Akira Volume 1 – Katsuhiro Otomo

Way back in July I wrote about the reasons I was glad that the Hollywood movie of Akira had been put on hold (though it’s still in the works), this time out I’m taking a direct look at volume 1 of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga as its the book we’ve discussed in “Books with Pictures” this month.

Despite Akira being one of my favourite stories, both from the collection of manga’s and the movie, I’m going to try and remain unbiased, it’ll be tough, but let’s see how it goes.

For those who have never read the manga nor watched the movie, the basic plot is as follows. Tetsuo Shima is a teenage boy, part of a biker gang in a post World War III Japan in the city of Neo-Tokyo. After being involved in an accident, Tetsuo develops psychokinetic powers and is then thrown into the centre of a political and military based human experiment. The leader of the gang Tetsuo belongs to, Kaneda, gets pulled into a political resistance group as he tries to find answers regarding what has happened to his friend.

Flicking from page to page, looking at each and every panel, its astounding the level of detail that Otomo has put into each and every image, take the second bike sequence for example. Every action in every panel is clear and concise, the energy flows through the page and you really get a sense of the chaos of the running battle between Kaneda’s gang and their opponents the Clowns. In this volume there’s not a huge amount of dialogue, at times it often feels like Otomo is story-boarding for a movie (though the movie wouldn’t be released for another six years after the first chapter of the manga was released)

I’ve read through all six volumes many times, though it’s been a few years since I returned to them. So the one thing that surprises me is just how little of the story volume 1 actually covers. Within this book we are introduced to a few members of Kaneda’s gang (Kaneda, Tetsuo and Yamagata), Tetsuo has his accident and begins to develop powers that he struggles to control, we get more time with the Clowns than we people coming from the movie will have expected, Kaneda spends some time with the resistance group though Ryu is quite distant and Kei is reluctant to be around him and lastly we have moments with Colonel Shikishima, Doctor Onishi, Takashi (#26), Masaru (#27) and Kiyoko (#25). Other characters appear but aren’t named at this point in the tale (the key ones being gang member Kaisuke and the member of parliament Nezu).

So Volume 1 is a combination of world-building, setting up the factions that will feature in coming volumes and the beginnings of Tetsuo’s story. We see that Kaneda is the leader of a biker gang, though based upon his behaviour its unclear how he has gotten to that position, and my only conclusion is the sheer amount of self-confidence he has earns him the respect of the others. Tetsuo is only a minor member of the gang, and really looks up to Kaneda, but once his powers are unlocked he begins to challenge this position and we begin to see a different side of the boy, namely his incredibly short temper which are exacerbated by the side effects that his powers bring upon him if he’s not medicated properly, he later tries to control this using a cocktail of drugs that the Clown gang get for him with the manga closing after Colonel Shikishima offers him the help to unlock his potential and keep the negative effects his powers have on his body in check.

What volume 1 does offer us though is some interesting insights. For me, this particular volume is Otomo’s response to post-war Japan that he grew up in. Due to the treaties that were signed after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (which are kind of referenced by the image of an atomic like explosion that started World War III in this world), the US-occupied Japan throughout the years from 1945 to 1952 (and referred to as Operation Blacklist), despite Otomo not being born until 1953 the American occupation (the only time in Japans history that it had been occupied by foreign powers) had some major impacts on Japanese culture. The youth of the country began looking to Western media and behaviours, this saw the rise of the Bosozoku movement, teenagers began purchasing motorcycles and gathering in gangs, wearing colours and patches to state which gangs they belonged to. It comes as no surprise that these gangs reached their heights around the time that Otomo began writing Akira.

There’s also elements of the human experimentation programs from around the second World War and into the sixties with Japans Unit 731 and the US’ MK Ultra programs feeling like they could have been key influences on Otomo’s writing.

Going back to Kaneda for a moment, there is one worrying aspect to his character whilst reading this in 2019 and that’s his attitude towards women. Early on it’s established, he has had a sexual relationship with the girl who works in his schools’ infirmary, she tells him she thinks she might be pregnant with her basically telling him that the baby would be his. He couldn’t be more disinterested if he tried, his only interest is in her getting his gang their next batch of drugs for him (and testing the drug he snatched after the gang’s first altercation with Colonel Shikishima). Later on, he’s constantly trying to get it on with Kei, though she brushes him off at every turn. Now, this is admittedly typical teenage boy behaviour, and in fairness, he is something like 15 or 16 in the book, but it’s still a little disconcerting seeing the lengths he’ll go to to try and get what he wants from Kei.

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