The Rebirth of Japan in Comics
When atomic bombs were dropped onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two, nobody was sure if Japan would be able to reestablish itself as a nation. To everybody’s surprise, Japan was able to not only rebuild itself, but also become a technological centerpiece of the world. Even after this, there was still widespread fear in the aftermath of WWII and the anticipation of something catastrophic happening again, especially with the escalation of the Cold War. Between 1984 and 1993 Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the manga series, Akira, which explores this fear in his city, Neo-Tokyo, using an ordeal similar to the one Japan went through following the war.
Neo-Tokyo was founded in the year 2019 after a nuclear explosion destroyed Tokyo in 1982. Akira, a boy with immense psychic powers, was the cause of the nuclear explosion. He was one of many psychic children experimented on by the government. After Akira destroyed the city, he was sealed away underground in a cryogenic chamber.
Once the city was rebuilt as Neo-Tokyo, the government and military, led by the headstrong Colonel named Shikishima, continued to test on other people who had psychic powers to see if they could find a way to safely manipulate Akira’s powers. The three children they tested on were Espers (Numbers) named Kiyoko, Takashi, and Masaru. The main character of the series is named Shōtarō Kaneda. Kaneda is the leader of a motorcycle gang; his best friend, Tetsuo Shima, is one of the members. Although they are best friends, Tetsuo resents the fact that Kaneda is effectively the boss of him and always comes to his rescue. After getting into a motorcycle accident, Tetsuo discovers he has psychic powers and the government begins to perform tests on him—making him one of the Espers. He soon becomes insane after using drugs to control his powers. This insanity, combined with his resentment towards Kaneda, eventually turns Tetsuo and Kaneda into enemies.
After Tetsuo learns about Akira, he travels to the cryogenic chamber and frees Akira from his prison. When Takashi, Akira’s old friend, is shot trying to guard Akira, Akira unleashes his ultimate power once again and destroys Neo-Tokyo. He then teams up with Tetsuo and creates an Empire which is rivaled only by Lady Miyako, a high priestess and former Esper, and her community. Kei, a member of an underground terrorist organization, which fought against the previous government, plays an integral role in the struggle against Akira and functions as a medium for Kiyoko to transfer her psychic powers. She also serves as the love interest for Kaneda and they fall in love near the end of the story.
The main mention of legitimate employment in the city is in the government and military which is where most of the wealthy members of the city work. The bar in the city provides an example of a typical business in Neo-Tokyo. Other “jobs” that members of Neo-Tokyo have are as part of a gang and participating in underground terrorism against the government. While the specific media is not explicitly talked about in the series, there is a mention of radio and television being used immediately proceeding Akira’s second explosion. Although nothing significant is being broadcasted on these media sources, it shows how the citizens acquire much of their information and demonstrates the impact that the explosion is going to have on these unsuspecting people. The biggest political event that defines Neo-Tokyo is the government program that created Akira. WWIII was indirectly caused by this program because after Akira destroyed Tokyo it caused a chain reaction and brought countries from all over the world into war. Another significant event is the coup d’état executed by the Colonel in which he declares martial law over Neo-Tokyo, effectively installing himself as the head of the government, which shows how threatened by Akira he is.
Overall, Otomo is able to portray his vision of post WWII Japan in Akira through the characters and the setting. His depiction spoke, and still speaks, to the fears of the Japanese and of people all around the world of total nuclear destruction at our own hands. It is because of this that Akira has made a lasting impression and become such an important piece of history that still applies to today.
When writing Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo needed to take many factors involving the city, Neo-Tokyo, into account. The economy, infrastructure, quality of life, equity, and sustainability were all questions that he had to think about to make Neo-Tokyo the city that he wanted it to be.
In Neo-Tokyo, there is not much of an opportunity to generate income and make a living. While there are a few jobs to be had, the majority are taken by the corrupt government. Because of this, people turned to gangs and underground terrorist organizations to make a living. Kaneda is a prime example of this. He uses his power as the leader of his own motorcycle gang to steal various items, including his new motorcycle. Kei is another example of this, as she is part of the underground resistance against the government. She does this, not necessarily because she wants to, but because she believes she has to in order to live a decent life under the corrupt government.
The economy in Neo-Tokyo represents that of the post-WWII Japanese economy. Immediately following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese economy was thrown into a downward spiral. This led to major distrust in the government and the belief that it would not get better. The gangs and government resistance are presented in Akira to once again show the distrust in the government. Disorder like this appears in any poorly run government and Otomo is able to show what he feared was happening to the Japanese government. His fears were confirmed as multiple scandals involving the government accepting bribes were revealed during his lifetime and throughout the process of him writing his series. This no doubt blemished his opinion of everything the government did and affected the way he portrayed the government of Neo-Tokyo in Akira.
