Publishing another chapter from my thesis titled Echoes on Celluloid: The Historical Memory of WWII as seen through Japanese Anime.
For more of my work in this subject area, visit the page here.
As always, if you wish to use any of my work please cite me appropriately 🙂
In 1988 an animated feature-length film by Katsuhiro Otomo came on the scene, topping box offices in Japan and even beating out Star Wars for the no. 1 spot. It ushered in the anime boom of the 90s by throwing open Western doors in a way that Starblazers, Transformers, or Thundercats simply had not. Akira, a bloody, surreal, and violent tale of biker gangs in futuristic, dystopian Neo-Tokyo was and remains a technically superb accomplishment, significant in that it woke the West to the world of anime as a wholly Japanese phenomenon. Featuring characters and settings that were distinctly, undeniably Japanese, Otomo’s discarding of mukokuseki was indicative of a woken Japanese confidence that was spurred by the technology-based economic boom they were enjoying. The story line is also distinctly Japanese, a sci-fi story masking a warning to the viewer about the dangers of science when pursued without heed to the consequences. Due to its significance, Akira has trespassed from the status of mere “cult hit” and into the realm of academics, receiving some scattered scholarly attention and a few academic interpretations. Of these, Mick Broderick and Freida Freiberg have contributed significant essays on the subject which are both insightful and intriguing. However, they both argue that the film is mostly about adolescence and puberty. This study will deviate from their interpretations and instead demonstrate how Akira is about the nuclear bomb. Otomo was the child of hibakusha. He shared his parent’s trauma with the world through the medium of Akira, reconstructing the experience of the atomic bomb for the younger generation and using the film to preserve the pain and lessons of Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. From the irresponsible acts of a scientist who bears a striking resemblance to a famous and real-life physicist to the volatile political/military situation, Akira is “Otomo’s way of calling on Japan and the international community to learn from World War Two and to be wary of pursuing power through science or technology…”
From the first haunting seconds of the film, Otomo makes it clear that the story is about the nuke. The film opens with a silent, slow flyover of modern Tokyo. The year is 1988, the date is July 16th (the very date of the 1945 Trinity Test, when physicists and members of the military detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert). A strange white light appears over the city centre. It expands into an explosion that swallows Tokyo. The scene cuts to a bombardier’s view of the decimated city. The image fades from the bright red of an infrared scope to reveal a barren brown wasteland strikingly similar to images of Hiroshima captured by the camera plane appropriately named Necessary Evil. Words appear across the screen, intimating that the explosion, caused by a mysterious weapon called Akira, triggered a third World War.
It is now 2019 AD, thirty years later. Old Tokyo has been abandoned, the crater from the explosion a gaping maw. In the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, Neo Tokyo has risen from the ashes, a glittering, glitzy, technocrized city with a dark and seedy underbelly.
Beneath the consumerism and glamour, Neo Tokyo is rotten, rife with poverty, violence, and corruption. Fast paced cuts show the viewer chaotic scenes of riots, student protests, murders, police violence, vagrants, traffic jams and road rage. A man sneaks through the city with a strange, ghost-like little boy and is gunned down by police. The boy slips away after causing inexplicable damage to the surrounding buildings by doing nothing more than uttering a terrified scream – he is, the viewer learns, one of three surviving human experiments known as the Espers. The fourth Esper is the title character of the film. Meanwhile, a street fight rages between two rival motorcycle gangs – the Capsules and the Clowns. The fight leads them into Old Tokyo where a young member of the Capsules named Tetsuo spots the same strange little boy in the middle of the street and wrecks his bike in his
attempt to avoid hitting him. While Tetsuo’s friends, including his adopted brother Kaneda, stand over him in concern, several military helicopters appear. The strange little boy is captured and loaded onto the helicopter and Tetsuo is put on a stretcher and taken with him. The others are arrested and thrown in jail.
