My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, were laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.
Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:
The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.
With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.
The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.
First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.
Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.
So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.
The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.
Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.
Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.
What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.
Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:
MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.
MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?
MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…
KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!
MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?
KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?
MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.
The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.
After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.
Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.