Otomo worked hard to create the city he envisioned and spent countless hours perfecting the drawings of the buildings and other infrastructures in the city. The setting can be seen almost as a mixture between real life Tokyo and New York. With skyscrapers towering over the city, Neo-Tokyo seems like a technological metropolis. It stays this way until Akira is awoken and he destroys the city again. This explosion sends the city back into heaps of rubble and there are few buildings left standing.
This progression in the setting can be seen as Otomo’s views of post WWII Japan. The rebuilding of actual Tokyo is shown in the successes of Neo-Tokyo, but as Otomo sees fears of nuclear warfare in the Cold War begin to surface, he brings these fears to fruition by destroying the newly built city the same way it had been destroyed the first time. This is Otomo’s commentary that the world has not learned from its mistakes and that the experimentation with atomic bombs, (or psychic powers in Akira), will lead to ultimate destruction if not stopped.
While Neo-Tokyo may be technologically advanced, the corrupt government creates poor living conditions for the people. This leads to unsuccessful and unfulfilled lives by many of the citizens and leads to gang life and violence throughout the city. At the same time, the health system in the city also seems very unregulated. When Tetsuo crashes his motorcycle into Takashi, instead of being taken to a doctor he is taken to a military testing site. His friends and family are not even notified where he is taken which would be the first action taken in a well-developed health system.
Kaneda, on the other hand, is able to easily take advantage of the poor health regulations by acquiring lots of drugs from the school nurse. This not only shows a problem with the health system, but also demonstrates the drug problem in the youth culture. In postwar Japan, drugs, especially the newly discovered methamphetamine, were highly unregulated and the government made it a priority to attempt to control it. The increased use of drugs was an attempt to escape from the fears that they had of another nuclear apocalypse.
The poor conditions that the citizens of Neo-Tokyo deal with are very similar to those in Japan after the war. With no good jobs to work at, Japanese people would work in overpopulated and underpaid jobs that caused them to become depressed and frequently even suicidal. In Akira, the conditions that the people had to deal with lead to the assumption that many of them would have a similar problem with depression and suicide that the Japanese had in real life.
Poverty throughout Neo-Tokyo is widespread and plays a significant role in the story. Crime and violence is an everyday occurrence in Neo-Tokyo, led by the gangs and terrorist groups. The gangs are looking to steal a few items here and there and be the king of the hill, while the underground terrorist organization is more focused on taking down the government which is putting them in such horrible conditions. Similar to the situation portrayed in Neo-Tokyo, the political elite are a part of the corrupt government in Japan and make life extremely difficult for the citizens who live there.
The government and military are the two main sources of employment explored in the story. When the story begins, the corrupt government seems to be the most important body in the city. However, as the story progresses, the military begins to assert its dominance and at the zenith of the conflict between the two, the Colonel finally decides to take action with his coup d’état. This puts the military and everyone who “works” for it in the higher position of power. This shift changes the entire dynamic in Neo-Tokyo from a city whose leaders care more about themselves than the people to leaders whose sole purpose is to protect the people.
The only real business shown in Neo-Tokyo is the bar Harukiya. This bar starts out as the meeting place for Kaneda and his gang, but soon becomes Kaneda and Kei’s hideout when they are being chased. Although he exploits Kaneda for work while he hides there, the owner of the bar still plays an important role in their survival. Not only does this business help sustain the city, but it is an example of how parts of the city help sustain the people living there. Although not technically a business, the underground terrorist organization and gangs play an important part in the ebb and flow of the city’s economic life.
All of this changes, however, when Akira destroys Neo-Tokyo. Once this happens the closest thing to a business is a trading system that takes place in Lady Miyako’s temple. Other than that, everything is so unorganized that any attempt at a successful business would be futile.
This shows the devastating transition between the two cities. While a corrupt government ran the first city, they were still able to sustain as a city because of its coherency and structure. However, the new “empire” had no real organization other than having leaders, which led to chaos and unsustainability. This is the ultimate fear that the Japanese had after WWII. Even though everything may not be perfect right now, they know firsthand that life can always get a lot worse.
All in all, Otomo’s attention to detail in Neo-Tokyo allows the reader to get a glimpse into the life of the people living there. The living conditions, the corruption, and the new technology are all brought to a forefront and serve as great importance to the overall story. It is for all these reasons that Akira has fascinated and inspired readers all around the world since its creation.
Akira. Produced by Katsuhiro Otomo. 1988.
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