Tetsuo is examined by a scientist simply referred to as Doctor who bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein. The Doctor discovers that Tetsuo, through his contact with the Esper No. 26, or Takashi, has absorbed the same sort of power which the Espers have been imbued with – they are psychics and psionics and are capable of causing great havoc. The most powerful of these is a boy named Akira, who was responsible for the explosion that destroyed Tokyo thirty years earlier. The Doctor believes that studying Tetsuo may help him understand how to replicate Akira’s power. The Colonel, who was responsible for capturing Tetsuo, questions the wisdom of this. He has concerns about the safety of it – for the city, not the child – and then ponders the philosophical implications of doing so: “But maybe we weren’t meant to meddle with that ultimate power,” he muses.
“The power of a god?” asks the Doctor.
“But we have no choice but to grasp that power and learn to control it,” finishes the Colonel, and then leaves the Doctor with orders that he is to destroy Tetsuo if he gets out of hand. While the Colonel is clearly callous towards Tetsuo, at least he shows concern for the wider consequences of seeking Akira’s power. The Doctor shows regard neither for Tetsuo’s safety nor is he willing to frankly discuss the potential dangers with the Colonel. Here is the main theme of this film and the crux of Otomo’s warning to the world – the dangers of the amoralistic pursuit of science.
Osamu Tezuka, the father of anime, once lamented that science has caused pain to humans instead of benefitting them. His concerns over the use of science are one of the major themes that have been passed down to succeeding generations of animators. It is this lack of morals, this reckless lust for toying with great and uncontrollable power, that drives the film and results in Neo Tokyo’s destruction. The Doctor’s description of Akira’s power as god-like brings to mind Robert Oppenheimer’s famous statement after the successful completion of the Trinity Test in Alamogordo, New Mexico:
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Oppenheimer compared the nuke and his fellow physicists to gods in an awed moment of hubris. The name of the test itself, “Trinity,” evokes images of gods and Catholicism’s Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Oppenheimer named it thusly, inspired by a devotional poem by John Donne: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” William Laurence, a journalist for the project, also likened witnessing the test to a religious experience: “One felt as though he had been privileged to witness the birth of the world – to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord said: let there be light.” The very act of splitting an atom has godlike connotations; the word “atom” comes from Greek and means “uncuttable,” thus suggesting the impossibility of the act. Later in the film, one of the Espers tries to explain what the power of Akira actually is and ponders what would happen if a lesser creature were to stumble across a power beyond their understanding:
Akira is ultimate energy… Humans do all kinds of things during their lifetime, right? Discover things, build things, things like houses, motorcycles, bridges and cities, rockets… where do you suppose all that knowledge and energy comes from? Humans were once like monkeys, right? And before that like reptiles and fish… and even before that, plankton and amoebas. Even little creatures like those have incredible amounts of energy inside them… then something goes wrong, like an amoeba is suddenly given the higher power that a human has. Long ago, there were people who tried to gain control of that power, but they failed in their attempts… and that power is something that is totally beyond our (capacity.)
In spite of the Colonel’s warnings, it is obvious from the beginning that Tetsuo cannot be controlled nor even contained – that his power is beyond their capacity. That very night he escapes the hospital and finds his girlfriend Kaori and the two decide to run away together. Their plans are interrupted when they are attacked by the Clowns but Kaneda and his friends arrive just in time. Tetsuo, pumped with adrenaline from the fight and embarrassed that Kaneda has to look out for him, takes out his rage on one of the Clowns but he soon loses control, nearly killing the Clown before he is suddenly crippled by horrifying hallucinations. As he collapses, a group of the Doctor’s scientists locate him and return him to the lab. Meanwhile, corrupt politicians undermine the Colonel to plot the destruction of Neo Tokyo for their own purposes, riots continue, and religious zealots pray for the return of Akira to send them all back into oblivion.
