Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga Akira was serialized in Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990. The first English translation was published by Marvel Comics’ Epic line from 1988 to 19951. The US edition pioneered the use of computer colourization, courtesy Steve Oliff. For many North Americans this was their introduction to manga.
Viktor Haag was kind enough to lend me his Epic collection.
Since I am not sure how the Epic volumes map onto the current version from Dark Horse, I decided to review the entire, 2000+ page work as a whole.
All together now:
1992: a mysterious event obliterates most of Tokyo. World War Three follows. By 2030, the world has been rebuilt … sorta. Built near the ruins of the old city, Neo-Tokyo is a shining jewel of a city. At least from a distance.
Neo-Tokyo’s corrupt politicians rule over a disaffected population. The Resistance expresses its displeasure with attacks on government facilities; their ideology is unclear, but also irrelevant, since the highest level of the Resistance is as corrupt as the establishment they oppose. Most of the population is focused on the daily grind and/or the pursuit of pleasure.
Juvenile delinquent Kaneda leads the Capsule motorcycle gang. Bored, consigned to a badly run trade school that pretends to turn teens into useful citizens, the Capsule members fill their time with girls, drugs, and an endless turf war with the Clown Gang.
During one gang battle, a wizened figure appears in the road in front of Capsule member Tetsuo. Tetsuo is badly injured in the resulting crash; the wizened figure is unharmed. The police appear remarkably swiftly, as does an ambulance. Tetsuo is carried off. His friends have a very hard time getting a straight answer as to where Tetsuo is being held or why the government is taking such a close interest in him.
The wizened figure is Takashi. He’s one of the few survivors of a covert program to enable psychic powers. The program is top secret. Colonel Shikishima is determined to recover the runaway. The Resistance is equally determined to get their hands on him.
The intersection of Capsules, Takashi, and the Resistance has far-reaching consequences, almost all of them bad.
Well, there’s one positive outcome. Gang leader Kaneda and action-girl Kei (Kay in the US version) meet-cute. Kaneda is smitten with beautiful Kei. The fact that she hold him in open contempt does not deter him at all2.
As for the other consequences:
The Resistance’s pet politician Nezu (Japanese for rat) capitalizes on the sudden uptick in violence to launch a political attack on the Colonel and his power base. The Colonel’s response is a military coup.
Tetsuo’s latent psychic powers have been triggered and distress him no end. They worry others as well. Tetsuo tests out as one of the most powerful psychics the planet has ever seen, which could be bad news for the planet. Another superpowered psychic, Akira, destroyed Tokyo back in 1992.
Tetsuo is angry, scared, and descending into madness. He tries to figure out what has happened and who he has become. He also decides to use his new powers to punish everyone who ever made him feel bad. It’s up to Kei, Kaneda, the Colonel, and a small army of supporting characters to prevent Tetsuo from doing to Neo-Tokyo what his predecessor did to Tokyo back in 1992.
They fail utterly.
Neo-Tokyo has fallen. The world may be next.
It would have complicated the synopsis to mention Chiyoko. I’m mentioning her now. She’s Kei’s intimidating aunt (or at least claims to be). She’s a nigh-indestructible giant who provides much needed heavy-weapons support for much of the manga.
If the only version of Akira you’ve seen is the anime, then you may be surprised to learn that whereas the movie ends with the destruction of Neo-Tokyo3, the manga continues for another twenty-two issues after Neo-Tokyo was wiped off the face of the planet. Again. In fact, that’s not the worst event to happen over the course of the manga. There’s no World War Four, but Tetsuo does reshape the Moon. Which has all sorts of nasty consequences
The synopsis may have made it sound as if gang leader Kaneda were a central player in the plot. Actually, he is just a prominent member of a very, very large cast, all of whom shape the plot. Kaneda is missing, thought dead, for a good chunk of the story. He’s useful to Team Save the Earth because, even though he has poor risk-assessment capacities4, he always manages to survive repeatedly pissing off a god-level psychic.
Most of the characters in this manga are … flawed.
Kaneda is a self-serving nihilistic hedonist.
Tetsuo rapidly turns into a homicidal rapist and dictator, with a side-order of eldritch abomination.
The Colonel is a control-freak.
Kei is a terrorist who will kill for a nebulous cause.
IMHO, the only decent character is Kaori (another character I didn’t manage to fit into the synopsis), one of Tetsuo’s doomed sex-slaves. Despite horrific abuse, Kaori remains compassionate and self-sacrificing. Not that this saves her from the aforementioned doom.
The art in this manga (by Otomo) is exquisite. It’s even more noteworthy if one compares it to North American comics of the same period.
The manga manages to be a page-turner, even though if much of it is composed of chase scenes and violent but inconclusive confrontations.
I was disappointed by the conclusion, though I cannot think of any other way of ending this that wouldn’t have involved reducing the Earth to rubble.
This may not have been the best way to introduce North American fans to manga, but it was what we got. It worked.
1: My series Big Hair, Big Guns! focuses on SF of the 1980s. Almost all of Akira appeared in the 1980s, if not in a language I read. The Epic edition would have come out much earlier than it did had it not been for the artist’s insistence on reworking the ending.
2: Kaneda is also undeterred by the fact that he already has a lover. She may be pregnant. Not that Kaneda cares.
3: Uh, that’s a spoiler if you have not seen the movie.
4: Kaneda does spends a lot of time utterly terrified. So do many other characters. This is entirely justified.