Appetite for Self-Destruction: Akira and the Fate of Neo-Tokyo

Appetite for Self-Destruction: Akira and the Fate of Neo-Tokyo

While many associate the name of Hayao Miyazaki with anime, particularly among fans in the US, for others the name Akira springs into mind first. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the 1988 epic appeared when the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans was still looming over global affairs and many were beleaguered from years of contemplating their nuclear annihilation. For a Japan, on the other hand, reaching the climax of its economic ascent before heading into its “lost decade,” Akira signaled an apocalyptic fear of manmade catastrophe. This is to say that just as Tokyo became a global power on the development of a technologically driven civilization, Neo-Tokyo in turn will arise from the rubble of the previous civilization’s technologically created self-destruction. Akira is a military experiment gone wrong, yet whose destructive power is still available for either use or abuse. Akira is also a boy with phenomenal psychic abilities, one of several children known as “Espers” living in seclusion, who do not see themselves as weapons for defending an empire against its enemies, but as misunderstood outcasts, scorned for their powers. Tetsuo, the leader of a biker gang, who inhabits the shadows and debris of Neo-Tokyo also possesses the kind of powers that Akira embodies. What ensues is a monumental adaptation of the more than 2,000-page manga that inspired the movie, in which Neo-Tokyo stands as a microcosm for humanity’s complacent obsession with science, technology and power. Lady Miyako, whose character is reduced to a two-dimensional religious fanatic, signifies the human impulse for transcendent salvation in the face of manmade disaster. Meanwhile, the fate of the world depends on the human, all too human decisions of Tetsuo, the Espers, Kaneda and Colonel Shikishima, not to mention the hungry and angry throngs seeking redemption for their lost city. Appearing the same year as Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Otomo’s Akira is the very antithesis to the naïve world of friendly spirits and the children who befriend them in Miyazaki’s work. Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo is a true dystopia, a metropolis reeling in the aftermath of total destruction, bereft of civility and order. It is the nightmare that haunts the Japanese collective psyche, in which a world torn asunder by war and social decay lies just below the surface of modern Japan. Indeed, Tetsuo’s world may be the world that lies beneath the surface of every so-called civilization. It is also a vision that informs the narratives of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Appleseed.

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