In the hospital, Tetsuo is subjected to more tests while he dreams of his childhood in the orphanage where he, Kaneda, and the rest of the Capsule gang met. As they play on a piece of playground equipment that suggests the nuclear explosions depicted earlier, the city around them begins to crumble. Then Tetsuo, too, begins to crumble – a portent of his near future. He wakes from his dream only to be confronted with more hallucinations which he soon discovers are caused by the three surviving experimental children. They sense the power of Akira in him and fear it, knowing the destruction he can cause. Terrified and angry, he breaks out of the hospital room to go confront them, psychically killing all the guards and nurses who try to stop him along the way. When he arrives, he and the three children have a battle in the nursery that destroys the room. Kiyoko, the female child, tries to warn Tetsuo about his powers: “Big people like you must never use the power in the way that you are… bad things will come of it…” referring to the damage he’s causing by using his power out of anger. Through this encounter Tetsuo learns that its Akira who has been in his head all along, driving him insane. As the Doctor, the Colonel, Kaneda, and others arrive, Tetsuo escapes them and flys away to meet Akira and end his torment. Fighting ensues in the city as the Colonel tries to head Tetsuo off before he can reach Akira’s location. Nothing can stop the maddened teen, who is now capable of destroying tanks with nothing more than a thought.
The film climaxes in old Tokyo at the site of the 1964 Olympic Stadium, currently being rebuilt in anticipation of hosting the 2020 Olympics. Akira is held in a secret government facility far below, but when Tetsuo uses his powers to bring his cryochamber to the surface he discovers that Akira is dead – all that is left of him are some jarred specimens. In the final showdown Tetsuo, both insane and in great pain, battles the Espers, Kaneda, and the Colonel inside the stadium. His powers spin completely out of his control and he begins to mutate into a grotesque pink blob that swells to gigantic size, consuming everyone nearby and threatening to swallow the entire stadium and perhaps even Tokyo. At the last moment Akira wakes, his energy shattering the specimen jars, and to stop Tetsuo he causes another explosion which swallows Tokyo.
Yet this is anime, and in anime the end is rarely anything more than a beginning. The cycle of death and rebirth continues, for although the city is destroyed, there are survivors – Kaneda and Tetsuo’s girlfriend, previously absorbed into Tetsuo’s mutating body, are released and spared from the explosion by the children. Even Tetsuo and Akira are not dead; instead, Akira has changed them both into energy and Kaneda declares with tranquil satisfaction that they have “left.” Death and rebirth are inseparable; even while Tetsuo rages madly in the stadium and Akira’s white light again obliterates Tokyo the Doctor clings to his instruments in amazement, for what they are telling him is that he is witnessing the beginning of the universe. The film has been brought full circle and has returned to its beginning, not just with the destruction of Tokyo but also with subtle references to the Trinity Test; just as William Laurence compared the test to witnessing the beginning of the world, so too did the Doctor as Tetsuo was consumed by his powers.
The blame for the two time destruction of Neo Tokyo can best be laid at the feet of the Doctor. From the beginning it is clear that he is obsessed with the power of Akira and does not care about the consequences. When they first capture Tetsuo the Colonel asks him point-blank if his experiments are safe – if it is wise to try to imbue the boy with the same power that Akira used to destroy Tokyo. Instead of answering him, the doctor stutters from one incomplete sentence to another. He is ordered from the beginning to destroy Tetsuo if he cannot be controlled, and from the beginning it is apparent that he cannot – he inexplicably escapes his very first night in the hospital and rather than killing him or curing him upon being recaptured, the Doctor and his crew of scientists instead proceed to pump him full of more drugs and perform more experiments on him, giving him still more power than before.
As Tetsuo rages out of control, proving to be unstoppable and unkillable, the Doctor delights in the data he is getting from his machines. He declares it “wonderful,” rambles about equations and quantum physics, and declares that humanity may finally be able to discover the “fundamental truths” of the universe. The Colonel discovers then that the Doctor has violated orders and has in fact succeeded in imbuing Tetsuo with the same powers as Akira – and it’s going to destroy Tokyo yet again.
