The Comics Classroom: AKIRA, a Cyberpunk Masterpiece

It is probably going to be impossible to say anything genuinely new concerning Akira, that masterpiece of Japanese manga created by Katsuhiro Otomo (hereafter referred to as Otomo) in 1982 which then ran until 1990. The premise of the story is that, thirty years after a post WW3 Japan has somewhat started to recover from devastation, a series of young characters comes to learn that the genesis of the devastation which has defined their era of life has one name:


Who, or rather what, is Akira? This is a massive part of the story (which was handled extremely differently in the manga’s famous film adaption). So, while I will refer to Akira throughout this article, I’ll try and avoid spoiling any real details about Akira’s powers and nature. The premise of the plot, really, is how a group of kids come together to figure out the secrets of Akira. There is obviously way more than that, but this is the core premise at the heart of the Otomo’s plot.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 2

In light of trying to say something that has not already been said before by the likes of anime/manga scholars such as Lemarre, McCarthy, and Napier, I want to use long form focus piece on Akira to do two things.

First, I want to try and introduce readers to the cyberpunk influences within Akira. Second, I want to try and break the story of Akira open and reveal as much as I can about the historical and social influences which make it so meaningful. In truth, I am not sure if I could reasonably even come close to touching on just the recent manifestations of cyberpunk that have taken off since 2010, so you might be asking why I want to start an exploration on this global aesthetic and political phenomena  in … Japan … and through material that covers issues in time set between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“Surely,” I can imagine some readers pondering, “you’d be better off focusing on more recent trends and texts? What good will knowledge about Akira and Japan do me in trying to figure out the context and value of arguments surrounding new, modern cyberpunk textual objects, like Cyberpunk 2077.”

That is a good question, hypothetical reader!

I want to start here, with Japan and Akira, because the genesis of what cyberpunk is serves as an artistic and political movement that, for once, actually has a rather definitive genesis. Unlike many of the kinds of topics which are covered by philosophy and art, such as psychoanalysis and critical theory — ideas that have their roots in generations and generations of layered development — I actually argue that the existence of cyberpunk has been rather short by comparison. Thus it is actually easier to research from a genuinely reasonable origin point and then move forward through time.

I picked the Akira manga as a starting point because it is one of the greatest artistic works of all time and it also intersects with real history in some great ways that people can examine right now. So, having set all this up, let’s all dive headfirst into some groundwork for Japanese social history and a small definition of early cyberpunk before we get into Akira proper.

Getting A Handle On What Early Cyberpunk Is and Why It Matters for Japan

To perhaps best understand Akira and the heavy cyberpunk aesthetic it brought to the fore of pop-culture, there are some great quotes that I want to bring in which will help explain some of the things I want to engage with.

The first thing is that cyberpunk is explicitly a style that deals with socio-political elements. Now, while you might see the word punk in the term and think that it is something explicitly about futuristic advancement and sticking things to the proverbial, luddite “Man,” some uniformed manifestation of a pre-Post Modern society that despises progress, the truth is more complex.

In an article for Paste by Dante Douglas entitled “Cyberpunk 2077’s Politics Should Be as Powerful as Its Aesthetics” there is a fairly useful quote concerning the values and themes of what cyberpunk was in the 1980s:

“Cyberpunk […] has a long and storied history of connection with the sociopolitical context of its day. Early, seminal cyberpunk novels and short stories of the 1980s saw the future as a bleak one, populated by megacorporate structures that would eventually dwarf the nations that birthed them”

Given that the Akira manga ran from 1982 to 1990, it seems fair then that it can embody the kinds of things which Douglas mentions here. In particular, the idea of culture becoming dwarfed and consumed by its own progress is something important to keep in mind when one reads Akira.

To be sure, it is hard not to understand this as pages and pages of the the comic show post-WW3 “Neo-Tokyo” as a sprawling, urban environment with oppressive skylines and a stale, cold feel to it. The combination of this advanced, futuristic city and its cold, lifeless aesthetic is one of the things that cyberpunk, early on, was trying to call attention to: progress that goes too fast and exploits too much will inevitably weaken, not strengthen, a nation.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

In a way, Akira was a sort of prophetic piece for its time. Post-WW2 Japan, between 1945 and 1990/1991, underwent what was known as the Japanese Economic Miracle. Having been initiated into the Post-Modern era as the world’s first post-atomic nation, Japan, under Allied occupation, pushed itself to heights that had to have once been considered something only achievable through conquest. Japan, now itself conquered and then rehabilitation member of the international community, repeated one of the traits which had always made it a competitive player on the world scene: it adapted. Just as it pushed itself to adapt to railways and telephones in the Meiji era with breakneck speed, so too did it again push itself economically and, in turn, technologically.

