I’m reading Akira now after only knowing it as a film, at the encouragement of a thesis student of mine who told me how it differs significantly as a graphic novel. Apparently the film was made before the series of books were done, and Otomo takes the story to a different place, a place he couldn’t inside the constraints of a feature film.
The books are 300 pages each and there’s 6 of them. So far, after just 2 volumes, I can go out on a limb and say the story is ‘better’ in the graphic novels. While I’ve always loved the film, the story struck me as emotionally barren and this last time, as I watched it, I even got a little angry. The story makes some sort of claim on the viewer as being about lost innocence reclaimed, and people who are too pure for the world, but these people are violent psychic child mutants, whose tantrums level city blocks and take thousands of lives. So they aren’t too pure for the world. They’re the psychic versions of school shooters.
One of the ideas that came forward in my graphic novel class this spring was about how there’s a lot of pressure on you to like Japanese science fiction and manga when you’re growing up Asian American in the US. This is more than a little problematic if you’re Korean. The Japanese science fiction always seemed to me a little like watching a violent cousin do something in public that I couldn’t explain to people who. . .did expect me to be able to explain it. And to like it. Because the violent cousin was really, really popular with Americans who otherwise considered me a little or a lot subhuman.
I.e., Akira is Asian, you’re Asian, Akira is cool, you. . .could also be cool. If you liked Akira. So I realized this semester that I’ve always been a little uncritical of Akira, when in fact, I have some basic critiques of it.
The main characters of Akira are all basically terrible but somewhat ordinarily terrible people. Tetsuo and Kaneda are childhood friends from an orphanage, and Tetsuo has always been protected by Kaneda, and has always resented him for needing his protection–Tetsuo is violent but weakly so, parasitic and pathetic. Kaneda is the one approaching the bike in the poster, above. Kaneda’s a bit of a problem, if not a lot of one: violent, sadistic at times, and pathologically certain of his rightness, he’s a daredevil who’s waiting for the world to smack him down. When Tetsuo becomes a psychic giant as a result of government experiments on his mind, and begins a rampage, Kaneda decides it’s his responsibility to kill him, since he’s the one who protected him all this time. He’s aided by the previous government test subject psychic children, who are afraid of the rage and power Tetsuo wields.
So, in other words, Tetsuo, bullied his whole life, suddenly has the power to strike back at the world, and takes his chance. Thus, he must die. He goes from pathetic to monstrous, quickly, with no ability for us to feel compassion for him. When we’re confronted with images of him as a child, it seems a last-gasp manipulation of our compassion, awkward and impossible to allow in given how much death he’s caused.
The film asks us to believe in their friendship’s power at the end. It asks us to care that Kaneda manages to survive the devastation when so many did not, and Tetsuo becomes basically a creature of pure energy who vanishes down into a tiny white pearl of light that Kaneda grips in his hand, as it presumably dissipates into nothing, or into Kaneda. And watching it, watching Kaneda’s grief and compassion, it felt meaningless. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.
The entire narrative basically says that enormous devastation and loss of life is an acceptable price for the maintaining of a status quo for a very few. At the same time, the narrative does give the viewer the feel of being a rebel, of overthrowing repression and being on the side of the right against the evil that turns children into weapons. And so it is, actually, something perfect for those who make war: the narrative leaves a path in the viewer, leaves them unconsciously familiar with the shape of this narrative, familiar with how to do the things necessary to protect the status quo and continue the oppression the film ostensibly rebels against.
The graphic novel appears to be different, for now. I’ll talk about the difference again after I’m done with the next four volumes.