The fact that the Doctor has ignored the lessons he should have learned from Akira following the first incident brings on another warning in the film: to learn from previous mistakes before repeating them. The destruction of Tokyo was self-inflicted and entirely avoidable the second time around; Otomo’s fear as depicted in Akira is not of the event, but a fear of failing to learn from said event and so repeat it. It is is warning about first, pursuing nuclear weapons, and second, failing to learn from their use. In the stadium, the Colonel, the Espers, and Kaneda all come together in their attempt to halt Tetsuo and prevent another catastrophe – five individuals from very different background sand social stratas who, under other circumstances, would have very little cause for cooperation. The point, according to Cartledge, is that the prevention of another apocalypse is more important than history or identity. As the story is a warning against the creation and use of nuclear weapons, the final showdown is a symbolic call for global unity in the prevention of nuclear war, a reminder of the promised effort towards global nuclear disarmament as outlined by the Nuclear Non-Proflieration Treaty, signed by Japan in 1970.
One could certainly make a case for the recklessness of some of the people involved in the Manhatten project. Brigadier General Leslie Groves, the military commander in charge of Trinity, seems not to have weighed the full possibilities of the bomb, demonstrating surprise and disbelief as reports of radiation poisoning from the bombs began rolling in despite his awareness of the lab’s staunch safety regulations and required insurance, or the fact that there were two deaths and many injuries as a result of radiation. Physicist Enrico Fermi epitomized recklessness the morning of Trinity by placing odds on the outcome of the test – he bet that it would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the entire world. Why, one wonders, would anyone risk such a thing? Towards the end of his life, Oppenheimer told a friend, “What I have never done is express regret for doing what I did and could at Los Alamos. Similarly, Otomo’s Doctor knows full well that the power he is pursuing is dangerous has clear evidence in front of him that the power can and will cause untold destruction, yet he pursues it anyway- because he can.
Many hibakusha feel the primary motivations for dropping the nuclear bombs on them were experimental rather than military in nature; that they were nothing more than guinea pigs for the United States government with collusion from the Japanese. Indeed, the careful selection of unmolested Japanese cities was for the express purpose of gauging the power of the weapon. During the occupation, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission further contributed to this feeling as they examined – but refused to treat – countless hibakusha. These actions on the part of America and the occupation authorities have led to a feeling among the Japanese that the bomb was an experiment, a new science used recklessly not out of military necessity but of nothing more than dehumanized scientific inquiry.
It has already been noted earlier that Otomo’s decision to create characters who are clearly, distinctly Japanese is significant because his rejection of “placelessness” as indicative of growing Japanese confidence in their national character. But the significance of it goes deeper when one notes that the man most responsible for the destruction of Tokyo – the Doctor – is the only character who is not distinctly Japanese. His strong resemblance to Einstein gives the viewer the impression that this man is a Westerner – probably an American. Otomo goes further in separating the perpetrators of the destruction from the Japanese in his simple choice of Tetsuo’s wardrobe design during the climax of the film. During the city battle when the Colonel is trying to prevent Tetsuo from reaching the stadium, Tetsuo randomly seizes a torn piece of red fabric and dons it as a cape. He is now wearing red, white, and blue – he is America. It is also particularly interesting to note that of all the clearly Japanese characters, Akira’s Asian features are most prominent, perhaps as some acknowledgement on Otomo’s part for the role the Japanese themselves played in their own nuclear destruction.