Unfortunately, this progress came to a earth-shattering halt when Japan’s asset bubble burst in the 90s, triggering what would be known as the Lost Decade.

The reason I wanted to reference the quote from Douglas was because it is important to understand that cyberpunk started out as a bleak, pessimistic way to tackling the underlying problems that were merging in the Cold War world, these techno-social cracks in the foundations of global society. Who was going to inherit the post-WW2 world? Was the Cold War going to end in an apocalypse? Was Japan, once a military threat to the US, going to turn around and buy the world with its modern, economic advancements?

In the case of Akira, the story it tells will particularly touches on urban development and drug abuse, but you’ll find that early cyberpunk works tackled everything from gender identity, family values and economics with equal importance. The whole world was a mess, so cyberpunk material was going to shout at all of it.

So, having established that between 1945 and 1990 Japan’s economic progress would lead to staggering heights, followed up by a swift economic crash, let’s get into Akira itself.

The 2030s … Repeating The Sins of The 40s … According to the 80s … As Envisioned By a Youth of Raised During The 60s

(In the Japanese release, the setting of Neo-Tokyo exists in an alternate 2019, not in an alternate 2030. Welcome to the future!)

I brought up in the comments above that Japan is currently our only current post-atomic society, so you can understand that the values of artists and creators who emerged in between the 60s and 70s were deeply touched by the impact of their new post-atomic home in ways both subtle and harsh. The opening of Akira manga depicts a mushroom-like blast being seen from space, with the following text accompanying it:


*1982 in the Japanese release.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

I wanted to start with the opening of Akira because there was a comment I found from Otomo, while he was being interviewed by Midnight Eye in 2006. Otomo was asked about his role as director of the Mushishi live-action film, during he says the following:

“The point is how we accept the existence of such things. That is what this story is about. For example, today terrorism occupies our minds. A bomb explodes somewhere and a lot of people die. But if you see that event from a certain point of view, from a distance, it can become beautiful. A flash of light and flying sparks look beautiful when you see it at night, but what it really is is people being blown to bits. That’s the absurdity; despair can become beauty from a different perspective.”

The choice to open Akira, not with an up-close and personal view of WW3’s start, but with a far away and remote look, could be viewed as one way the Japanese public, certainly youths who grew up under the shadow of its existence, might view atomic destruction and its role in war: absurdity.

But, still, this shadow was something which had a beauty to it if viewed from the right angle. With Otomo showing readers the angle from space, and setting the stage, Akira begins in earnest … but it doesn’t show people for the first few panels when introducing Neo-Tokyo, it shows highways and construction.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

If you’ll pardon me for making a weird comment, I’d almost say Akira is more constructionpunk than cyberpunk. This because the sprawling, dense and super-urban world of Akira’s 2030s were the vision of life that Otomo grew up with coming to an exaggerated fruition.

As a child born in 1954, Otomo grew up at a point when “only 23% of national highways were paved, which included only two-thirds of the main Tokyo-Osaka road (National Route 1).” By 1967, there was an active plan to build Tokyo’s “3 Rings and 9 Radials,” a project listed as being still under construction as of 2006. I am probably belaboring the minutia of Akira’s first few pages too much, but in my mind it is steeped in showing the visions of a future being conceived of a man who came of age in the 60s and who, in the 80s, had to try and present, visually, what the future of 2030 would look like.

Otomo opens Akira with a reference to the atomic birth of his era and then presents a vision of Tokyo’s future as one of endless roads, expansive concrete and construction illuminated by all manner of neon light. And, then, right at the start of the story, there is a series of panels which hits at the core of everything Akira is all about.

A juvenile motorcycle gang, including two of the dominant characters, the headstrong Kaneda and the impulsive Tetsuo, streak along the road until they hit the crater of a blast which had destroyed Old Tokyo during WW3, the one shown at the start of the manga.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

The 1964 Olympics have a role in this article’s exploration of Akira‘s 80s cyberpunk development, and I’ll get to that towards the end of this piece, but I want to draw attention to just how early these elements are brought in: Japanese youth gangs, highways that go on for miles, craters of the past, and Olympic dreams. Otomo intermixes the past, the present, and the dreams of the future as all cross-crossing together in this insane mash-up, and this is just the start of the story.

