Original release: July 16th, 1988
Running time: 125 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Writer: Katsuhiro Otomo, Izō Hashimoto
Cast: Johnny Yong Bosch, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee, Jamieson Price, Simon Prescott
This is a very interesting time to be living in London. The city that’s been my adopted home for some years now has taken a hit from the global recession, with the government and its opposition having fundamentally different views on what’s the quickest and least painful way out of this economic predicament. Following the austerity measures that were put in place, there was a sudden surge of social unrest in August 2011.
When I travelled through the district of Camberwell at 7pm on the second day of the riots, I felt the palpable atmosphere of tension as shop owners were preparing for the inevitable war that was to come at nightfall. At the same time however, all is wonderful; London is getting ready for the Olympic Games with great pride as we see city mayor Boris Johnson telling everyone it’s in fact the greatest city on Earth.
While this is the present reality for those of us who live in this city, much of what I described might also be familiar to avid fans of Japanese anime. Social unrest, austerity measures, contentious fiscal arguments in the world of politics and the upcoming Olympic Games is the premise in which the events unfold in Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic Akira based on the manga of the same name.
Watching Akira in this reality is almost uncanny at times. When we first meet Kaneda (Johnny Yong Bosch) and his motorbike gang hanging out in one of Neo-Tokyo’s shady nightclubs in the film’s opening, we can listen in on a small snippet from the news:
The language used in the news is familiar; with a right wing politician physically attacking a female member of the opposition on a Greek television debate program recently, it’s fair to say that compromise is rare and difficult in today’s politics.
Kaneda and his friends could easily stand in for the young people to whom British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as those who have “no stake in society” after the London riots. While so many in Neo-Tokyo take sides and express discontent with a passion, Kaneda and his gang don’t really care about anything other than the complete annihilation of the ‘Clowns’, a rival motorcycle gang. In that memorable action sequence in the beginning of Akira, the two gangs fight each other on the streets of the city with complete disregard for anything or anyone.
This is when we first meet Tetsuo (Joshua Seth), another member of Kaneda’s gang who’s always given a hard time by the others and finds it difficult to get any respect within the street hierarchy. In an effort to prove himself, Tetsuo crashes his bike into a mysterious child-like figure standing in the middle of the inner city motorway. After the crash, when Kaneda and the others catch up, the military suddenly shows up and they take both the child and Tetsuo with them while the gang watches on helplessly.
Tetsuo soon finds himself in a hospital guarded by the military and supervised by scientists; and this is where the film delivers yet another plot point that has striking resemblance to a recent event in our present. It turns out that the mysterious child is one of three children with pre-cognitive powers that resulted from experiments, but the real deal was a fourth child called Akira, whose powers were so great that it caused the destruction of Tokyo several decades earlier.
Tetsuo’s contact with one of the three children in the crash causes him to develop measurable patterns that increasingly resemble Akira’s. The leading scientist Doctor Onishi (Simon Prescott) is more than excited about re-discovering this growing power and his conversation with Colonel Shikishima (Jamieson Price), reveals the potential nature of this immense power:
I will take care of it.
No! I wasn’t talking about the boy at all. I’m asking if he turns out to have a power like Akira’s, are you positive that you are be able to control such a power? Can I leave this in your hands?
In my opinion, if we can use the latest examination equipment to collect even more data and also do a multi-faceted analysis as we go, then surely…
But maybe we weren’t meant to meddle with that ultimate power.
You mean the power of a god?
But we have no choice but to grasp that power. Grasp that power and learn to control it. And if this situation gets out of hand, he’s to be terminated… and without hesitation.
To listen to this conversation in an animated feature made in 1988 about a scientific discovery so fundamental that even a scientist is tempted to think of the divine is truly staggering when the formal discovery of the Higgs boson – otherwise known as “The God Particle” – took place only as recently as the July 4th 2012. We may know very little what this actually means in practical terms, but one thing is sure: the scientific community with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox seem almost ecstatic by the identification of the particle.
Physicist Brian Cox had this to say about the discovery on BBC:
Cox’s description of the Higgs particle uncannily mirrors a scene from Akira. When Kaneda gets entangled in the dealings of a violent anti-government resistance movement, he meets the young idealistic girl Kei (Wendee Lee). Kei is a breath of fresh air in the dark and depressing world of Neo-Tokyo. Her passion and ideology may be misplaced, but she takes life much more seriously than the apathetic Kaneda who really couldn’t carry the story without Kei. She believes that justice and humanity are worth fighting for and she echoes the words of Brian Cox when she wonders about what Akira might really be:
What Kei calls genetic material is later detected through Doctor Onishi’s analysis of Tetsuo’s pattern and he refers to his finding as “unknown particles to science”. Brian Cox on BBC then went on to explain how they actually discovered the particle, which also rings familiar in the context of Akira with its scientists very pro-actively seeking out something that has so much potential power by heavy doses of medication administered to Tetsuo:
To the interviewer asking about possible practical representations of the discovery, Cox had this to say:
Perhaps to look at the discovery of the Higgs particle in the context of Akira is something an alarmist might be tempted to do. However, I cannot help but notice that Cox conveniently didn’t mention that finding out fundamental things about nature has also been a road to destruction in the past – perhaps this is the reason that a film like Akira comes from the Land of the Rising Sun; the cultural heritage of the Japanese has much to offer on the potential consequences of destructive science.
While much of Katsuhiro Otomo’s film was inspired by the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his description of the mysterious particles that are present everywhere and ultimately fuel our very existence brings the concept in parallel with the Higgs particle after more than two decades it was released. This should certainly give some discomfort when watching Tetsuo’s transformation coming to a destructive climax on the construction site of the Olympic stadium in Neo-Tokyo.
Akira hasn’t just stood the test of time; this highly regarded cyberpunk animated classic has never been more relevant. Watching it in the beginning of the third millennium makes me look at it less of a metaphor and more of a cautionary tale. Nevertheless, with its famously cryptic but undoubtedly destructive ending, there is a sense of optimism to the conclusion that I really like. With rays of light coming through the clouds from above, the three espers speak to us from another dimension:
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.