortality
How optimistic

Violence: Akira is a messy story. Throughout the first three books, there is a lot of blood and gore. Characters have limbs blown off, some have their heads explode, and there are many panels showing blood all over walls and floors. Beginning with book four, the amount of violence increases as two groups go to war. The carnage reaches its peak in the last two books. A character goes through several grotesque transformations as his power becomes too much for him to handle. One of the elements Attack on Titan is most well known for is its significant amount of violence. I believe Akira may have even more.

Character swings a pipe at another

Other negative themes: One of the driving factors of the conflict is the military’s human experimentation on those with psychic powers. The subjects were always children, and it ultimately led to the explosion that acts as the backdrop for the story.

Shot of earth with words about a new bomb exploding in Japan in 1982
The story takes place in 2020

Review

It’s difficult not to compare the manga with the movie. The fact that the writer also directed the movie makes it even more so. That said, I will go over a few comparisons, then move on to talk about the manga on its own. My review is based on the 35th anniversary edition from 2017.

Set of Akira manga
Story

Akira’s plot follows three primary arcs, and all three point in the same direction. The first follows Kaneda, the leader of a teenage biker gang, and his relationship with Kei, a resistance fighter. Kaneda finds himself mixed up with an antigovernmental organization after meeting Kei and refusing to go away when she tells him.

Large machine

The second arc follows the man just referred to as “The Colonel.” The Colonel looks after three child-like psychics who were test subjects once upon a time. He also hopes to use his military forces and his knowledge of the “Akira phenomenon” to prevent future catastrophes.

A shriveled girl tell a man her dreams of Akira

The third arc is Tetsuo’s as he learns how to use his powers for evil. The movie adaptation follows the three arcs pretty well at first. However, it doesn’t take long for the differences to become drastic. That said, I will do my best to avoid too many spoilers.

After reading the manga, the movie feels like a barely coherent summary. There are so many differences that I almost have to wonder the point of even making the movie. It works as a great sales pitch for the manga, but that’s it. The film makes no sense on its own because so much of the manga was cut, including essential explanations and context. I nonetheless enjoyed the movie before reading the manga. Now that I’ve finished the books, I don’t enjoy the movie.

Rough-looking boy in front of a cyberpunk door
Volume 2’s cover

Book Four is where the story really starts to pick up. A significant event at the end of Book Three changes the entire trajectory of the plot. This is when the story becomes much darker, and everything in the Content Guide ramps up. It is also where, in my opinion, the quality of the writing increases.

The movie is grotesque and twisted. The manga is doubly so. Each book is darker than the last and becomes more bizarre with each new event. In a way, though, that is exactly what makes the story so much more engaging in every volume. At times, it’s a little hard to follow, but for the most part it’s easy.

The overall philosophy of the series is pessimistic. Like every post-apocalyptic story, it portrays humanity as hopelessly lost and barbaric. It doesn’t completely do away with morality, but the assumption is that it takes second place to personal desires.

Boy surrounded by destruction says, "It's like disaster swept everyone's principles away, and everyone keeps killing each other."

My biggest complaint with the series is, unfortunately, the ending. The climax is almost perfect, but the way the problem is resolved feels a little too easy. It’s abrupt and could have been better. Aside from that, the series is incredibly well done.

There are occasional moments when the “camera” zooms out and observes the world in the background. Those are some of the most memorable parts for me, because they’re so unsettling. In one instance, those bits are mixed in with a dramatic moment that, all together, is one of the darkest moments of the series.

Camera zooming out to show city
One example of the camera zooming out
Characters

Tetsuo is a terrible character. But I don’t mean that he’s poorly-written. Rather, he’s so evil that I can’t stand him. Even in his vulnerable moments, I don’t feel bad for him in his pain. It’s hard to say whether there are any “good guys” in the series, except for Lady Miyako. Everyone else has their own dubious motivations for wanting to unlock the secret behind the psychic powers that caused the destruction of Tokyo in the 1980s.

Boy rides motorcycle without using hands
Look, Ma! No hands!

Kaneda, however, is a great protagonist. Despite having the same tropey faults as a lot of other manga/anime characters — namely, he’s a womanizer — he’s a lot of fun to follow. In a way, what makes him fun is another trope: he’s an unserious goofball until it’s time to be serious and awesome. It’s well-executed here and doesn’t come across as annoying, because he’s still funny when he’s being serious. He’s one of my favorite protagonists that I’ve seen in a long time.

Boy runs toward light at the end of a tunnel

The other major characters are also great. Kei, Chiyoko, and Lady Miyako are my favorites after Kaneda. Though Kaneda is the main protagonist, Kei and Miyako are the real heroes of the story. Without them, the story wouldn’t have much direction. The villains are all insufferable, and it’s easy to root for their downfall.

Older lady sitting on table
Miyako had a shamefully minor part in the movie

The artwork of the series is spectacular. I’ve always been a fan of the styles of the ’80s and ’90s, and Akira is a prime example of the former. I think this may be the best-looking manga I’ve read. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell based on the pictures I chose, but I preferred to avoid as many spoilers as possible.

Politician railing against rumors and misinformation
So, nothing has changed
Conclusion

Akira is easily my favorite manga that I’ve read. It’s an essential read for any fan of sci-fi in general, and cyberpunk in particular. It still holds up after forty years, and I expect it will be just as iconic in forty more.

Black ball of explosion ripping into skyscrapers
One of the most iconic pictures

Positives

+ Beautiful artwork
+ Engaging story
+ Fantastic characters

Negatives

- Ending feels abrupt
- Occasionally difficult to follow

The Bottom Line

Forty years later, Akira still deserves its legendary reputation.

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 9

Editing 9

Art 10

9.5

David Koury

I'm a writer and aspiring fashion designer residing in the wasteland called Nevada. Also, I'm trying to juggle learning both Korean and Japanese.

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