Now, while I mentioned that the “punk” element of cyberpunk in the 80s was not explicitly the sole element that would shape the way cyberpunk stories would evolve, that does not mean it did not have a substantial role in the genre. There might be some tentative crossed wires between the role of punk as it existed in the 80s not being as hopeful (if that word even fits, exactly) as it sort of could be seen in the 90s and onwards, but youthful rebellion was very much a critical organ for the cyberpunk machine. And damn if Otomo doesn’t nail the Japanese youth rebellion element through Tetsuo, Kaneda and the gangs of Neo-Tokyo.

The image of Kaneda on his red cycle with his jacket emblazoned with a symbol for Akira’s version of hard drugs (capsule-based amphetamines) was, and actually remains, a potent force within the mythos of Akira for some special reasons. There were a variety of factors in post-WW2 Japan that added to the bubbling over of outlets that saw kids turn to crime, but chief among them being economic issues (namely, poverty) and social issues (conformity).

Concerning Japanese youth crimes between the 60s and 80s, Mark Schreiber, writing a piece entitled “The Changing Motives Behind Juvenile Crime In Japan” for The Japan Times, writes,

“In the postwar years, poverty was the key factor driving youth crime. From the war’s end through the 1960s, the homicide rate for juveniles was 2.0 per 100,000 juveniles. […] Around the 1980s, children came under unrelenting pressure from parents to enter prestigious schools and find employment with well-known companies.”

If we consider the roots of “punk” to be largely anti-establishment then nothing could have been as establishment as school and college for young Japanese teens in the 70s. Otomo’s 1980s vision of youth rebellion casts characters like Tetsuo and Kaneda as orphans, ones brought up in a system that Otomo may have possibly been critiquing directly that still has issues in our present era.

The conditions of the Eighth District “Youth Vocational Training School” where Kaneda and his friends wind up at the start of Akira is, to say the least, rough. Without proper adult guidance and stability, both Tetsuo and Kaneda have become part of a bōsōzoku gang, a particularly interesting youth sub-culture that was much more dynamic between 1970-80 than it is today. “Japan’s Violent Motorcycle Gangs that Influenced Akira – and Anime History” by Ricky Schupp of Tokyo Weekender states,

“During the 1980s, the National Police Agency of Japan estimates that membership for bōsōzoku gangs were more than 40,000 nationwide. They were everywhere, not only major cities but also scattered across the countryside. They also frequently clashed with normal citizens and police, causing noise violations with their heavily modified rides, damaging property, and sometimes resorting to full-scale riots.”

Otomo’s choice of presenting biker gangs as more stable outlets than the work programs, where kids are beaten and allowed to roam free, isn’t the only critique of society in Akira.

Remember, part of what makes cyberpunk “punk” at all is having an authority figure to rebel against. Akira’s depiction of the Japanese military is shown as having to bear the burdens of some grievous past sins. While the military of 2030 is ostensibly depicted as antagonistic force at first, Akira’s plot soon reveals they’re more or less trying, as best they can, to hold back the horrors of the previous generation.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

While not much specifics are given, a picture of pre-WW3 Tokyo is eventually made clear: child experiments were very much in vogue with the previous military and possibly even governmental establishments. The product of experimentation on children yielded “espers,” powerful psychics with abilities such as levitation, possession, clairvoyance, and more.

And, even while there is obvious merit to the intentions of what Neo-Tokyo’s military are trying to in containing Akira and controlling the remaining espers, it is also evident that the still make use of deception and displays of force to get their way. I would repeat the oft-cited claim that this militaristic “guardianship” of Akira was Otomo’s way of commenting upon Japan’s fraught relationship with atomic weapons.

Otomo would have come of age during a period dominated by one of Japan’s most powerful parties, which was in turn managed by one of its most iconic representatives. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party was managed by Eisaku Satō from 1964 to 1972, during which time Japan’s conflicted stance concerning nuclear weapons and national defense became a critical topic.

What, exactly, were the “right” circumstances for Japan to possess a nuclear weapon? Should it? Could it? If it could not, would it be permissible for others to use such a weapon on Japan’s behalf? Was this permissible if there was a clear and present threat?

These were the kinds of questions Satō had to deal with as China’s own nuclear testing advanced. On one hand, it was Satō who introduced the Three Non-Nuclear Principles in ’67, and he also helped Japan push forward as a member of nuclear non-proliferation treaties; however, according to The Japan Times, it was Satō who, in conversations with McNamara concerning nuclear strikes against China in Japan’s defense, suggested that “it would be possible for the United States to put such an operation into action immediately from the sea — remarks that could be taken as tacit consent to bring nuclear arms into Japanese territory.”

