Monday, 28 March 2011

"Akira" by Katsuhiro Otomo

Year of Publication: 1982 - 1990, originally serialised in Young Magazine
Number of Pages: 2182 pages, published over six volumes.

Summary: December 1992: An apparent new type of bomb explodes over Tokyo, decimating the city, and triggering World War III. By 2030, a new city named Neo-Tokyo has been built, around the ruins of the old one. Neo-Tokyo is due to hold the Olympic Games the following year, but is gripped by political strife, violent anti-government fighters, strange religious cults and warring teenage biker gangs. Tetsuo Shima, a member of one of the gangs, is badly injured when he encounters a strange child with an aged, wizened appearance and devastating psychic powers. The child turns out to be one of three similarly wizened children who are being kept as part of a government experiment. Each has a number tattooed on the palm of their hand (25, 26 and 27). After Tetsuo's encounter, he begins to develop psychic powers of his own, which quickly grow beyond his ability to control them, causing him to violently lash out at both friends and enemies, turning his best friend, Kaneda (who also happens to be the leader of the gang), against him. However Kaneda is also preoccupied by a mysterious and beautiful girl named Kei, who is part of the resitance movement against the government. As the government scientists in charge of the psychic project, under the charge of the formidable Colonel, try to get control of Tetsuo and his power, it becomes apparent that there is a still greater power awakening in Neo-Tokyo. A mysterious super-being, known only as Akira, stored at a temperature of Absolute Zero in a top-secret facility beneath the city's Olympic stadium is beginning to respond to Tetsuo's power, and the consequences could mean far more than the end of the world.

Opinions: This is probably one of the most famous examples of Japanese "manga" (comics). The story is long and complex and yet still moves at a break-neck pace. The artwork is primarily in black-and-white and is extraordinarily detailed and full of genuinely startling imagery. The story is on an epic scale. It is just one story told over a total of 2,182 pages. At times, the story is bogged down by the multitude of characters and sub-plots and also the dialogue at times seems mostly to consist of characters shouting each other's names. However the sum total is a genuinely spectacular piece of work. The story deals with themes of teenage alienation and angst, political corruption as well as social and historical themes such as the bombing of Japan in World War II. Throughout the series Otomo gleefully destroys several times and the books are full of apocalyptic imagery. Otomo's artwork is very powerful and in the series frequent dialogue-free pages, the way he does faces and expressions, as well as the stylised look of some of the panels and drawings, helps to create a powerful emotional response. Particularly in the second half of the series, Otomo creates a bleak and striking science-fiction world.
Of course, most people know of Akira through the 1988 animated film version which Otomo wrote and directed and was a huge cult hit worldwide and was one of the main things that helped to popularise Japanese manga and "anime" (animation) in the West. The film, while good in it's own right, is famously incoherent (apparently, given the manga's huge popularity in Japan, it never occured to Otomo that people would watch the movie who had not read the manga) and differs hugely from the series. A lot of the film's weirdness is explained in the comic, although it does have it's fair share of weirdness in the comic too.
The comic belongs very much to the "cyberpunk" genre of science-fiction and features many images and concepts that will be familiar to fans of the genre.
Bleak, violent, frequently humorous and often strangely moving, this is a must read for science-fiction and comic fans.

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