Although the main theme of the film is centered on the use of science and is an allusion to the development and use of the nuclear bomb, there are other ties to the war buried within an extraordinary dense and complex plot. For instance, general distrust of authority figures is a common theme in anime. This is an outgrowth of the Tokyo Tribunals and their judgement of the war criminals, and compounded by the Allies’ decision to retain Emperor Hirohito. “From the tribunals there developed the feeling that a handful of villains, greedy for power and pushing their own personal agendas, had drug the rest of the nation down into war.” The resulting anger and distrust of authority is a theme that can be traced through anime. In Akira, the authorities – in this case, government, police, scientists, teachers, and pretty much any adult are depicted as incompetent at best and corrupt or violent in general.
The police are tools of the corrupt political machinery, sloppily trying to corral large numbers of delinquents and activists or violently abusing citizens while suppressing riots. Teachers beat up students regularly or simply don’t show up to class, and parents are completely absent from the film.
The political situation is dire and contributes directly to the destruction of Tokyo. There is a mole in the government, a politician who goes by the name of Mr. Nezu. Convinced that Neo Tokyo is a “rotten fruit,” he seeks to destroy it so they can begin fresh, thus creating his own cycle of death and renewal. Throughout the film he is conspiring with members of an anti-government resistance/terrorist organization to have the children kidnapped and trigger the destruction of Tokyo via the powers of Akira. Through his actions the escape of Takashi, the child who accidentally transforms Tetsuo, was made possible and thus the events of the film are set in motion. It is the Colonel who is made a scapegoat for these events and he is sacked as Tetsuo escapes for the final time. Convinced that he is the only person capable of protecting Tokyo, he responds by triggering a military coup: “You really expect me to hand Neo Tokyo over to those fools at a time like this?… Open your eyes and look at the big picture! You’re all puppets of corrupt politicians and capitalists!” Politicians flee while the Colonel battles Tetsuo in the streets and Neo Tokyo riots. Mr. Nezu gets his commumpence: while trying to escape with a briefcase full of money, he suffers what is presumably a heart attack and dies crumpled in an alley while the city goes mad around him.
A mistrust of authority extends into parents, of which there are absolutely none in Akira. Tetsuo, Kaneda, and all the members of the Capsules are orphans who banded together in the orphanage. The Espers all appear to be orphans as well, living indefinitely in the nursery, guarded by the Colonel and his men, and tended to by the Doctor and his group of scientists. These are the “war orphans” that appear so often in anime, a reminder about the costs of war while simultaneously being a symbol of endurance and survival. According to Fuller, these orphans represent the successive generations of Japanese; failed, betrayed, or abandoned by ineffective authority figures, they are often depicted as powerful and resilient. Only children and teens are capable of accomplishing anything. The failure of authority figures in anime, as demonstrated thoroughly in Akira where they are all obsessed with greed and power, is a recurring theme that goes back to the Second World War.
(The) breakdown of social structures of succeeding generations, as many became… disenchanted with authority in general after the war… stemming from the anti-American resentment (of the occupation authorities) and the realization that Japan’s government policies were dictated by someone else… adults lost the respect of later generations after it was felt that they… (allowed) such an undesirable sitation…
In her essay about adolescence as seen in Akira, Frieda Freiberg notes a criticism aimed at male authority figures – those Failed Fathers who lost the war that created the orphans. She goes into further detail, explaining how the complete lack of mothers or even sexualized females represents the adolescent male rejection of domesticity in favor of the glory of heroism and action. According to her, Akira is a “wish-fufillment fantasy for… boys… (enabling) them to escape the clutches of mundane family pressures… into a world of heroic endeavors… (and) life and death struggles. They can… face the thrilling perils of the universe rather than the claustrophobia of the home.” While her essay as a whole diverges from the idea of the film being about war, this statement summarizes the timeless appeal that has called young men away into combat since the beginning of time – or, if a war is not conveniently at hand, perhaps draws them into a biker gang which provides the family structure orphans lack in addition to that taste of glory and excitement. Thus this cost of war is cyclical, creating orphans who as adults may be drawn into war and killed, creating more orphans and perpetuating a ouroborus of blood and death.