Satō’s suggestion of a first strike while also advocating for a non-nuclear Japan goes to demonstrate the kind of complexities surrounding nuclear weapons. My biggest piece of evidence to show Otomo’s pessimistic view of LDP and the Japan’s atomic schizophrenia come from how he uses one of the nation’s greatest moments of glory as part of a plot that also shows a generations long deception: he makes an Olympic stadium Akira’s research center and prison.

The 1964 Olympics

It cannot be overestimated how important to the world, and Japan, the 1964 Olympic games came to be. Japan had been designated an Olympic host for the 1940 games, but their ambitions in Manchuria and the Diet’s own members ultimately saw the IOC’s plans for Japan ended. By 1964, Japan had been freed from Allied occupation and was ready to show it was an active partner within the global community.

Part of the influence Japan had on the cyberpunk movement, I believe, comes from the influence Japan showed on the world stage in 1964 and then maintained through the mid-eighties. Japan was becoming a culture that imported raw materials and exported technology, it was a new and modern economic force where-as the USA and Russia were the past. While Japan never “devoured” the United States or the rest of the world in totality, as was the fear held by US companies, they did prove to the world with the ’64 Olympics they were ready to return to the world stage without violence.

One of the things writer Alexander Martin comments on for the Wallstreet Journal about the ’64 Olympics was that “Tokyo spent the equivalent of its national budget on a major building program that transformed the city’s infrastructure.” Among other things, Japan saw a bolstered “Olympic” economy boom as color televisions were purchased to see the new, colorized broadcasts of the events, and the whole of Tokyo seemed united in cleaning and preparing for the games. It was, in a very real sense, a kind of mass healing event for the nation.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

However, as The Japan Times writer Robert Whiting points out, the ’64 Olympics touched on some of the very things I believe Otomo was commenting upon through Akira. One element that Whiting addresses is the environmental damage that the push to see Tokyo rapidly modernized for the games unleashed.

For example, a high speed train to link Tokyo and Osaka was constructed, even though there were no events in Osaka. Whiting writes, “Thanks primarily to the haste (and also to dirty politics and graft), the [train] project wound up costing $1 billion, twice what the original budget called for (and roughly one-third the total cost of the games) and the JNR president was compelled to resign.”

This misappropriation of funds causes, among other things, complications for development throughout the city. Whiting cites one such example of his reflections of the impact of the games. In his piece, there is a section covering how the urban modernization of Tokyo created obstacles which changed the view from certain iconic points, such as the Meiji Era bridge at Nihonbashi, the “zero point” from which all distance was once measure in Japan.

He writes, “I remember taking a walk along the canal to see the famous bridge, shortly before the games began. I was dismayed to see its once-charming appearance completely ruined by the massive highway just a few feet overhead, like a giant concrete lid, obliterating the sky.”

I am not saying explicitly that the layered super-highways of Akira’s opening panels are in direct reference to the covering up of places such as the bridge at Nihonbashi (which you can read about here, including a picture of its artistic depictions before the highway and pictures of its modern covered state), but I do find the art makes a compelling case against what Otomo must have grown up seeing Japan become consumed by. Otomo’s artistic work in Akira ties into another topic Whiting covers in his piece, that of housing.

In Akira, Neo-Tokyo is a sprawling, layered megalopolis that expands both outwards and upwards. If you examine the way the buildings are depicted in Akira, everything is flat, uniform, and sterile. The state of Tokyo seems like a twisted, nightmare version of what the ’64 Olympics had begun to foreshadow: the expansion of dwellings to adjust for Tokyo’s growth. Whiting writes,

“The inhabitants of more than 100 houses near the site where the Olympic Stadium was planned had been forced to move in order to make way for the stadium and a surrounding parking lot. The greenery that covered the area was removed and a nearby river buried in concrete. Among the hard-hit areas were Bunkyo Ward and Chiyoda Ward, in the center of the city, where many small single-family residences were condemned to be torn down and the people living inside forced to move to new dwellings outside the city. Because of the decrease in population in these areas, several primary and secondary schools closed down. Massive new Soviet-style New Town developments called danchi became the destinations for many of the displaced people.”

I hope it is evident that, to my view, the ’64 Olympics were one of the most pivotal things to happen to post-war Japan, but it seems to me that manga-ka such as Otomo could see the rapid development of the nation as something to be reflect on through Akira as a kind of Ghost Of Christmas Future.

In Neo-Tokyo, much of the plot focuses on the upcoming Olympics, which is soon revealed to be the site underneath which one of the most devastating weapons in existence is buried. Later, after Akira is resurrected and manipulated by characters like Tetsuo, the site becomes a nationalistic symbol for the “Greater Tokyo Empire,” a brutal authoritarian regime.

