The Weird, Wonderful World of Manga (part 2)

The cover of volume 1 of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira.

In my last column, I talked about Japanese comics, known as manga. Now is my chance to introduce you to Katsuhiro Otomo, one of the masters of both manga and anime. For many (like me), Otomo’s work was a first encounter with Japanese comics and animation.

An odd feature of Japanese comics, for those not familiar with them, is the juxtaposition of cuteness with elements that are frightening, gory or grotesque.

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On one hand, this is necessary. The extreme themes and emotions expressed by characters in manga, to say nothing of the supernatural and even apocalyptic scenarios the stories describe, require some level of distraction, relief and mitigation.

Google at your own risk: Urotsukidōji.

(An example: Urotsukidōji, a manga and companion anime released under the title Legend of the Overfiend in the U.S., is about the merging of our human world with a realm of depraved, near-omnipotent demons. It raised the bar on gore, sex and violence in comics and animation, and is a truly horrific thing to see. Yet many of its characters are perky teenagers, occupied with silly teenage things. Unless you have an incredibly strong stomach, I strongly recommend you not Google this work.)

On the other hand, some degree of cuteness and exaggerated emotion is just part of the style of manga artwork. As I discussed in my last column, the art form of manga traces many of its roots to Osamu Tezuka‘s style, which was heavily influenced by the work of Walt Disney. Cuteness, therefore, is built into its DNA, and hasn’t been shed or separated out of the form as it has in western comics.

The cover of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.

One manga artist that’s gone against the grain with some of this is Katsuhiro Otomo. Best known in the west for Akira, which started out as a manga series in 1982 and then was made into a feature film in 1988, this story was, for many (including me), an introduction to Japanese comics and animation.

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Put simply, Akira is a Faustian story about the dangers of messing with human potential through technology, and the horrors that ensue when power comes into the hands of those not able to responsibly wield it. It actually begins after an apocalypse, and leads up to a second. It begins with in 1992, ten years in the future at the time of the book’s publication, the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo is consumed by what appears to be a nuclear explosion. This incident sets off World War III.

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By 2019, a new city, Neo Toyko, has been built around the ruins. The chaos of old Tokyo’s destruction, and the calamities of the war, have left the new city in the hands of a controlling military and a set of loosely organized gangs. Some of the most compelling visuals in the black and white manga-and the gorgeously vibrant animated film-are of motorcycle gangs driving through the twisting avenues and streets of Neo Tokyo, a city more fully realized in all its post-apocalyptic glory than the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner.

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Half motorcycle thug, half caring older brother: Kaneda.

The story itself revolves around a just few key characters, including teenaged orphans Tetsuo and Kaneda, who attend a government-run school full of fellow hooligans. Kaneda is the jock of the two, leading his own motorcycle gang and exerting absolute authority over his crew. Tetsuo is his meek shadow, runty and profoundly scarred by the traumas of his difficult youth. Occasional flashbacks show us the origin of the two characters’ friendship, with scrappy Kaneda rescuing Tetsuo repeatedly from bullies and taking him under his wing like a younger brother. The ramshackle character of the school, with its graffiti and sassy student body, is in itself an apocalyptic feature, given Japanese society’s emphasis on an orderly educational system filled with obedient and hardworking students.

One night, during a routine skirmish with a rival group of motorcycle gang bangers dressed up as horrific clowns, Tetsuo and Kaneda come across a strange creature: a prematurely aged child running away from some unknown captor. This part of the story unfolds with expert pacing. Otomo carefully builds the brutality of the world in which Tetsuo and Kaneda try to make their lives, artfully withholding key facts about the presumably nuclear devastation, waiting until we’ve adjusted before introducing the first truly weird element of the story.

Creepy little Takashi, “Number 26,” one of several weird little mutants in Akira.

A man appears to be protecting the bizarre child Tetsuo and Kaneda encounter; a shootout with military thugs leaves him dead as the child escapes. Once cornered, to everyone’s dismay, the child simply vanishes. He is Takashi, one of a number of mutants created in a special government program to locate and weaponize children with mental powers. The encounter with Takashi awakens Tetsuo’s nascent psychic powers, and the story gets truly underway.

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An anti-government revolutionary named Kei appears during the chase to capture Takashi. It’s evident that she’s somehow connected with the dead man who was protecting (or abducting) him. She involves the love-smitten Kaneda in her resistance movement, giving us insight into the complicated politics of post-apocalyptic Japan. Corrupt government ministers, an all-powerful military, and a populace confronted with constant terrorism and violence make their own comment on the fate of a world in which our fears ultimately run the show.

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Tetsuo begins to transform into something other than human.
Tetsuo begins to transform into something other than human.

As things progress, Tetsuo is captured by military scientists, who waste no time in experimenting upon him. We get veiled hints of disasters that took place through similar experiences previously, and references to a child named Akira-known by the code name “Number 28”-begin to foreshadow the film’s conclusion.

Tetsuo and Kaneda ultimately encounter other little mutants like Takashi, more products of the secret government program. The children are trapped in small, infirm bodies (Otomo drew inspiration from the disease progeria, which causes children to age at an accelerated rate), but have tremendous mental powers.

Corrupt politician Mr. Nezu.
Corrupt politician Mr. Nezu.

The sprawling world of Akira, which plays out through five volumes of manga almost two inches thick each, paints Otomo’s themes on a very large and intricate canvas. The story is about social isolation; the greedy and corruptible people who oversee society; and power, in all its forms: political, psychic, and emotional. Tetsuo, a scarred teenager, becomes a dangerous container for powers greatly beyond his control, with disastrous (and grotesque) results. The story shows us what would happen if someone whose life was defined by fear and inferiority actually came into possession of superpowers such as the meek dream of so often. In parallel, it shows how even those charged with our protection and well-being become concerned with larger abstractions and power plays, compared to which we little ants become an afterthought.

There are also new interpretations of two central themes in Japanese comics and science fiction: nuclear destruction, and the idea of metamorphosis or mutation. As Tetsuo’s powers increase past his ability to control them, he metastasizes like a supernatural cancer into a giant, freakish monstrosity, the boundaries of his human form no longer relevant as massive powers consume and transform him.

Two scenes in particular stay with me from both the manga and the animated film. The first is the rat-like politician Nezu (which acutally means “rat” in Japanese) stuffing a briefcase with bearer bonds and cash as he flees his opulent residence-then having a massive heart attack. The second is a parade of apocalyptic religious zealots, led by a rosary-brandishing, chanting Buddhist priest, shouting messages of the coming rapture, just as the bridge they’re crossing collapses amidst the devastation wrought by a super powered Tetsuo. But there are so many other memorable images in the story.

This is powerful stuff, and despite the massiveness of the world Otomo creates, full of oddly relatable characters (including the flawed, doomed Tetsuo) and nuanced cautionary tales. As an aside, I also consider Akira a masterwork of the conversion of a story from comics to film, given the potential difficulty of translating its thousands of pages into a 124-minute movie. Perhaps it’s that Otomo oversaw every aspect of the production of the anime, but it feels like just the right elements were carried over from the manga to the anime for the two to feel like the same story.

Next time, I’ll take a look at a manga artist who specializes in horror-of a type that will truly keep you up at night.