Throughout the entire film there is just one adult who is not presented in a negative light: the Colonel. His relationship with the Espers is rather paternal in nature. While the Doctor only refers to them as numbers, the Colonel knows their names and demonstrates what appears to be a genuine concern for them. He comforts Kiyoko, who is disturbed after her shared nightmare with Tetsuo. When the children battle it out in the nursery he bursts inside and, in the manner of every parent who has ever needed to break up a fight, demands they all stop it at once. Later at the film’s climax he tries to protect the three Espers as Tetsuo swells out of control, even as he endangers himself in the effort. As Akira triggers the final explosion, Kiyoko comes to the Colonel’s side and transports him a safe distance away. In anime, children are often more capable than adults, demonstrating the disillusionment younger generations feel towards their Failed Fathers. While the Colonel cannot protect his children in spite of his best efforts, they end up saving him because they have learned from the past, and in doing so they are able to deliver him from destruction.
While other adult authority figures are behaving recklessly or selfishly, the Colonel is the only one who recognizes the threat Akira and Tetsuo actually pose and he takes whatever action he deems necessary to protect Tokyo, stopping at nothing to fulfill his duty in spite of his professed hatred and resentment of the city, which he describes as a “garbage heap” filled with “hedonistic fools.” The Colonel is both father and soldier, like the men of WWII, and like them he, too, is unable to protect Japan from the reaches of science run amuck.
“…Akira is made by and for a generation of Japanese who have no personal memory of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And yet… that national experience of nuclear disaster animates and propels the film…” The film “reconstructs the apocalypse of WWII Japan (and the resulting trauma) for the younger generation…” and imparts a warning about the dangers of pursuing science without regard to the consequences, as Otomo implies the Americans did in their quest for the nuclear bomb. “Akira’s power exists within everyone, right from the start… but when that power is awakened inside, it is important to wisely chose how to use it.” It is a call to the younger generations of not just Japan, but to the children of the global society, to learn from the lessons of WWII and to work together to avoid a repetition of the cataclysmic events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
 Susan J Napier, Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: MacMillan, 2005), 19.
 Angie Koo, “Japan’s Vision of the Future: An Essay on Akira,” Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan, http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/exhibitions/japan/essays/vision1.php (accessed May 5, 2014).
 In Otomo’s original manga, he flatly states that the explosion was nuclear. However, most if not all anime avoids overt mention of nuclear bombs and tends towards suggestion through imagry. Akira is no exception, and the strange white explosions are caused by Akira but never explained.
 J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965, Atomic Archive, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Movies/Movie8.shtml(accessed July 7, 2017).
 Robert Oppenheimer, Letters and Recollections. Ed. Alie Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, (Cambridge: Harvard, 1980), 290.
 Stephane Groueff, Manhatten Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, Boston: Little, 1967), 355.
 S.T Cartledge, “Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira,” http://themanifold.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/rebuilding-neo-tokyo-the-search-for-normality-in-the-apocalypse-of-akira, (accessed May 5, 2014).
 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, US-UK-USSR-JA-etc, July 1st, 1968, https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/text (accessed June 3, 2017).
 Margret Norris, “Dividing the Indivisible: The Fissured Story of the Manhattan Project,” Cultural Critique, no. 35, Winter 1996-1997, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 34.
 Ibid., 30.
 Emphasis the author’s.
 Norris, 34.
 Mick Broderick, Hibakusha cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the nuclear image in Japanese film (London: Routledge, 2015), 3.
 Norris, 23.
 Takashi Yoshida, “Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan,” Western Michigan University: History Faculty Publication, (June 3, 2008) http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/history_pubs/4/ (accessed May 4, 2017).
 Frank Robert Fuller, “The Atomic Bomb: Reflections in Japanese Manga and Anime,” (PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012), 153.
 Ibid., 82.
 Freida Freiberg, “Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime,” in Hibakusha Cinema, eds Mick Broderick (New York: Routledge, 1996), 97.
 Ibid., 96.