The Akira manga seems to showcase the perils of a hyper-modernized nation that loses control of its super-weapons and then, catastrophically, reverts into a petty, garish reflection of its older, Imperial self. In this sense, I believe the cyberpunk heart of Akira is … well … children. The same force that Old Tokyo turned into withered psychic drug-slaves and personality-lacking doomsday weapons becomes the force that saves the world.

While the punk, anti-establishment Tetsuo becomes corrupted by power, the anti-hero Kaneda, a brash and crass biker, helps stop Tetsuo alongside numerous others. And, almost paradoxically, the “final” ending of Akira, which was released in the 90s as part of the collected volumes, touches on something I feel is unique to manga endings: there are technically two of them.

A Tale With Two Endings

For those who have read the collected, US editions of the Akira manga, the original serialized ending concludes with page 399. The epilogue material covers pages 400 to 434.

First, let me show you the panel that the serialized run of Akira ended with in 1990.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2002 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 6

In this ending panel, Kaneda and Kei look out over the remains of Neo-Tokyo that as just suffered its second round of post-WW3 destruction. The future for them, and the world, is enigmatic and mysterious. Who has survived? What will occur? How will the fallout of Akira Vol.1-6 play out? It is, really, anyone’s guess according to this page.

This was how the 1990s wrapped on Akira.

The 1993 extended ending of Akira presents Neo-Tokyo, ravaged by the devastation of Akira and Tetsuo, being greeted by a task force of nations, including America. Kaneda, having been touched by the spirit of Akira, Tetsuo and mankind’s spiritual memories, had just helped save the world.

But, when the moment to accept help from what Kaneda obstinately views as invaders arrives, he and his punk allies fire on the task force. After unveiling a banner with the words “GREAT TOKYO EMPIRE,” Kaneda says “The banner may be tattered, but we’ll honor what it stands for.”

John Bolton, in Interpreting Anime, writes the following about this “extended” ending.

“In [the] epilogue, Tetsuo’s gang collapses with his disappearance, and U.N. aid workers are finally able to enter Tokyo. But at this point the remaining bikers and guerrillas join forces to repel these foreign intruders and form a new state based on the one Tetsuo attempted to build, the Great Tokyo Empire (Dai Tokyo Teikoku Akira). In the final image, Kaneda rides off into the city in an exaggerated perspectival shot that outdoes even the earlier panorama from the top of the building. In this new final image, the road extends to a clean vanishing point, while buildings tower dramatically and geometrically on either side, making the city’s structures seem to rise again from their own ruins. This second ending has an architectural solution that is even more clearly expressed and more optimistically inflected: we can locate ourselves geographically in the city, we can restore the city’s sleep lines from the rubble, and we can chart our own future direction. But along with this increased optimism or confidence comes a renewed nationalism: the rebuilding of a state, even an empire, with a military to defend it. As it gestures towards the future, the manga also moves us into the past: it rewrites the end of World War II, so that the bomb explodes but the subsequent foreign occupation is repulsed […]”

I wanted to close with the perspective of Bolton because, well, I think that his view is the right one and it encapsulates the paradox of what cyberpunk is.

Personally, I don’t see cyberpunk works as having clean endings. Consider the ending to one of the keystone cyberpunk texts, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Linda Lee’s consciousness and that of “a” Case exist alongside Neuromancer, but is this a happy ending? A sad one? I read Akira in a similar manner and that is “you’ll get out of the ending what you desire.” I don’t see the outlet for what cyberpunk was responding to, the tensions of a changing world in an adapting time, as being supportive of totally happy endings. There has to be as much of a promise for heartbreak as happiness.

Perhaps, in hindsight, I might not have “believed” the 399 ending unless I had read the post-399 content to see the change of tone and ideas. I don’t believe that the epilogue material can ruin the beauty of page 399 or what it represents, that of an ambiguous and mysterious ending.

I also believe every warning and omen Otomo worked into Akira through the 80s does not and cannot truly dilute the ending of the story that the 90s delivered, one of cautious optimism with a nationalist aftertaste. I have heard the 399 “ending” was in response specifically to his having paused the manga to work on the film adaption, and he “resumed” the ending he had always intended with the subsequent material that Bolton refers to as an epilogue.

Art by Katsuhiro Otomo from the 2000 Dark Horse release of Akira, Vol. 1

Regardless of which ending is the true one, Akira stands as a monumental work that spanned the height of Japan’s emerging cyberpunk origins and impacted both Japan and the USA’s 90s cyberpunk trends.

I would say both endings, 399 and 434 alike, are truly cyberpunk endings and I hope you read through Akira to find your own answers to this deep, engrossing story.


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